What does leadership performance have to do with ‘tiger does not eat tiger’? This is a Spanish American aphorism – ‘tigre no come tigre’. Early 15th century Spanish explorers called the jaguar ‘tigre’, but as there are no tigers in the Americas, a more accurate translation would be ‘jaguar does not eat jaguar’.
I first heard the expression from a president of a very large engineering firm describing how he secured his governments’ favor to win an international rural development contract. The meta-message became clear: ‘we are from the same tribe … we will hang together and exclude others’.
Languages are inclusive and exclusive by nature depending on how and what we say, our accents, inflections, vocabulary, rhythms, etc. And frequently by what is left unsaid! Languages reflect the history, experience, geography, culture, and values of a people. One group of Amazon Indians uses 17 different words describing the color green. Frequently words say one thing but may mean another. Imagine the conundrum for English learners: “only in English do you park on a driveway, and drive on a parkway”.
The 2010-12 American Community Survey estimates 60.6 million Americans, roughly one out of five, speak a language other than English at home. Of these, 35.5 million also spoke English well enough to be considered bilingual. This is not so say that bilinguals are bicultural, an important distinction involving active participation in another culture.
With the increase of bilingual Americans come some interesting advantages. For instance, Dr. Ellen Bailystock, a distinguished cognitive neuroscientist, discovered that bilingual’s process language in a different manner using a different brain rewiring, allowing better prioritization of relevant information – an executive control function. A recent article in The Economist [11/11/13] joined the debate, questioning whether different languages confer different personalities, leaving the issue unresolved.
It is expected that the rate of demographic change of the American workforce will increase over the 21st century. Hispanics are now the fastest growing population segment, but the melting pot is full with immigrants from non-European countries. Leadership skilled in working across cultures, whether at home or competing in the global marketplace is increasingly imperative.
Leading in this ‘new America’ will require emotional agility, flexibility, cultural diversity, and above all good communication skills. The good news is that these are all learnable social skills. The global village is ever more complex. Effective leaders don’t try to escape their inner uncertainties. Rather, they develop an ability to listen with another ear, identifying differences and similarities, and responding with a values-driven performance … so as not to be eaten by the tiger.