One regular day in my first year of high school in Bulgaria, our English teacher, Ms. Ivanova, remarked offhandedly that I was a leader. I don’t remember the context, but I do remember that I felt both flattered and confused. I didn’t know why she thought that, nor what it meant, but it felt good. And I remember it 20 years later.
Fast forward twelve years: after I had finished a master’s degree in Washington, DC, I co-founded a nonprofit organization – my first full-time job. I never thought I’d be building an organization, nor was I prepared for it. And yet, the most important lesson I learned from that experience had little to do with management, business strategy or fundraising.
I learned to believe in people.
I met people like Sylvia. She was a graduate student from China studying tourism. Sylvia came to us with no teaching or other professional experience; instead she demonstrated an eagerness to learn and immense enthusiasm to teach her language and share her culture with whoever was interested.
Sylvia became a Teaching Fellow, and after basic pre-service training found herself in a classroom leading 20 adults of different ages and backgrounds to speak Mandarin. It was remarkable to see how she developed as a teacher over the next year. Yes, she had a support structure – in-service training, coaching, basic curriculum, peers to exchange ideas with, and the opportunity to just do it and learn from the experience. But more importantly, she grew to be an effective teacher because she had a passion for sharing her language and culture and a motivation to learn and improve.
I have had the chance to meet and work with many people like Sylvia, and that helped me realize how special people are. I saw firsthand how people from different walks of life flourished as teachers. They displayed boundless enthusiasm and a strong drive to excel that came not from misplaced ambition, but from a deep desire to see their students communicate effectively. I discerned that if people find something they are passionate about, and are open to learning, they can achieve anything.
And yet, believing in people is hard.
Sometimes we see the ‘good’ in others, and hopefully, we recognize and appreciate them. Frequently, we see the ‘bad’, form opinions and let these judgments stick and affect our behavior and future interactions.
When was the last time you thought a co-worker was “lazy” or “careless”, or “incompetent”? Last week? Why do we do that? Because we are quick to make assumptions. “He didn’t show up to work on time.” (Lazy!) “She didn’t respond to these emails at 8pm.” (Not dedicated!) “He made a few mistakes in that last report.” (Not competent / not smart!)
Labeling people comes easily. I do it all the time, even though conceptually, I know I shouldn’t. It’s an impulse we all have to fight. Getting to know people – their strengths, their interests, their passions, what keeps them up at night – that reveals more than what time they show up to work, or how quickly they respond to emails. People are special. We only have to take the time to recognize what’s special about each and every one of them.
Next time you are quick to judge someone, take a step back, open your heart, and learn about who they are.
Ms. Ivanova saw something in all of her students, and she recognized us for it. She showed her belief in how she treated us. We should celebrate the people around us for their unique talents and passions, just as our own mentors and role models have done for us.
Throughout the seven years I spent with my nonprofit, I discovered that what inspired me the most was not what the organization did – what services we offered to the community, but seeing the sheer enthusiasm and dedication in people like Sylvia. I realized that my own passion lies in providing a platform for people to come together, discover their strengths, find their calling, and seek change – in themselves, in their communities, and around the world.
I started LeadIN because I believe in people and because I wanted to reinforce that belief by acting on it. Maybe subconsciously I wanted to prove to myself I was right to hold that belief in the first place. And what better way to ‘practice what I preach’ than by creating opportunities for people to become the leaders they are?
I realize now, as I am writing this, that even the act of composing this blog, of voicing these thoughts is a form of practice. It keeps me honest. It reminds me of how difficult it is to believe in people, and how easy it is to slip into quick judgments and old patterns of thinking. It helps me internalize the significance of recognizing the best in others, and motivates me to continue trying to live up to my own beliefs.
Will YOU try too?