Hispanic Leadership

Hispanics are a rich source of talent and profitability in formal and informal organizations today, but our contributions are barely recognized and our leadership remains untapped. This regrettable situation is largely a result of the limited understanding that corporations and educational institutions have about leadership and leadership development.

Let's take how leadership is usually conceived in corporate USA. Popular images of leadership are still very traditional in representing leaders as decisive, usually autocratic, smart, tall, and male. Study after study shows that those who do not meet this image, especially women and "minorities," do not climb the ladder, unless they conform to this image as closely as possible. Above all, they must prove that they will be available 24/7 to meet the demands of the corporation no matter what.

But, Latinos' cultural repertoires do not fit these traditional images of leadership. Cultural repertoires refer to the ways we think about what's expected in social situations. For example, the Latino cultural script of personalismo, supports a leadership style where close and trusting relations are valued, instead of relations based on instrumental and competitive gains. Another Hispanic cultural script, familismo, stresses commitment and dedication to ones extended family, which may sometimes conflict with the expected devotion to work of the ideal corporate professional, for whom work-life balance is just talk.

So, as long as definitions of leadership and images of successful leaders continue to draw from narrow Anglo-European dominant cultural scripts, Latinos will have little opportunity to be recognized as leaders. Or worse, to be recognized as leaders, they will have to ignore or suppress important dimensions of their identity, like their cultural scripts. But, these are dimensions of leadership that serve as resources and form part of who they are. The inability to access these resources leads to a betrayal of the self and of leadership itself, because the latest leadership studies suggest that successful leaders are those who bring their whole self to their leadership roles. More and more, it is recognized that our professional and work identities draw from and are interrelated to our social identities such as race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and sexual orientation. In my view, this means that leaders must integrate and bring their multiple identities to their leadership role. To ask Latinos to cut off important aspects of their social-cultural identities, as revealed in cultural scripts, in order to become organizational leaders is not only counterproductive, but it contradicts the latest findings about leadership.

Limited approaches to leadership development and how leaders are formally trained are another reason why Latino talent is underutilized and so few Hispanics are groomed for leadership roles. Most leadership development programs seldom consider the role that social identities plays in the development of the integrated self that characterizes a good leader. Let's look at two popular examples of leadership programs today:

Type 1: The mixed-identity leadership development program

These programs are offered to a group of participants who are diverse according to their gender, race, culture, and organizational roles, who all aspire to and are deemed to have high potential for moving to higher level leadership positions in their organization. The focus is on developing a predetermined set of leadership knowledge and skills; treated as neutral and un-influenced by social identity. However, we know that gender, an important dimension of identity, influences how people in positions of authority are treated. This means, in turn, that two essential skills of leadership - the ability to negotiate ones leadership style according to the situation and to successfully navigate challenges to ones leadership authority - remain undeveloped in these programs.

Type 2: The single-identity leadership development program

Controversy surrounds these programs, which bring together participants that share a common social identity, such as women, African Americans or Hispanics. For example, I designed and directed one of the few programs that existed in Fortune 500 corporations for developing Hispanic leadership. The program lasted for several years, but was eventually eliminated because of lack of commitment from the top, an inability to evaluate long-term results and a preoccupation with the notion that because there was a "special" program for Hispanics, then similar programs would have to be offered to every other racio-ethnic group in the organization. There was also resistance to attending the program from Hispanic employees themselves because they did not want to be singled-out as needing a "special" leadership program.

When we consider the latest models of social identity, single-identity leadership development programs as currently delivered are also flawed. For example, the intersectionality model of identity tells us that leaders do not have just one single or dominant identity, but that multiple social identities are present all the time, forming our complex selves. In the simultaneity model I promote, which draws from intersectional and third world feminist theories, social identities like race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexuality, for example, are always present and become more or less figural depending on the organizational and societal context. Thus, at all times leaders must draw from a complex set of identities and deploy them in ways that (1) serve as resources and (2) in ways that reduce the effect of the negative impact when others devalue them. In order for leaders to draw from a complex array of identities, they need to acknowledge, understand, and learn how to use all their identities appropriately. By focusing in only one social identity, single-identity leadership development programs, cannot accomplish that goal.

Thus, one remedy is to begin to design and deliver leadership development programs that go beyond single-identity and instead, explore and analyze the impact of multiple identities on leadership. For example, besides focusing on their cultural and ethnic similarities, programs for Hispanic should also include activities where the impact that gender has on their leadership style, their leadership potential, and even their leadership paths is explored. We could go further and address the differences in their sexual orientation, the politics of sexuality in their organizations and consider their sexual and gender identities as they take stock of who they are and will be as organizational leaders. If the program is for women-only leaders, the ethnic, racial and class differences among them should be discussed. Those differences are crucial for future leaders in order to learn more about: 1) their own individual identities; 2) their blind spots and strengths when interacting with others across social differences; and 3) the context of their organizations, which have policies and practices that differentially impact women based on those social differences.

Much more could be said about how to improve the design and delivery of current leadership development programs, but for now I leave potential participants of such programs with two action items. First, take stock of your own images of leadership and expand them to be more diverse and inclusive of other social identity types. Second, look carefully at the leadership development programs offered by your organization. Ask questions such as: How diverse are the participants and the content? How are multiple social identities addressed as a key element of a leaders' growth and actualization? And most importantly, in what ways is my organization recognizing and developing the leadership capabilities that Hispanics bring?

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