Cesar Chavez told me once that leadership development is something everyone talks about but very few actually do it because it’s very expensive and it takes a long time, which does make sense because it may take years for anyone of us coaching or mentoring a group or individual and in the end our mentees may end up taking their own path not necessarily our own. Another reason for the lack of leadership development is that most of the community meetings are attended or even run by people from our generation and a noticeable small representation of new recruits, when one of the principles of leadership development it to remain inconspicuous when necessary and yield for other’s opinion but many of us tend to ignore this rule. Facing this reality, I think it is important to understand there comes a time when we need to step aside and allow room for new talent and fresh ideas.
In 2006 I coordinated a student conference while working as student advisor at Michigan State Uinersity. The students, a coalition of sophomore Latinos, decided to invite a motivational speaker for the keynote opening. I’ve always had issues with motivational speakers because most of them come across as entertainers whose job is to pep their audiences with esoteric positivity mostly based on inner-strength philosophy or our pre-Colombian heritage but fail to leave a sound message with practical tools or skills on how to overcome social or political issues.
At the day of the conference, as the students worked diligently on the preparations details for the event, I sat with a group of community leaders who had decided to attend. They were the usual suspects, a bunch of contemporaries of mine who had their fingers in just about every other organization or issue in the community. I remember our group conversation being lame in contrast with the buzz of energy from the students setting up for the event. As we enjoyed our coffee, in walks the guest lecturer. He was a dynamic looking Hispanic from Chicago who made his rounds shaking everyone’s hand until he eventually ended up by our table.
He was obviously attracted by our seasoned appearance and typically he showered us with all sort of compliments as he introduced himself and exhorted us to do the same. “I bet each one of you could write a book about all your life accomplishments”, I remember him saying as he pointed to each one of us from left to right as a cue to introduce ourselves.
The next ten or fifteen minutes became a verbal glossary of the names, titles, positions, on executive and advisory boards, committees and campaigns my peers took as an opportunity to display their past and current community profile. As I listened sitting at the very end I grew impatient and restless because I don’t partake on self-praising but mostly because in my view anyone with a bit of sense could tell how it is practically impossible or unrealistic to effectively work in all the paid and voluntary positions mentioned in the string of verbal resumes by each individual. My dilemma rested on how noticeable my lean introduction would sound in contrast with the torrential of “book-potential” material coming out of the rest of the group.
Luckily for me Jose Flores, a fellow whom I hold in high regard, sat before me and he solved my problem in the most eloquent and brief fashion ever. When Jose was asked by our Hispanic motivational speaker what he did, he simply responded with a smile,
”as little as possible.” Mind you, Jose has a Doctorate’s degree (the only one in the group), has successfully fought many battles against a racist establishment and is an accomplished business person and publisher. Stunned by his sincere reply our guest cut his introduction short and moved on to shake more hands and as a result I was spared from introducing myself.
Flores’ response spoke to me at many levels but most important reaffirmed my theory that there comes a time when people from our generation need to step aside and allow room for young and energetic Raza with new, fresh and innovative ideas more in tune with current times and politics. I decided then to leave my position at Michigan State University so that a younger person would better address our students’ issues.
Please notice that I said step aside not step down, because it would be a royal waste to let go the many years of experience some of us have accumulated along our journey. So if you are from the generation that mimeographed fliers or newsletters to organize, remember using a transistor radio, used silkscreen to print your Boycott Grapes picket posters instead of going to Kinko’s or used fax instead of email please try to remember that sometimes the best way to teach new recruits is by not saying a thing.