Mastering the Art of Making a Difference

Conversation with Croatian President

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović

 On May 9, 2014, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović addressed the 5th National Summit on Strategic Communications in Washington DC in her role as NATO Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy.  A short time later, she took a leave from NATO to campaign for election as President of her native country, the Republic of Croatia.  

On January 11, 2015, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović won the election, and in February 2015 she was inaugurated as Croatia’s first female president and the fourth president of the former Yugoslav republic. 

“First and foremost, I want to restore the confidence of our people,” Ms. Grabar-Kitarović said following her election. “A difficult job awaits us. Let’s unite. Let’s unite our patriotism, love and faith in our Croatian homeland.”  

This same passion and conviction was evident in remarks she made to the 5th Strategic Communications Summit. These are excerpts. Download the full transcript here.


 Summit Director Robert Grupp:

We are honored that you joined us. Thanks for attending the Strategic Summit. 

Ambassador Grabar-Kitarović: Sitting in the sessions at the National Summit on Strategic Communications, I have truly been inspired by so much that has been said. I have to tell you that as someone who has been working very intensely in communications and in international organizations, I’ve learned a lot throughout these two days. I hope that this initiative continues and grows. 

Summit Director: It has been said that the only true leadership is values-based leadership. Given the widespread lack of confidence in leadership, in business, government, education and elsewhere, how do you maintain trust as a leader? 

Ambassador Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović: Values-based leadership may not be a cure for everything that ails us, but it’s definitely a good place to start. 

If you do not have the necessary passion and conviction and the zeal to foster change around you then your job becomes just another job. Going to work in the morning without that conviction and determination to make a difference that day is just a waste of one’s life and a waste of one’s potential.

One area where I have been deeply involved is in education and information.  Education and information are the strongest weapons, much stronger than any military hardware, against radical ideologies and against any attempts to bring us back into the times of darkness that we have seen not just in far off places but in the transatlantic space and in Europe.   

And when I talk about values I do not like to label them with any kind of geographical pre-determination such as Western values.  I believe there are universal values that every single being on this earth is entitled to. No culture or religion will accept that one human being is worth less in any way than another human being. 

I worked hard at NATO on a program called The Virtual SILK Highway which is a computer networking project for the Caucasus and Central Asia. In Afghanistan, the program provides broadband Internet capabilities to more than 22 universities as a source of communication and information and as an opportunity for distance learning 

In Afghanistan specifically, we have promoted women; what women do and women’s businesses, women as entrepreneurs, as taxi drivers, as actresses, as TV anchors, etc. 

A couple of years ago we engaged a company – Citidel Software Company in Herat – to work in our Silk-Afghanistan program in that province.  The owner and the CEO of the company is a brilliant woman named Roya Mahboob. Her company did a great job for us, and we wanted to do a story about Roya’s life, about the threats that she was receiving by the Taliban and the insurgents, which did not discourage her. On the contrary, it encouraged her to work and to contribute to the well-being of not just herself but of people who work with her as well. 

So when I came back to Afghanistan a few months after her story was put on YouTube I met with a group of very talented women. My goal is always not to put an emphasis on women as victims, but first and foremost on women as agents of change who need our empathy and our support.  They give us ideas, and we continue to work with them to help these women change their society and to engage men because without the involvement of men change will not be possible. 

Roya was in this group, and I told her, I recognize you. You were in one of our videos. She told me that video changed her life. At first, I was afraid that she was going to tell me she can’t even get out of her home now because she’s getting so many Taliban threats; that she’s afraid for her life and the lives of her family and friends.  

But no. On the contrary, she said I do get threats all the time, but if I took those threats as an impediment to the work, if I did not get out of my house, then the Taliban or the insurgents, those who want to take our country back into the dark times, they would win. 

She told me the miraculous thing that happened when we put that story on YouTube, is she started getting calls from all over the world. She started getting jobs and she started earning a lot of money.  

And do you know what? Roya could have pocketed that money, but she didn’t. She kept for herself and for her family what was enough and then started reinvesting that money in buying hardware and in teaching other women how to earn money over the Internet, over Facebook and in social media. 

And then she realized that teaching individual women was not enough, so she started setting up classrooms all around her province of Heart. She made sure that girls and women had access to those classrooms, and if they needed to be escorted she provided the help and gave them the opportunity to earn money. 

She empowered these women to become economically independent. When they bring money back to their husbands and fathers who might have been skeptical in the beginning, they realize their life is better because daughters are working.

A couple of months after I met Roya for the second time, she became one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential persons in the world.  I am very proud of that because I believe that NATO TV can take a little bit of credit for promoting Roya; by giving her a platform to talk about her work. 

The point is our personal work as citizens shouldn’t be just about changing legislation. It should be about changing mindsets and also about fostering ambition; fostering ambition. 

Summit Director:  Can you identify a typology or theorize about a leadership style or traits that makes a difference?            

Ambassador Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović: There’s the old saying, if you want to change the world begin with yourself.  So start by looking at yourself. 

I lived through war in Croatia. I grew up in a small village. It was communist Yugoslavia at the time. My parents had a private company, and the state would take absolutely everything from them. They would tax them so much to fill the pockets of certain individuals in government, and that really upset me, and started me thinking, how can I change that? 

So when I came back from the United States — where my parents sent me to school, even though both of them were barely able to get out of elementary school because they had to work – I became completely dissatisfied with the situation in Croatia. I got involved in the Independence Movement.  It was very difficult time.  

The war started, and the front lines were about 26 kilometers from where I lived. Every evening when I would go to bed I could hear the detonations, and I thought of all of those people that were sitting spending their nights in cellars, sometimes for months.  I would thank God that I had a warm bed to sleep in. 

So sometimes the basic needs are what matters most in life – but today when I go to bed, I think, have I done enough today to start some kind of a change?  And, of course, there are better days and there are worse days. We all have them. But I have to tell you, I came to work at NATO because of that past when I lived on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. I wanted to live the values of freedom, democracy and individual human rights. 

So pushing little by little, networking, making people aware, sometimes just pulling them by the sleeve and telling them what is necessary for leaders, is important. 

 So wherever you are, in whatever position of leadership, you cannot just stick to your daily work.  You have to think beyond that and select a few goals for yourself where you want to bring about change.