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For three days, he traveled only at night and rested in caves with a sack full of bread, cheese, and peppers, and his revolver. When he had finally crossed the border from what was Yugoslavia into Greece, he felt that he was one major step closer to realizing his dream of making it to America. His grandfather had told him many stories about America and my fathers life long dream was to live some of those stories.  Within a few days he was confronted by the Greek authorities who questioned him – Are you a Communist? No, I hate the Communists. Are you Greek? No, I am Macedonian. And with that answer, his journey to America was delayed three, brutal years while he was interned in a political “refugee” camp on the island of Crete.

Finally made it to America

My father never gave up hope. This was just another detour on the trip. When the International Red Cross finally secured his release and transported him to New York City, the customs agent asked him for his birth date. This should have been an easy question, but he had never celebrated his birthday and didn’t even know when it was. So he asked the Customs agent what the date was, and he probably replied that “today is my birthday, my first day in America!”


My father had plenty of reasons throughout his life to be discouraged and to give up. His father was killed in World War II. He spent three terrible years in the camp. He swept floors in a bread factory to make ends meet even though he was a trained electrician. However, he never gave up. And along the way, he had to be tough and persevere and he instilled those traits in all of us.

Are those traits still important for today’s generation? Thankfully my children haven’t had to endure the same hardships as their grandfather, Dedo Johnny.  As parents, we do everything in our power to eliminate hardship, to set our children up to succeed – to make life easier for them. As a result of our success, our children find it hard to relate to the stories of “having to walk three miles in snow up to my waist just to get to school”.  It is clearly a different world that they are growing up in. However, a book with one of the shortest, most provocative opening lines in literature does a great job of explaining why we still need to instill perseverance in our children:

“Life is difficult.”
M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth

Growing up we never had reason to believe that life would be easy, but the key for us was that we never had the feeling that it should be easy. We have all seen people that believe life should be easy. That success is their birthright. That prosperity and all that comes with it should be be handed to them.  Unfortunately, life is not easy. There are projects, presentations, and proposals that don’t go well. Not every team goes undefeated in a season. Layoffs occur. The lead in a play goes to someone else. When these inevitable failures in life come, when doubts sink in about their ability to succeed, these people are shocked and easily discouraged. They complain, they quit, they blame others.

Anything worth achieving is hard. If it was easy, anyone could do it.

While not as dramatic, we all face failures and doubts that can leave us discouraged. Now, I know that my father never read M.Scott Peck, but he knew and lived the great truth that life is indeed difficult. When things didn’t go exactly as planned, he found a way around it because he never expected it to go smoothly. What is ironic, is that because he accepted it, “the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”  Further, when he achieved his goal or when everything did go per plan, there was joy and appreciation because he knew life wasn’t always like that.

So, whenever life throws a few curve balls at me and things don’t go as planned, I remember my father pulling me aside and saying, “a quitter never wins and winner never quits”. And if nothing else, we all know that Dedo Johnny was never a quitter.

About Leadership Stories

Leadership stories are drawn from the bedtime ritual at our house which usually finished with “Dad tell me a story”. These stories were about our family: Who we are, where we came from, and to share life lessons that were passed on to me. As I told the stories, it became very clear to me the significant impact that they have had on my life, my career, and my leadership style.