Linda Cruse's work has taken her across the world, but it didn't come easy. Beginning her career as a nurse then transitioning to a big medical corporation, Cruse faced unbearable stress that left her temporarily blinded. Then, she vowed to change her life — and the lives of others. When her kids left home, Cruse sold all of her belongings and became a frontline humanitarian aid worker. Now, with years of experience across communities under her belt, she runs leadership programs that begin and foster uplift initiatives around the world.
While her work may seem far beyond the scope of applying to many of our "desk job" lives, Cruse doesn't want us to see it that way. Anyone can show up for others, especially when they know how to help. We asked Cruse more about how she got into humanitarian work and what challenges she's overcome to lead her programs. Then, she shared great advice about finding your true passions — and told us all about meeting the Dalai Lama.
Fairygodboss of the Week: Linda Cruse
Founder and CEO, Frontline First
Tell us a little about your career. How did you get to where you are now?
More than 20 years ago, I had a serious wake-up call that was to change my life. I was living in the UK, married with two wonderful children. Sadly, my marriage ended when I was in my late 20s and the nursing career I absolutely loved no longer provided the income I needed to support my children. So, I left nursing and started working for a big medical corporation.
I thought I was going to be Super Mum — able to provide properly for my children, pay for their school trips, uniforms, books and family holidays. Much of what I had was good, but I was in a meaningless job, selling something I didn’t believe in, working long hours, eating the wrong food, drinking too much and crying under my duvet at night. As I kept my focus on providing for my young family, I didn’t realize my stress levels were building to dangerous levels.
Late one night, I was driving home after a grueling sales conference. I felt a burning sensation behind my eyes, accompanied by an intense stabbing pain. The next thing I knew, I was unable to see. I somehow managed to get onto the hard shoulder of the motorway and sat there, alone and terrified, my mind racing with increasingly desperate thoughts: my life was over, I would never see my children’s faces again. After a few minutes I forced myself to calm down and vowed that if my sight came back, I would make serious changes to my life. I would look at why my stress levels were so high, understand why I was so unhappy and figure out what I was going to do about it.
I was lucky, after a few hours my sight returned — an episode the doctors later labelled stress blindness or hysterical blindness. Whatever they called it, I kept my promise and the very next day I began to evaluate my life. It would be many months before the time was right for change, but that didn’t stop me planning. When my son joined the army and my daughter went to university — both happily following their own dreams — it felt like my job was done. One summer’s evening after dinner, I looked at my wonderful children, all grown up, and asked, ‘Is it okay if I leave home now?’ Their immediate response ‘Go, mum! We are right behind you.’
Within months, I sold everything I owned and started a new life as a frontline humanitarian aid worker. I didn’t know anyone in the field of international aid, but that wasn’t going to stop me. Two decades later my feet have barely touched the ground. This new life has seen me travel to the far corners of the earth, going wherever my skills are needed. I have met incredible people along the way, own just one suitcase and enjoy a life of passion, purpose, adventure and misadventure — one I wouldn’t change for the world.
What is an accomplishment that you are proud of?
Apart from writing two books, it would be the creation of my unique leadership programs: Be The Change, Race4Good and Emergency Zen. I designed these programs to engage business leaders and industry experts — harnessing their passion, innovation and knowledge to help solve some of the world’s most critical social and environmental problems. Fun and fast-paced, my programs can fit into anyone’s schedule. Through my programs, individuals can change how they see and show up in the world.
As part of my leadership work, I take individuals from all walks of life to the frontline — and watch the magic happen. As a group, we immerse ourselves in a carefully chosen community and channel our skills, passion and expertise to uplift the village using a business-led approach. Uplift takes many wonderful forms — the creation of a bee-keeping association, a marigold harvesting cooperative, the reintroduction of buffalo farming or the establishment of a start-up fund are just a few examples. Knowing that thousands of families have had their hopes and dreams restored through my programs is something I am very proud of. It’s also heart-warming that many of those individuals who join me on a frontline experience, often describe it as profound and life-changing.
What is a challenge that you've faced and overcome?
Early in my frontline career, I travelled across India visiting remote camps housing displaced Tibetans refugees. The problems faced by the young people in these camps had become so serious that The Dalai Lama, having heard about my work, called a meeting. That meeting was to have an extraordinary effect on my life.
In October 2002, I travelled to Mindrolling Monastery in the northwest of India. I was greeted by a joyous and colorful carnival, a bobbing sea of burgundy and saffron. Hundreds of monks, accompanied by the sound of sacred horns and cymbals, had gathered to catch a glimpse of this man of peace. In the next room, I could hear the Dalai Lama giving an audience his rich laugh whilst I waited motionless, clutching a white silk scarf ready to receive his blessing. Suddenly, the heavy wooden doors to the room flew open and the man breezed in. I had seen his picture so many times and yet here he was, dressed simply in monk’s robes and sandals, with a smile so wide it seemed to stretch from ear to ear. I was invited to talk about my research and happened to mention that I used to be a nurse. The conversation took a swift turn and with the agility of a politician, His Holiness asked if there was any possibility that I could join teams addressing the high infant mortality rates affecting nomadic Himalayan communities. I replied I would go anywhere I could be of help. At that, the Dalai Lama leant over and gave my arm a squeeze and I realized I’d just been talked into a whole new job!
The Tibetan Plateau is a notoriously harsh environment, especially in the High Himalayas where I had just volunteered to go. Communities there are almost inaccessible, far away from towns and villages and without the most basic resources. My eagerness to jump straight in and get on with it, combined with my belief that ‘everything will be all right’, meant the trip nearly ended in disaster.
