The People We Become: Reflections from Tecate, Mexico
It is interesting how the experiences of our lives shape the people we become. In 1999, my husband and I, our two-year-old daughter, our golden retriever, and our two cats moved to Mexico where we had accepted positions with a nonprofit organization in Tecate. It was an adventure that enriched our lives and influenced who we are today. In our reading this week, I began to wonder how those four years in Mexico are showing up in my current leadership style.
Peter Northouse’s Foundational Leadership Handbook
In his book, Leadership: Theory and Practice, Peter Northouse, Professor Emeritus of Communication at Western Michigan University, provides an exploration of how leadership theory can inform and direct the way leadership is practiced in real-word organizations. Describing a variety of leadership models, Northouse provides readers with the most up-to-date leadership practices, continually updating his book with new theories and insights. In a 2010 interview with his publisher, he said, “When I revise…Leadership: Theory and Practice, what I do is take a look at what’s going on in the field, I take a look at what the research says, and then add a chapter on what I think is the cutting edge of where…leadership is going.” This foundational work can be considered the bible of leadership theories and has provided practical, clear, and concise information for leaders around the world for over twenty-five years.
Culture and Leadership: A Focus on Mexico
In addition to his focus on individual leadership models, Northouse includes several additional elements which apply to all leadership theories. His chapter entitled “Culture and Leadership” caught my attention. Northouse states, “Globalization has created a need to understand how cultural differences affect leadership performance.” In this section, he summarizes the results of the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) Study, initiated to “increase understanding of cross-cultural interactions and the impact of culture on leadership effectiveness.” The findings were used to create a list of nine cultural dimensions as they are perceived in ten geographic cultural clusters. I set out to learn what they reported on leadership styles in Mexico.
According to the GLOBE study, Mexico is part of the Latin America cluster. Countries in this cluster tend to be loyal and devoted to their extended families, but less interested in institutional groups and performance goals. Interestingly, the Anglo cluster, of which the U.S. is a part, tends to be competitive and results-oriented, performance-driven, and less attached to extended family.
These findings reminded me of Erin Meyer’s insights in The Culture Map. She described people in Mexico as high-context communicators, compared to Americans, who are low-context communicators. In addition, Meyer noted that people in Mexico are not comfortable disagreeing openly with others, especially in the workplace, and Americans tend to be more confrontational and comfortable with open disagreement.
I began thinking back on the lessons I learned from my Mexican friends and neighbors. These were not necessarily lessons directed at leadership, but wisdom I observed living within the Mexican culture, woven into who I am today and reflected in my leadership style. As I began to list my gleanings, I realized that they all are rooted in relationships.
Small Incidents with Large Ramifications
In my first week on the job in Mexico, I was surprised by the way people greeted each other. They offered the familiar, “Hello, how are you?” but as I replied with, “Good, how are you?” and continued walking, I noticed they were stopped, waiting for conversation. I quickly understood that every greeting is an opportunity for meaningful communication. My family became used to this greeting routine and when we returned to the States, we stopped to talk, out of habit, but our American peers raced on to their next appointment. I readjusted quickly, but I miss those conversations and a slower-paced life. In my leadership, I think my focus on people over tasks stems in part from my observation of valuing individuals over a schedule, a project, or a need to be busy.
One of my jobs in Tecate was to act as a liaison between workgroups coming from the U.S. to work alongside congregations in Mexico. An invaluable lesson came from a pastor who told me that his church members were quite skilled at constructing new buildings, painting walls, and renovating homes. They did not need Americans to bring them these talents. He added, “The one thing you can bring, though, that no one else can bring, is your story. Tell us what God is doing in your life and your country. That is the one unique thing we can offer each other.” That was powerful. I think that might be why “valuing each person’s story” is one of our core values at my current workplace. In sharing our story, we offer a vulnerable and memorable piece of ourselves to others that has the power to transform lives around us. In listening to people’s stories, we offer them dignity and gain a better understanding of who they are and why they do what they do.
Looking back, I wonder why we kept organizing work trips for Americans to “complete a project for” congregations in Mexico. Why did we not organize opportunities focused around sharing stories? Perhaps, it was because the Americans were task-oriented and the Mexicans did not want to openly tell us they disagreed with our approach. They were much more subtle. Maybe, we needed a lower-context message.
Family is prioritized in Mexico. Parents pulled their kids from school for weeks to go and visit their grandparents. No one thought anything of the student falling behind in their classes, because it would have been more egregious to let your relationship with your grandmother lag.
One of the greatest gifts for my family was that our kids were welcome everywhere. My daughter and son (born during our time in Mexico) were alongside us as we worked in the classroom, taught P.E., and led orientations on the construction site. I think this model of prioritizing family, particularly in the workplace, has caused me to be more sensitive and creative in the policies developed for my current team. Kids are always welcome at our meetings and walking meetings, in which our teammates’ children can play on a nearby playground, are encouraged. We are fortunate to have the flexibility to build this working climate.
