A mere thirty years ago, I spent a semester at El Tecnológico de Monterrey as an exchange student. I lived in the dorm with a wonderful roommate from Chihuahua, watched telenovelas (Mexican soap operas) and even was a college athlete. “El Tec” was probably one of the few locations in North America where the coach wouldn’t double over in giggles while clocking my splits. They needed another female willing to run the 3K event back then so I fit the bill!
This past weekend, I reran this memory lane while getting to teach dialogue to Tec students in the town of Torreón during their annual leadership conference. I was transported back as I overheard students talking of movies and majors and hearing cheers as students represented proudly their respective states. I basked in typically fabulous Mexican hospitality and was young again.
But all was not the same. My husband will not be pleased to know that as I jogged around campus for old times sake while black-clad police men with machine guns watched me and fellow runners from a nearby hospital rooftop. We learned that a gang-related altercation had criminals in recovering in that building and a dozen police, some in face masks, were stationed there on high alert. And Monterrey of the state Nuevo Leon, a once sleepy town where I safely ran in its surrounding hills with my fellow track mates, is now nicknamed “Monterror de Nuevo Miedo (Fear).”
While waiting for buses loaded with 130+ students in the vineyard-rich town of Parras, I stared out a car window at a lush grove surrounded by a concrete wall. Suddenly a single thirty-foot tall tree you see on the corner in the photo below began to quickly shake making the leaves blur. Is there a wind storm? No, it was completely calm and just one tree moved. Earthquake? That didn’t make sense, and I felt that disorienting feeling that came on most clearly when I watched the smoke coming out of the World Trade Tower after the first plane had entered. I couldn’t find a contextual framework. “Can not process…can not process,” my brain stuttered watching that tree.
A fellow passenger came to my aid – “That’s a nut tree. To harvest nuts, they have attached a band around the tree’s base, attach a motor that shakes the fruit free.”
The tree incident became a metaphor through the weekend. As we dialogued informally and with the students in groups, we all seemed to be wrestling with how the country could have been shaken so quickly and thoroughly. I heard stories of friends who now dive under tables in restaurants when hearing loud noises. Teenagers lamented how children now can’t play outside as they had. This is not the Mexico of my young adulthood, or even the one I last visited five years ago.
Like my fellow car mate who gave me a nut harvest tutorial, leaders often appear to reorient us. They can provide a great service as they provide a greater context. However, these are vulnerable times when we are hungry for answers and thus willing to abdicate personal agency – e.g. post WWI Germany and Hitler’s success.
The leadership’s responsibility is at its heaviest when called to reorient others. We must consider in these circumstances, how can I be careful with my communications when in care of another’s reality? Are the statistics I am using are truly facts? Is my answer empowering or enslaving another?
At the end of the conference, we listened to a well-known Mexican political analyst Dr. Denise Dresser. I hear “call to action” speeches often as a professor and consultant, and hers was one of the best I have witnessed.
As she “called things by their true names,” she described a country controlled by monopolies and oligopolies. She spoke of the lack of consumer choice in basic areas of phone, energy, food and media. She shared bleak and overwhelming facts.
After her compelling painting of Mexico’s present, Dr. Dresser had a choice. Once described, Dresser could call forth more fear and hopelessness and for us to follow her advice. But instead, she took a positive assets-based approach and used three leadership techniques.
1) Share what is working – Dresser reminded her audience of the enduring Mexican culture is with a litany of its unique gifts. This is a country of riches that are not just found in natural resources. She had me at “los libros de Elena Poniatowska” and “mangos con chile,” and, teary with nostalgia by “visiting any town’s central plaza on a Sunday afternoon.” Mexico snuggled into my heart when I was a teenager and never left.
2) Articulate an empowering vision – In a call to action, Dresser developed a future of possibility. She spoke of Mexico containing options for both a consumer and the voter. Dresser then shared how the government is paid for by the people and each can call for transparency and accountability.
3) Believe in the Whole — When asked why she didn’t run for office, Dr. Dresser, who preferred to be called Denise, responded she wanted to stand at the side of the people. She didn’t want to leave that position, and encouraged us to look for creative solutions to resolve these issues. She believes in the whole. The organizers of the Tec leadership conference mirrored this belief as they trained the students in dialogue. They then encouraged the participants to create circles of interested students across the country to consider deeply the tough issues confronting not only Mexico but also the world.
I left Mexico heartened by those I met and the dialogue I witnessed. These are tough times, but after meeting the students and staff, these are also outstanding individuals empowered to look for solutions. It was a call for me to keep asking: How are my words stopping fear’s motor and reminding others of their healthy roots? How can I keep aligning with the best and the greater whole to bring innovative solutions into form? And to keep cheering…Go Tec!