Q&A: Laura Ling on Leadership Lessons Learned as a Prisoner in North Korea

During times of hardship, it takes courage to push forward despite what our fears tell us. As leaders, we all experience adversity in some form. For award-winning journalist Laura Ling, it was in the form of months of imprisonment in one of the world’s most isolated and corrupt countries, North Korea. In 2009, Laura and her colleague Euna Lee, were captured by North Korean soldiers and held captive for several months before being released. 

In this Q&A, we chat with Laura about her experience in North Korea and how her experience impacted her leadership in the face of hard times. We also have the pleasure of welcoming Laura as a featured speaker at Leadercast Women 2019, taking place this Friday, Oct. 18, live in Atlanta and broadcast to locations around the globe. 

1. What happened when you were captured and where did they take you? 

My team and I were working on a documentary about North Korean defectors and the trafficking of North Korean women—people who are often trading one life of desperation for another. We were filming along the China-North Korea border when we were violently apprehended by North Korean soldiers. The events happened so quickly and before I knew it, I had become a captive in North Korea. 

2. What was going on in your mind at that moment?

It felt very surreal—like an out-of-body experience. I couldn’t believe what had happened—that in an instant, my life had been turned upside down in the most unimaginable way. I never felt more terrified. 

3. How did you handle the fear?

At first, I didn’t handle the fear very well at all. I let it consume me. I imagined the very worst. I contemplated taking my own life. But eventually, I was able to take control. I realized that if I was going to get out of that situation, I was going to have to do everything in my power to help make it happen. And if things didn’t go my way, then at least I could say that I tried—that I used every ounce of will and energy to work toward a positive outcome. 

4. Is fear ever a good thing?

While people have often called me “fearless,” I think I’m actually a very fearful person. Fear is what has kept me safe (well, for the most part), in my career covering war zones, human trafficking, religious persecution and other sensitive issues. I would say that it’s partially because I dropped my guard during my reporting in Northeastern China back in 2009, that my colleague and I were captured. I probably wasn’t as fearful as I should have been. 

Our fears can help us be more alert, more prepared, more focused. So I think it’s really about understanding our fears and how to navigate them in a way that allows us to achieve our goals.

5. What did your experience teach you about empathy?

I learned that humanity lives even in the darkest and loneliest of places. And that when we open our eyes and our hearts to understanding each other’s differences, we realize how much we have in common. During my talk at Leadercast Women, I’ll be sharing some of the surprising moments of compassion and empathy that helped get me through the most challenging of times. 

6. What advice would you give to leaders on overcoming adversity?

It sounds cliche, but our biggest obstacles can be pathways for discovering our greatest strengths. [At Leadercast Women,] I will be talking about a ritual that I practiced during my captivity that helped me maintain hope and get through each day. Positive rituals can help us focus, and find clarity and purpose.

7. How did your experience change your perspective as a leader?

I learned to treasure my freedom. It’s easy to take our liberties for granted, but my experience—my loss of freedom—has left an indelible mark. I am reminded every day of those who continue to fight for their own freedom, including women, as we still face an uphill battle in our quest for greater equality. That’s why I’m so honored to be a part of this year’s Leadercast Women gathering. Women have so much to learn from one another. And when we support one another, we all rise. 

8. What was the biggest lesson you learned about leadership through everything you endured in North Korea?

During the time of my capture, I was working for Current TV, a cable channel that was co-owned by former Vice President Al Gore. I was the head of the journalism and documentary division, leading a team of 20 or so people. But while in captivity, I was completely alone. So what kind of leadership skills could I learn while in solitary confinement? Well, I learned a lot. I learned to be more self-aware, after all, the only thing I truly had control over was myself. So I had to look inward. I focused on my physical and mental well-being. That meant daily exercises and meditation to keep my spirits up. It meant being resilient because there were so many setbacks that required me to re-strategize. It meant being patient—I learned to calm my mind and accept my present situation. I learned to have hope—even when it seemed all hope was lost. 

9. What would you say makes a leader worth following?

Someone who can articulate his or her vision with such passion, charisma and clarity that it becomes infectious.

10. What are you up to now?

I’m working on a few exciting projects. One is called Happs. It’s a live-streaming news network where anyone is invited to participate. It’s a collaborative effort in telling the world’s story.

I recently hosted a mini-documentary series for Discovery Communications on the power and science of kindness. I was thrilled to be a part of this project that talks about the importance of empathy and the many benefits we experience when we are kind. I think we can all agree, we could use more kindness in this world. 

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Don’t miss Laura speak at Leadercast Women 2019. Join us THIS FRIDAY, Oct. 18, live at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in Atlanta, or at a location near you, to learn how to take courage in your leadership. Both women and men alike are invited to hear from our all-female cast of speakers. Claim your seat!

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