The Mexican culture emphasizes individuals over tasks in a way I have not seen lived out consistently in the United States. I am reminded of Simon Walker’s idea that assuredness of your own self-worth comes through meaningful relationships and self-assured leaders relay confidence and freedom to their teammates. Perhaps the Mexican culture possesses an important key in developing healthy communities and leaders.
I am grateful to God for the years in which my family lived in Tecate and for the deep education we gained around valuing people and prioritizing relationships. Until this week, I had not contemplated how our time in Mexico contributed to the development of my leadership style, but this reflection has shown me that it has impacted me in lasting ways. It is interesting how the experiences of our lives shape the people we become.
 Peter G. Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice, Seventh Edition (Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2016), xvii.
 “Peter Northouse Discusses Leadership: Theory and Practice, Fifth Edition,” https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=S3eWfH0_Cb8.
 Sergio Caredda, “Book Review: Leadership: Theory and Practice by Peter G. Northouse,” September 21, 2020, Sergio Caredda: Insights on Work, Organization Design, Experience, Leadership, and Change, https://sergiocaredda.eu/inspiration/books/book-review-leadership-theory-and-practice-by-peter-g-northouse/.
 Northouse, 427.
 Northouse, 431.
 James A. Martinez, “Leadership: Theory and Practice by Peter G. Northouse: A Book Review,” Journal of Educational Administration, January 2014, Vol. 52 No. 1, 139-142, https://doi.org/10.1108/JEA-08-2013-0093. The nine cultural dimensions included categories such as uncertainty avoidance, gender egalitarianism, assertiveness, and humane orientation.
 Northouse, 438.
 Northouse, 437.
 Erin Meyer, The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2014), 39.
 Meyer, 214.
 Simon Walker, Leading Out of Who You Are, Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions Ltd, 2007), 102.
6 responses to “The People We Become: Reflections from Tecate, Mexico”
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I kid you not, when I read this “Interestingly, the Anglo cluster, of which the U.S. is a part, tends to be competitive and results-oriented…” I thought to myself, “Oh, I should mention Erin Meyer!” And then you brought her work up in the very next sentence! So funny.
I am moved by what you wrote about the high results-oriented Americans being so focused on doing the work (which the locals could’ve done themselves) instead of building relationship and sharing stories. This makes me think of the book “When Helping Hurts.” Have you read that by chance? In reading your blog, it seemed like you would be familiar.
You have, once again, got me thinking Jenny. Thank you!
Hi David, Thanks for reading and for your comments. I had totally forgotten about “When Helping Hurts!” Our youth pastor recommended it a few years ago and had everyone on the mission team read and discuss it. Such a valuable perspective. Appreciate the way you interact with all of the blogs and bring new insights!
Awesome post, Jenny! I love how you brought in Meyer and low and high-context communication. Your example of the conversation opportunity really made me think about our current culture and how we often casually say all the right things in greetings but how often do we really see or use each interaction for meaningful communication. Or better yet, as a way to offer some sort of spiritual encouragement or listen for a spiritual call coming from the individual. I know I am guilty of being polite but also moving back on to my own agenda and not always taking the proper time to seize a moment. It sounds like the Mexican experience for you was extremely beneficial. Thank you for weaving it through a great analysis of Norton and others.
I like how you share this about the author:
“In a 2010 interview with his publisher, he said, “When I revise…Leadership: Theory and Practice, what I do is take a look at what’s going on in the field, I take a look at what the research says, and then add a chapter on what I think is the cutting edge of where…leadership is going.”
I love that you have taken this from your four years in Mexico:
“In my leadership, I think my focus on people over tasks stems in part from my observation of valuing individuals over a schedule, a project, or a need to be busy” Giving people your time and attention is a powerful thing.
Great job weaving this in:
“Simon Walker’s idea that assuredness of your own self-worth comes through meaningful relationships and self-assured leaders relay confidence and freedom to their teammates”
I enjoyed learning what you learned while in Mexico.
Did you have your children while in Mexico. You and your husband were very committed to your service and the people there.
It is wonderful to see how this assignment allowed you the opportunity to recognize your leadership growth from your experience in Mexico.
I enjoyed your post!
Jenny – Your personalization of this complex topic was so wonderful to read. I also long for more opportunities to simply share stories with one another. So much healing, insight and wisdom comes from sharing and listening to stories. How might you incorporate this important aspect into your NPO?
Jenny, thank you for sharing such an excellent post. You shared a great number of resources and surely our stories make a difference in how we lead. I can’t agree more “It is interesting how the experiences of our lives shape the people we become.”