Real Leaders

What We Can Learn From Immigrants

From the time I was a young boy, I have been fascinated with astounding feats of accomplishment. I would sit in wonder listening to stories of my parents and grandparents and their adventures in the world. Jews who came from shtetls in Minsk, Lodz, Krakow, places of which I had never heard. They came with only a few suitcases and a deep reservoir of hope.

They came in search of a better life, even though they didn’t know exactly what that meant or what they would have to sacrifice.

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My parents, and those like them, achieved something remarkable. They became successful entrepreneurs, doctors, artists, philanthropists and scholars. They bought homes, raised families and sent their children to universities. Many achieved this in the first generation, and most by the second. I am fascinated with understanding the conditions that allow seemingly ordinary people to achieve extraordinary success in the face of extreme adversity. I have studied these lessons and have tried to apply them to my life and the clients I have served.  When I listened to my family share their stories of coming to America, I distilled three conditions that seem to be common among immigrants who have achieved great success.

1.    Commitment

The people I know who have attained what seemed unthinkable all focused more on commitment than belief. When I asked my mother if she believed that she and her family could have escaped the Holocaust and reimagined their life in America, she answered with little emotion: “We didn’t have a choice”.  I have heard stories of how scared and confused immigrants were, not knowing if they would reach their destination or how they would survive once they arrived. These immigrants had to summon the will to prepare them for a radically different life.

When I have been faced with extreme adversity, my fears severely challenged my belief in myself. Yet my commitment was the force that propelled me forward. When my wife and I bought our first home and it was almost destroyed by fire soon after, I was in a perpetual state of fear. In retrospect, I can’t really say how strongly I believed we would succeed in our quest to rebuild our lives. Like my mother escaping the Holocaust, I didn’t think I had a choice.  In some unknowable way, that commitment turned into belief.

2.     Action

Immigrants understand the absolute necessity of action. By action I mean consistent, planned, organized action over long periods of time. My grandfather’s commitment still strikes awe in me 50 years after hearing it. Joachim Shultz had a thriving business selling finely-made artists brushes in Germany in the years leading up to Hitler coming to power. Seeing that Germany was no longer safe for Jews, he took his family to Czechoslovakia. He had hoped that he would find a safer place there. When his car was confiscated at the Czech border he knew the time had come to leave. He left his life behind and brought his wife and three children to New York. He started his business again on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in 1938.  He understood the necessity of making every resource count. Community was one of his most essential resources. 

3.     Community

The concept of community has shifted radically since my grandparent’s time. Then community was rooted in where you lived; in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Jewish immigrants who came from the same communities in Eastern Europe joined lantsman societies. If you emigrated from Minsk and settled in Brooklyn, you likely joined the Minsk lantsman group. Members pooled their resources to help each other in the strange world they were attempting to navigate. They also helped relatives come to America. They formed tightly connected social networks driven by their need to survive amidst an often hostile world. They understood that the only way they could realize their dreams was to depend on each other.

As the modern inventions of the telephone, the automobile and the airplane became more accessible, the idea of community spread far beyond the boundaries of the places they first settled in. As extended families broke apart and the nuclear family became the primary unit, the notion of interdependence shifted.

Today community is powered by digital social networks: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn. While the reach of the community is vast, the belief in interdependence that was so central to the success of my ancestors’ generation, has been severely diminished for most Americans. For those who have been able to reframe the “ we are all in this together” principle for the world of digital community, what we can learn from immigrants seems more powerful than ever.

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