I grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania, not far from Penn State’s main campus. If/when you have traveled to University Park, you may have passed through my hometown, or you certainly have been in one like it. For the pure fact of getting to the point, I did not grow up in a racially or culturally diverse community. Growing up in the late 1980’s to 90’s, one would be hard-pressed to find an individual different from themselves in my sheltered town. Current US Census data estimates my town to be made up of a 95% white population (QuickFacts 2020). Those numbers were less diverse in my youth. I, however, had one advantage over my peers regarding exposure to different cultures. My father was born and raised in the Bronx, NY. Half of my family resided there, and we would go visit them often. Diverse cultural experiences were abundant in the late 80’s, early 90’s, in the projects of NYC for a sheltered white kid from Central PA. These trips to the Big Apple opened my eyes to different cultures and experiences. These are memories I still carry to this day. Furthermore, attending Penn State in the early 2000’s as an undergrad, my exposure to other cultures was at a minimum. The school itself had a student population of over 75% white students (Enrollment 2020). My own ethnocentrism kept me from learning from the other 25%. Ethnocentrism is the “tendency for individuals to place their own group at the center of their observations of others and the world” (Northouse, 2016, p.428). I never allowed myself to recognize the perspectives of others.
How does this all relate to leadership? Upon graduating from Penn State with a Turfgrass Science degree, my first job led me to New Jersey, just outside of NYC. I accepted a low to middle manager position on a golf course maintenance team at a private country club. My very first day on the job, I found myself managing a small crew that spoke little to no English. The maintenance staff at this golf course was comprised mostly of Hispanic men from Central and South America. In addition to the language barrier that I experienced, the cultural differences of managing people older than me and ones from different countries presented an immediate challenge. Needless to say, based on my background this challenge proved to be difficult for me for the first few years of management. I went on to manage multicultural teams for over 13 years and had to adjust my leadership style to match.
What important lessons did I take away from those 13 years? This can be found in what Northouse describes as dimensions of culture, and more specifically, the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) research program discussed on pages 431-52 (2016). GLOBE identified nine cultural dimensions in their studies. Two of these were important for me while managing my multicultural team. In-group collectivism and performance orientation were the two that affected my daily life. In fact, it is the difference in the two that made my job difficult. In-group collectivism refers to “the degree to which people express pride, loyalty, and cohesiveness in their organizations or families” (Northouse, 2016, p.432). With my Hispanic employees the regard to which they loved their families and friends trump that of their love for work. Performance orientation describes “the extent to which an organization or a society encourages and rewards group members for improved performance and excellence” (2016, p.434). This was my cultural dimension. I was a young manager, looking to make a name for myself, so I put performance above everything. Why these contradicting dimensions challenged me can be found in GLOBE’s study of “cultural clusters” and cultural dimensions. People from various regions around the world respond to different cultural dimensions (Northouse 2016). It just so happens that Hispanic people from Latin America scored the opposite of those in the Anglo cluster of people from Canada, the US, Australia, England, etc.
Did my sheltered upbringing lead to a steep learning curve during my early career? It definitely didn’t flatten that curve. I am thankful for those early years, learning from my multicultural staff members. Many of them are friends to this day. They taught me more than I ever taught them. I learned to open my mind and respect other people’s ways of life. I am fortunate that I received that opportunity, and it has made me a better person because of it. That experience helped me through the rest of my career in leadership positions, where I can now adapt my leadership style to fit a specific follower’s needs or culture.
“Enrollment by Race/Ethnicity”. Penn State Fact Book. Office of Planning and Assessment. Retrieved from: https://factbook.psu.edu/factbook/StudentDynamic/HistoricalMinorityEnrolByEthnicityPercent.aspx?YearCode=2019&FBPlusIndc=N
Northouse, Peter G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
“QuickFacts: Mifflin County, PA”. U.S. Census Bureau website 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/mifflincountypennsylvania.