This interview is part of a series on Trailblazing Women role models (Entrepreneurs and Leaders) from around the world and first appeared on Huffpost. See what you can be.
There is always a way. Keep going! I strongly believe that leaders are born, not made, because leadership means having courage. You can be smart and brilliant, but to perform and be a real leader, you need to make a personal example of yourself and take responsibility that others are not willing to take.”
Nadezhda Neynsky is the youngest woman Foreign Minister in the history of post-communist Eastern Europe 1997–2001. At 34 she joined the only democratic reformist government of Bulgaria after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. She took the country from the Russian geopolitical orbit and paved its way to EU membership and NATO. At the time of her mandate Bulgaria became a reliable partner of the Euro-Atlantic structures during the severe conflicts in the Balkans at that time — the war in the former Yugoslavia and the Kosovo refugee crisis. In 1999 Nadezhda Neynsky became the face of the election campaign of EPP — “The party of a new Europe.” She was the first Eastern European politician to hold an important position in the leadership of the EPP without her country being formally a member of the EU. Neynski was vice president of EPP for two and her career in European politics continued as a Member of Parliament 2009–2014 and president of the Union of Small and Medium Enterprises in Europe.
Nadezhda Neynsky is the first woman leader of the largest right-wing Democratic Party in Bulgaria — Union of Democratic Forces 2002–2005. She was the first Bulgarian politician who openly declared battle against shadowy circles in politics and withdrew the UDF candidate for mayor of Sofia in the electoral campaign in 2003 Plamen Oresharski, due to alleged unregulated relations with the oligarchy. She was elected for three consecutive mandates as MP in the Bulgarian Parliament 1997–2008, defending democratic Euro-Atlantic values. She was vice-president of the Parliament, member of the Bulgarian delegation to the Council of Europe and President of Parliamentary and Public Relations Committee to Parliamentary Assembly PACE. Currently Nadzshda is the Ambassador of Bulgaria to Turkey. A philologist graduate from Sofia University, she is a translator of Spanish poetry and English literature and author of the first Bulgarian translation of the poetry of Roque Dalton. She is the first and only woman awarded the prestigious Bulgarian “Politician of the Year” award 1999,”Woman of the Year” 2008 in Bulgaria, and Order of the Légion d’Honneur 2009 in France. She is married and has two daughters.
Who is your role model as a leader?
For me, the person I most respect over many years is my former colleague, former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. She is a very bright, courageous woman who was able to show strong leadership at a time when my country and southeast Europe really needed it. She presented her vision, courage and strategy for the democratization of southeast Europe and made it possible for Bulgaria to join the democratic world. Strong women’s leadership in a time of crisis is always very needed, because women have a special sense of responsibility, because nature made them want to secure human lives. That’s why I think the role of women leaders has to really be encouraged.
What is your greatest achievement to date?
I’ve had the unique opportunity of being part of the decision-making process of my country at a very important time when Bulgaria was struggling for democracy and trying to present an alternative political model to the totalitarian regime after years of communism. When I was Foreign Minister, my government and I had to convince Bulgarian society that Bulgaria needed to become part of the European Union and NATO, and become fully recognised as part of the family of democratic nations. Seeking security guarantees by being part of this community was not an easy process, because we had to fight the status quo and conservative thinking of people who were used to being followers, not leaders of their own lives. We needed a lot of courage and commitment. As Foreign Minister, I was able to present a new image of Bulgaria and create a completely different and successful policy that was very needed in Bulgaria and by our foreign partners who needed to change their minds about our country. My approach was all about building confidence. It was crucially important to build trust, confidence and convince our partners of Bulgaria’s role in southeast Europe, a turbulent and unpredictable region at that time. We had to prove our responsibility and effectiveness, as a country in being part of the solution, not part of the problem and I am very proud of my role in that.
What has been your biggest challenge as a woman leader?
I had two very big challenges. 1) The crisis in Kosovo (on our western boarder with Yugoslavia), where I had to manage and defend the position of Bulgaria to be part of the efforts of the civilised world to prevent the spread of the conflict provoked by Milosovic, and stop the ethnic cleansing undertaken by him at the time, which caused the influx of refugees all over Europe. 2) My other big challenge was undertaking visa liberalization to allow Bulgarians to travel freely in the European Union. This was a very big personal success for me, a great triumph and everybody in my country recognized this.The way we resolved these challenges, is proof that Bulgaria was able to use more instruments and have more support than if we had been out of the democratic community.
As a woman throughout those situations, my biggest challenge was to raise two small daughters while travelling all over the world, negotiating with friends and enemies, trying to achieve the best for my country, while at the same time being a good mother: present and responsive at important moments in the lives of my two small daughters. This is probably the challenge of all women who try to have successful careers in politics, business and science while keeping balance in their family lives. I have always tried to be a good mother and politician and though it may seem impossible, with a lot of effort and compromise, I was able to manage both roles at the same time. I’m proud that my children now understand all the sacrifices and personal investment I made in our lives, by being an example of a successful woman doing what she is passionate about, out of heart not only self interest.
How do you motivate people in your team?
