What a trip to Southeast Asia taught me about leadership

Julie Suzanne and KimThis week marks a year since I boarded a plane for a whirlwind trip that would forever change my life and my leadership. When I returned from the other side of the world, I took my kids trick-or-treating, I shared stories, I fought off a violent stomach bug, and I cried. At the time, I couldn’t bring myself to write about what I had seen or heard. Some of the things I experienced were just too dear; too sacred.

But as I reflected recently on this experience a year ago, I realized now was the time to share what this wild trip to Southeast Asia taught me about leadership.

I traveled with my new friend Suzanne and my dear friend Kim to join Love146 in exploring their work to end child trafficking and exploitation. (The three of us are pictured above at the beginning of our journey; so bright-eyed and accessorized.) We traveled from Dallas to Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines over the course of 7 days. (Or maybe it was 8. I still don’t know if I lost a day or gained a day. I just know there was time travel involved.)

The work Love146 is doing around the world (including here in the States) is desperately needed and powerfully effective. I fully expected to be wrecked hearing stories from women and children who were rescued and restored from unimaginable situations. (And I was.) What I wasn’t expecting was how challenged I would be by the passionate leaders I got to see in action. Each of the Love146 leaders we met working on-the-ground (including their partners like Precious Women Ministry and Daughters of Cambodia) were joyful, collaborative, faithful, generous, and “in it” for the long-haul. They were also leading the way in research and education, which ultimately leads to prevention.

One of these extraordinary leaders was Dr. Gundalina Velazco, Director of Asia Survivor Care for Love 146. I sat next to the humble award-winning psychologist on the long and bumpy van ride to visit The Round Home, the aftercare community she helped design. Knowing full-well the kind of dynamo leader I had trapped seated next to me, I did what I do: I peppered her with questions about life and leadership. Mercilessly.

When I finally asked Gundalina why she had been hesitant to expand and capitalize on the success of The Round Home, she answered with this: “People must come before plans.” Her first priority was the small group of young women right in front of her. Dr. Velazco was confident the survivors at The Round Home would start new ventures (and they have). She believed people from other places would rise up for their women in their context and apply best practices from her model. Gundalina was convinced she did not need to be a franchise operator because it would not be best for the people entrusted to her.

I hate to admit how I have gotten this wrong so many times in my leadership. I feel the pressure to implement a radically new system or build a bigger program (like yesterday!). And I race past my team or miss the very people the “bigger and better” was meant to serve in the first place. If you miss the people, are the plans even worth it?

People must come before plans.

How can you apply this principle to your leadership? Where have you forfeited the best for those you serve in favor of plans or programs? Where in your leadership have you forgotten the stories and misplaced the faces of your audience, your customer, or your congregation?

*Having seen their work first-hand, I absolutely recommend you support Love146 in their efforts to end child trafficking and exploitation.

**BTW: Gundalina has three grown sons in their 30’s who love God and are doing great work in the world. You better believe I asked her for parenting advice. What she shared was simple yet profound: “the most important approach is love – always make sure they feel loved and accepted, no matter what.”


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4 thoughts on “What a trip to Southeast Asia taught me about leadership

  1. Indeed, it’s true that people must come before plans. That way, they also have a sense of ownership when it comes to projects and programs that they implement. Projects and programs are likely to succeed if the implementors/participants know what is needed to achieve an outcome.

  2. Sounds like an amazing trip! I am definitely challenged with the simple yet packed statement: People must come before plans.
    thank you for sharing and providing all that you do!