Lech Walesa
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Lech Walesa

Former President, Poland
Nobel Peace Prize Recipient
Honorary Director, Grand Circle Foundation

If extraordinary times require extraordinary measures, as Ben Bernanke once said, they also call for extraordinary people. And no one fits that description better than Nobel Laureate and former President of Poland, Lech Walesa.

No one could have predicted Mr. Walesa's rise to prominence in Poland and around the world from his humble beginnings.  Born in Popowo, Poland, on September 29, 1943, he knew poverty and hardship in his youth. His father, a carpenter, died shortly after World War II, leaving his mother to cope with raising her children with only the help of his aunt and uncle. During this period, the Soviet Union imposed a communist government on Poland and began controlling every aspect of life (with the exception of the Catholic Church). It was a regime that young Lech Walesa, a proud Polish national, quickly learned to loathe.

Mr. Walesa gained his education at a vocational school, where he trained as a mechanic and electrician, and set to work as an auto mechanic from 1961 to 1965. He then served in the army for two years, rising to the rank of corporal, before getting a job in 1967 as an electrician in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, a Polish port city on the Baltic Sea. It was there, as an outspoken critic of the shipyard and of the communist regime, that his political influence began to take shape.

The Father of the Solidarity Movement

In 1970, when shipyard workers went on strike against the government, Mr. Walesa became involved in the workers' effort to organize an independent union. For the next decade, he was active in organizing shipyard protests and proved very effective at improving working conditions there—but his activism eventually cost him his job, in 1976. A husband and father of eight children, he did not give up, however, even though work was sporadic with long periods of unemployment for several years. His example was an inspiration to the workers he was so passionate to help.

A turning point occurred during the summer of 1980. A hike in food prices in July had fueled further protests, and by mid-August, more than 100,000 workers were on strike across Poland. Mr. Walesa had scaled a fence to join protesters at the shipyard in Gdansk, which was at the center of the demonstrations. He knew, however, that he needed striking workers across the country to unite in order to be successful, so he chaired an Interfactory Strike Committee comprised of workers from 20 factories. This became the foundation of Solidarity, the first officially recognized, independent, non-communist trade union of the Eastern bloc. Mr. Walesa was elected Chairman of the organization. 

Unfortunately, that independence was short-lived. Sanctified in September 1980, Solidarity was outlawed in December 1981. Mr. Walesa was either arrested or under surveillance for the next seven years. Still, the roots of freedom had taken hold. During his tenure as Solidarity Chairman, Mr. Walesa had been received by Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and had traveled to Italy, Japan, Sweden, France, and Switzerland, gaining the support of the international community and of the Catholic Church, his primary source of strength and inspiration.

Reinstated at the shipyard in 1982, Mr. Walesa continued to work covertly with other Solidarity leaders at great personal risk. His efforts were rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, but Mr. Walesa feared that he would not be allowed back into Poland if he traveled to Norway to accept the award. His wife made the trip in his stead.

As economic and social conditions worsened in Poland, Mr. Walesa continued to push for legalization of the Solidarity trade union. In February 1989, the government agreed to negotiate with him in a series of "roundtable talks" that lasted 59 days. In the end, Solidarity was legalized, and limited parliamentary elections were held, effectively establishing a non-communist government. Solidarity candidates won every seat for which they were eligible. This triumph is credited as being the catalyst for the collapse of the Soviet empire.

His Rise to the Presidency After the Fall of Communism

While not a candidate himself at that time, Mr. Walesa campaigned actively for Solidarity candidates and became a key figure in the new government. His activist career had given him a taste for politics, and he decided that he wanted to run for President of his country. In December 1990, he was elected to that post, which he held for five years.

A man who thrives in change, Mr. Walesa made constant changes to the government in what he described as "shock treatment" to convert the economy to Western capitalism, and public support for his policies gradually faded. In the general election of November 1995, he was defeated. He did not give up, however. He formed a new party, the Christian Democracy of the Third Polish Republic, in 1997 and ran for President again in 2000. Again, he was defeated, receiving just one percent of the vote. This time, he retired from political life.

He did not remain inactive, however. He has since traveled throughout Poland and the world, giving lectures on Central European history and politics. He also represented Europe at the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and he has been showered with honors and accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Award of Free World, the European Award of Human Rights, and the Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) Award, named for an encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII. He is also the recipient of honorary degrees from Harvard University, the University of Paris, and other universities around the world, and he was named one of the "100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century" by Time magazine.

Lessons in Leadership

Certainly, it's no surprise that an internationally revered figure would serve as an inspiration to Grand Circle Corporation and Grand Circle Foundation co-chairs Alan and Harriet Lewis. The Lewises' admiration, however, transcends his extraordinary accomplishments to encompass his very nature and style of leadership. Throughout his activist career, Mr. Walesa personified all six of the values around which the Lewises built their corporate culture: open and courageous communication, risk taking, thriving in change, teamwork, quality, and speed.

Inspired by his example, the Lewises invited Mr. Walesa to visit Grand Circle headquarters during a tour of the U.S. in 2004. During that visit, they invited him to join Grand Circle Foundation's Board of Honorary Directors. To their delight, he accepted.

Since then, Mr. Walesa has paid a second visit to Grand Circle headquarters. In May 2006, Mr. Walesa spoke at two corporate events—a small luncheon for Grand Circle leaders and community partners, and a special corporate meeting hosted by the New England Aquarium.

Grand Circle corporate meetings are famous for providing associates the opportunity to ask tough questions, and the one featuring Mr. Walesa was no different. He answered questions not only about his past accomplishments, but also on his views on the future, focusing particularly on globalization and leadership. He challenged Grand Circle associates to remember that the need for "spirit, faith, and morality" can sometimes be greater than the need for resources.

Martha Prybylo, Grand Circle's Executive Vice President of People & Culture, recalls that, "President Walesa has set the example for leadership and courage for more than a quarter century. We are proud to support his goal of preparing young people for life by facing it directly, with generosity, principle, and imagination."

It's a goal that is achievable because of the leadership and dedication of an extraordinary individual named Lech Walesa.

Featured in our August 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.