Recent studies show companies that invest in leadership training enjoy a remarkable 25% increase in organizational outcomes. But would you be surprised to learn that figure significantly increases when leadership training extends to employees outside the management tiers?
While history best remembers Cesar Chavez as the civil rights activist who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association—which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW)—and fought tirelessly for fair wages, better treatment and safer working conditions, he was also one of the first to create a movement fueled by the belief that leadership training is important for everyone.
A Brief History. Born on March 31, 1927 to immigrant parents, Chavez spent much of his childhood traveling from farm to farm, picking crops, and attending school intermittently. During his 8th grade year, the United States and Mexico signed the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican laborers to enter the U.S. as temporary workers to mitigate labor shortages due to World War II. The program, however, became a way for corporate farms to exploit workers by lowering their wages and subjecting them to dangerous working environments and unsanitary living conditions. Chavez’s family suffered under this mistreatment, and at the end of the school year, Chavez dropped out of school and went to work full-time in the fields to support his family.
In 1952, Chavez joined the Community Service Organization (CSO), a group that advocated for Latino civil rights. Very quickly, leaders within the organization noticed Chavez’s natural ability to motivate others to action, and they began training him as a future leader. Chavez spent 10 years working for CSO but believed focusing his advocacy on Latino rights fell short of addressing the wide spectrum of injustices faced by migrant farming families like his own. On his birthday in 1962, Chavez resigned from CSO, moved with his family to the heart of the migrant farming population in California’s Central Valley and founded the National Farm Workers Association (later merged into United Farm Workers of America).
A Core Belief. During his years with the CSO, Chavez observed that people who received leadership training enjoyed higher confidence, were more productive, and worked better together—whether they led in any formalized capacity. Believing that open access to leadership training could make the difference between the movement’s success or failure, Chavez immediately established the NFWA Leadership Training Program, which was available to any NFWA member, regardless of educational level or previous leadership experience. The Program taught its students how to listen effectively, communicate clearly, organize others, and work collaboratively, even across differences.
One of the key goals of the program was to help farm workers develop the skills and confidence to create effective and forward change within their communities. Chavez developed a comprehensive mentoring program where farm workers could learn from one another and also come together in workshops to study real-life scenarios and their outcomes.
To create opportunities for his students to practice their leadership skills, Chavez gave members of the NFWA a voice in the organization, welcoming debate and community-style discourse during decision making meetings. In 1966, he established the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), which formalized this process, and taught students how to form teams to work toward a common goal within the larger organization.
In spite of the difficulties of organizing a largely uneducated, marginalized workforce, strong opposition from commercial growers, and limited financial means, the NFWA successfully advocated for farmworkers’ rights, changing the landscape of poverty and discrimination that migrant farm workers had endured for decades. Chavez’s belief that leadership is a way of thinking, rather than a formalized position, continues to influence advocacy groups today. But we, as business leaders, should also learn from his example. Recently, the Global Leadership Forecast reported that companies that approach leadership training from an inclusive model were 4.2 times more likely to financially outperform those who confine leadership training opportunities to management positions—a statistic that wouldn’t have surprised Chavez at all.
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