To be frank, I always put emotional motivation at the forefront, because often women are motivated by a cause and the sense that they can help somebody or a country. In my case this was a strong driving force. I must admit, that for men, often the emotional motivation to do things was not enough. My feeling is that they need things to be more pragmatic and always put pragmatic things first, emotional things second. For women, most of the time the emotional motivation was strong enough to keep them going. I think there should be a balance between the two, because emotion without pragmatic results is nothing, and the opposite is also true. To bring about real change and break the status quo, you need a strategy and to motivate people to back the strategy and make it possible. I still believe that inspiration is a very important part of the whole effort.
If you could do 1 thing differently, what would it be?
I would have been more careful in selecting my team, the people with whom I work. I sometimes overestimated people and got too close to them. When you get too close, sometimes you are not able to deliver because you are influenced by friendship. I think that was a mistake I made. Liking some people and disliking others doesn’t play a positive role in politics. When you are with people with whom you have to do a task, there is a different type of relationship between you and them. You have to follow that very strictly, otherwise you lose your strength. When you put your heart and soul into something, you often expect others to do the same.
Someone once said ‘the easiest way to make an enemy of someone, is to ask them to do more than they are able or want to do’. It’s a great lesson for me on my political journey. I know that we should always take a rational approach to things, but even now, from time to time, you need to include an emotional approach. I’m trying to be more moderate in my emotions. At the same time, a close friend of mine (an actor) saw me giving a speech and I told him I’m always under immense emotional pressure before I give a speech — I always think about whether it will go ok, how will people react, will I say all I need to (I never bring notes with me or read out a speech). He told me that was why I am so successful. When you stop feeling the pressure and stress before delivering a speech, that’s the end, because it means that it has become a routine for you.
What differences do you notice between men and women’s leadership styles?
For me, men simply have a different approach. Most of them don’t pay as much attention to inspiration and emotion — it’s not their common approach. Most of them base their speeches and leadership on pragmatic things. Over time, I have learned from their approach and feel I have to have both pragmatism and emotion. I think emotion is a compatible gift, but at the same time, it’s always important to have an action plan, be structured and be able to select priorities. When you make a speech to try to get support for your cause, you need to be very structured and get your most important points across to the public. Most people only remember up to 3- 5 things from a speech. I think that men can be stronger when it comes to practical things. But it’s a bit like salt and pepper, you need both combinations. You can be unique through your own way of combining both pragmatism and emotion. I think that women’s approach is more inclusive than that of men. For men, it’s important to show who is number 1. For women, they are more ready to work as part of a team.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I would describe it by making a parallel between being a leader and a Foreign Minister. I never read out my speeches to people. When I prepare myself for meetings, negotiations or public presentations, I like to feel the energy and attention of the audience. I get inspired by that and feel a personal, invisible contact with them. I can feel when the audience is not interested in what I’m saying and it’s like in the theatre, you need this electricity in order to make a real connection with the public and get them on board. In all my leadership roles, that personal contact with people is very important. I ‘m not a cabinet politician who is well prepared, well educated, sitting in his/her office, simply waiting for things to happen, because they are right. I need to convince people and that gives me additional strength to keep going.
I strongly believe that leaders are born, not made, because leadership means having courage. You can be smart and brilliant, but to perform and be a real leader, you need to make a personal example of yourself and take responsibility that others are not willing to take. To be on the front line, means taking on more responsibility and being willing to pay for that responsibility. Every step and change has a price and you should consider whether you are ready to pay that price, or take that risk. Change always involves risk and the status quo is always more comfortable.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be close to people, but be very careful in selecting those to whom you open your heart and soul. When selecting your team, you should always find a balance between capability, knowledge, effectiveness and loyalty. The combination between these things is very unique; you can have smart people who are not loyal, or loyal people who are not capable enough. They need to be reliable, you need to be able to trust them and they must be able to trust you. When a team is well selected and committed to a common goal, they can move the world. I have courage and a lot of experience and I really care about my country. Moving forward, I will very carefully select my team and if I do it successfully, I believe I really will have a great success.
The real test is the test of a real situation. When you are interviewing people, you can like them and think they have all the qualifications and experience you need, but there is always a hidden part. When that person is put in a really tough situation, that’s when you see the real person behind the screen. The other thing I would tell myself is to learn how to fire people — that’s very difficult for me. When you get close to someone and they don’t respond to the trust you have given him/her and doesn’t perform in the right way, you should be able to tell them to find another job. When you become close to someone personally it becomes very hard. When you need to fire them, you need to talk them, not humiliate them, rather treat them and the process with respect to both parties can leave on good terms.
What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?
My personal goal is to continue to be part of change in Bulgaria, Europe and the civilised world. Now I have more instruments and experience to help my country, than when I was Foreign Minister. I am capable of being even more effective than 15 years ago and this is a great inspiration for me. I am ready to work to fulfil this task. My strongest experience is in Foreign relations and I think I am able to position Bulgaria in the international community, advocating tolerance, development and empowering women in my country, a huge untapped resource. The more people who work together on women’s empowerment the better, we need more allies on this task.
3 key words to describe yourself?