It took two days by jeep, mostly ‘off-roading’ on dirt tracks, to reach my mountain guides. I hadn’t realized it, but I was inappropriately dressed and had failed to pack enough provisions. We climbed higher into the mountains until, at a pre-arranged rendezvous, I found Himalayan guides waiting for me, ready to lead me higher into the mountains. My arrival caused a buzz of excitement as the horsemen and women made final preparations for the journey ahead. Scruffy, unshod horses, mules and yak stood passively whilst enormous numbers of items were thrown onto their backs. Layer after layer of hessian sacks containing provisions were thrown onto a crude wooden frame, followed by blankets, rugs and a sleeping pad. We set off in bright sunshine, strolling alongside a gentle stream and within a short time, I felt totally at ease, despite never having ridden a horse before.
As we reached the rise, the blue skies began to turn black. There was no shelter nearby. We resumed riding as if trying to outrun the storm. Then, it came upon us, the wind whipped around furiously followed by driving rain, coming down in unforgiving, ice-cold sheets. By now, I was slumped on the back of my horse, my head pounding from altitude sickness and shivering uncontrollably. I was wet all over, the yak-hair blanket doing nothing to stem the flow of icy water running down my back. I was pleading, although no one could hear:"‘please let me get off, please just let this be over." After that, I must have lost consciousness.
‘What is happening to me? Where am I?’ I could feel my naked body being rubbed vigorously by several pairs of rough hands. My body was so stiff and bruised it felt like I was lying on a bed of stones, a thousand sharp edges digging into me. I tried to sit up but hadn’t the strength to lift my head. In the feeble glow of butter lamps, I saw faces of women peering down and realized they were nuns. They did not speak to me but never once stopped the rhythmic rubbing of my body, chanting very quietly as they worked. I slipped in and out of consciousness, but at no point did I feel afraid.
Only later did I discover that by some miracle our caravan had stumbled across a small settlement of drokpas, nomadic shepherds living in yak-hair tents. They had taken us in and saved my life. “Can you ride?,” my guide asked me in sign language. I nodded and ignoring the Tibetan custom of making only the most conservative of farewells, I gave each nun an enormous western hug before mounting my horse. Words could never have expressed what I felt.
I admit the experience scared me and I could easily have given up my humanitarian career there and then. But I knew people were relying on me and I wanted to repay the kindness I had been shown and vowed to learn from the experience.
Who is YOUR Fairygodboss? and Why?
My daughter Gail Francombe is my inspiration and Fairygodboss. She dared to take the road less travelled and has created the life she wishes to live with her partner and 3 children and a super successful online business.
Always with an interest in the earth, permaculture and organic, naturally sourced lotions and potions, she started to produce her own natural skincare products after working and traveling widely in her late teens and 20s. In her late 20s, she met her partner, Gareth. As soon as she became pregnant with their first child, they decided that they would build a business around Gail's passion that would also give them the lifestyle they wanted. They started the School of Natural Skincare where they run a variety of online courses that teach people how to make their own natural skincare and haircare products.
Five years later, now with 3 children, Gail and Gareth work the same three days a week, they live close to the beach and spend four quality days a week with their children. Making products for herself has morphed into educating the world how to make natural skincare products. They now have students in over 120 countries! Her first book, The A-Z of Natural Cosmetic Formulation, is an international Amazon bestseller!
What do you do when you're not working?
Leading on the frontline can be challenging, so I try to inject as much fun into what I do as possible. When I take groups to the frontline, we share a drink around the campfire at the end of each day and take time to reflect on what we have achieved so far. I also try to schedule an afternoon in camp to entertain the village children with singing, dancing, juggling and even magic! Few people are aware that I am a third generation magician, following in the footsteps of my father and grandfather — although even in his late 80s, my father still regularly saws my mother in half! Seeing the joy on the faces of young children witnessing magic for the first time is priceless.
If you could have dinner with one famous person - dead or alive - who would it be?
Gertrude Bell has been a huge influence on my life. Born in 1868, she was an English writer, adventurer, cultural expert and archaeologist who became highly influential in British politics. She was a true adventurer and pioneer and I can only imagine what fascinating stories she would have to tell.
Lightning Round: What is your karaoke song?
"Have It All" by Jason Mraz.
Lightning Round: What is your favorite movie?
"Inn of the Sixth Happiness." Not because the story is about a missionary, but because of its messages of strength, perseverance and prevailing against all the odds.
Lightning Round: What book would you bring with you on a desert island?
A photo album full of images of family, friends and communities I have worked with.
Lightning Round: What is your shopping vice? What would you buy if you won the lottery?
Literally living out of a suitcase means shopping is not a high priority for me. I do occasionally buy a piece of indigenous jewelry from my frontline work. That way, when I leave a village for my next adventure, I take a little of the community’s love and energy with me.
What is the #1 career tip you'd like to share with other women who want to have successful careers like you?
My advice would be to have the courage to discover your unique gifts, talents and strengths. Take time to know yourself, to dig deeper and to discover what you love to do. Because when you live a life of passion and purpose, doors fly open.
Why do you love where you work?
I have worked in every continent on earth, from the snowy Himalayas, to arid deserts, impenetrable jungles, bustling cities and in forgotten villages — all vastly different, but each capable of bringing out my passion and purpose in life. I love embracing different cultures, bringing people together and then watching the magic happen.