Many people have come to believe that leadership is about changing the world and only rare individuals with the right skill, talent, position, and experience can accomplish it. Not true. As a boy, my mother taught me that leadership was within my reach. She explained that God’s plan for me was extraordinary. All I had to do was step forward and take responsibility when a transformational moment emerged.

This discussion about leadership juxtaposed against a hot, dusty day near Lamont, California. As we worked in an agricultural field picking onions, my 10-year-old body pulled, cut, dragged, and lifted crops. Taking my place as part of the more than three million migrant workers harvesting our nation’s produce, I felt tired.

In that soul-draining place, however, my mother and I quietly discussed the plans of God. She shared His promises, reminded me of my responsibilities, and outlined the dangers of living outside of His shadow. Unhindered by a slight language barrier, she planted seeds of leadership in ways I did not fully appreciate. She often cemented her arguments with Bible verses and a barrage of proverbs or dichos.

Shrimp Leadership

In the Latino culture, dichos act as insight vitamins that ensure the transference of rules-to-live-by to the next generation. In a few carefully crafted “sticky” words, a message, value, or belief is delivered—giving meaning and purpose to family history and present-day struggles.

The dicho “el camaron que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente” made many appearances throughout my upbringing. Translated it can seem confusing. “A sleeping shrimp will be swept away by the current.” The message, however, is clear. Never stop growing, otherwise the waves of change will seem overwhelming. It’s roughly the English equivalent of “you snooze; you lose.”

In those dust-filled humble moments, my mother stepped into her leadership role and spoke truth about tenacity.

In those dust-filled humble moments, my mother stepped into her leadership role and spoke truth about tenacity (Prov 6:10-11). As a result, continual growth became part of my regular practice. Although I was an underperforming student, I learned never to stop trying. I managed to graduate from high school with a seventh-grade education, went to college and almost failed twice, but I kept going. I went onto graduate school—Dallas Theological Seminary—where my education finally got traction.

The end of the line, however, did not only include receiving a degree or participating in academic graduation. That shrimp dicho reminded me that the benefits of an education would fade. To extend the shelf life of knowledge would require continual learning. A daily practice to rediscover how God’s truth might advance the cause of transformation became the norm (Titus 1:9).

Looking back I can see that my mother passed on a form of leadership that included the relentless pursuit of “what’s next?” in four focus areas. I came to these after mulling over her dichos and reading countless books and articles on the topic of leading.

1. Skill Building

Con esperanza no se come (with hope you don’t eat) means that leadership requires action, not just hope.

Introduced in 1982, the Commodore 64 was one of the first affordable personal state-of-the-art computers selling for about $600 ($1,500 today). When my brother and I went to the store to learn more, the salesman worked hard to convince us not to waste our money. He reminded us of the high price and told us that businesses only needed computers. However, I had experienced firsthand how computers had revolutionized the hospital where I worked. We took the risk and purchased one because we believed that they would change the future.

I also trusted that one day I would use the device at an unknown job. So, I challenged myself to stay proficient. Technology is one of the many skills I continue to develop. From PowerPoint to Acrobat, I work to expand my skills to get faster and more efficient (Col 1:10). The regular practice of continual growth is anchored by the dicho that reminds me to give my dreams and aspirations legs.

2. Talent Strengthening

Al que nace para tamal, del cielo le caen las hojas (if you were born to be a tamale, the leaves will fall from the sky) means that your talent or the giftedness that God has given you, will open opportunities.

On a remote highway in central Michigan, at around 3 am, the electrical systems of our car shut down. No lights, the engine stopped, it all went dark, and I quickly went into repair mode. Eight members of my family waited in the car. I analyzed the situation and determined that the belt to the generator had torn off and our battery had completely drained. In MacGyver mode, I reconfigured the remaining engine belts and created jumper cables out of an extension cord. In short order, we continued our journey. Soaking wet, but proud, I had figured out a solution and protected my family. I was only twelve years old.

Your talent or the giftedness that God has given you, will open opportunities.

God has given me the talent to see solutions to problems and to put ideas and research together in ways that result in new paths. As a professional, I have worked to hone these hardwired talents into my personality and brain. Again, even the most talented individuals achieve excellence only through sustained effort. Today, I spend a significant amount of time modifying tools and processes using Six Sigma and infusing them into our organizational culture. It’s what God created me to do (Ex 35:10). The regular practice of understanding and developing my natural abilities is anchored by the dicho that reminds me to look for opportunities to live out my God-given talents.

3. Influencing

Con dinero baila el perro (with money the dog dances) means you can attain action with the right motivations.

As a teenager, I never felt adequate to lead a group, but I always managed to convince a small band of misfits to try new things. I had a “posse” in tow. We got jobs, went rattlesnake hunting (it’s a Texas thing), and went to church together. We moved as a unit through high school, and I remained active in persuading the group towards our next adventure. Influencing others became part of my ongoing journey as a leader. There is not a day that passes that I am not thinking about inspiring a team and how to influence community leaders.

Influencing people is critical to leadership and has nothing to do with authority, position, or titles. An inability to invite and inspire the actions of others will lead to a powerless to effect change. An individual who cannot inspire change is not a leader (Matt 5:13-16). The regular practice of influencing others is anchored by the dicho that reminds me to understand people and how God created them so that I can help inspire them towards achievement.

4. Wisdom and Self-Awareness

Cada uno sabe donde le aprieta el zapato (each one knows where their shoe hurts) means everyone knows their weaknesses, and we can be one of our best advisors if we pay attention to ourselves.

During a week of church camp, I broke away from our group and found a quiet place to think. I sat at the farthest edge of a dock to do business with myself and with God. As my feet made occasional contact with the water, I planned out my dreams and made commitments to accomplish them. I sat there for hours. One of the leaders found me and asked if anything was wrong. Confused, I said, “No.” What he failed to see was that there is significant value in self-reflection and in uncovering lessons from experiences through practicing mindfulness. Throughout the year, I look for moments to deepen my self-awareness and understanding of why things worked or failed.

The practice of going away to think, reinforces character and leads to uncovering new and even revolutionary solutions.

We live in a culture that places us on teams, groups, and collaborations, but rarely invites us to break away to solitary places to contemplate. Research has consistently proven that bursts of creativity and breakthroughs emerge when individuals participate in study breaks. The practice of going away to think, reinforces character and leads to uncovering new and even revolutionary solutions. There is an enormous benefit in being still and silent before God (Psalm 46:10).

Measuring Leadership

Leadership is not only measured by the impact it makes; it is a journey that calls us to action every day—this was the lesson my mother unpacked as we worked on monotonous tasks. She led me into the extraordinary, to live out the calling of my faith, and not allow the relentless tides of mediocrity or the circumstances of my life, wash me away like a shrimp. In many ways, my mother challenged me to fight towards progress and to become the leader that I was designed to be, so I worked, learned, and contemplated. I took my place as a leader, and my journey started on the crop fields of California.

What skills are you working on?  What are your talents and how are you strengthening them?
How are you developing your influencing ability? Are you practicing contemplation?

Start today, remember, “el camaron que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente.

About the Contributors

Jorge Perez

Jorge Perez (MACE, 1992) is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader, CEO, manager, and director of large complex organizations. He’s an accomplished strategic thinker, program innovator, fundraiser, and mission champion. Currently, Jorge serves as the president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati and has served Ys in Dallas, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Southwest Illinois, and YMCA of the USA. Jorge (a native Texan) and his wife Amy have two daughters: Olivia and Isabel.