America's Leadership Must Reclaim the Immigrant Perspective to Grow and Compete in the 21st Century

A recent Fast Company article revealed that "a third of venture-backed companies that went public between 2006 and 2012 had at least one immigrant founder at the helm." The article further states that "immigrant leaders are more than twice as likely to found businesses as their native-born counterparts and are responsible for more than 25% of all new business creation and related job growth." Time magazine also brings an important point to mind: that "immigrants are the difference between an economy growing at a healthy 3% rate and a sluggish 2%." As such, they state that "opponents of immigration reform are hampering the economy -- and hurting all of us."

Robert Reich, a political economist, commentator, professor and author, recently launched a video that dispels several myths surrounding the contributions and value of immigrant populations in America -- claiming that immigration reform would save the U.S. economy. A 2011 study from a Partnership for a New American Economy stated that immigrants, or the children of immigrants, founded 40 percent of this country's Fortune 500 firms and potentially millions of smaller businesses. Their latest report, "Immigration and the Revival of American Cities," quantifies the impact of immigration, stating that "the more than 40 million immigrants currently in the U.S. have created or preserved 1.8 million manufacturing jobs nationally" -- confirming that immigration helps drive economic growth, lifts the housing market, and breathes new life into declining communities across the country.

If these and many other reliable sources continue to prove that immigrants or children of immigrants enable economic growth and global competitiveness, then why is America so resistant to immigration reform, choosing to look at the issue solely as a problem rather than seeing the opportunity?

In a 2012 Harvard Business Review blog titled "Adopt an Immigrant Mindset to Advance Your Career," I revealed six characteristics that define the natural ways an immigrant's cultural values enable great leadership behavior. To know your diverse employees and consumers -- so that you can increase productivity and sales respectively -- you must understand how these characteristics shape their mindset, how they think and how they behave. They are:

  • Look for Opportunities Everywhere
  • Stay on Your Toes, Anticipate the Unexpected
  • Unleash Your Passionate Pursuits
  • Live With an Entrepreneurial Attitude
  • Work With a Generous Purpose
  • Focus on Leaving a Lasting Legacy

Being an effective leader in the 21st century requires the skills, capabilities and competencies that are embedded in each of these six traits. My organization has trained senior executives in America's corporations to apply these characteristics and the results speak for themselves: increased engagement (+50 percent), self-confidence/trust (+43 percent), retention (+39 percent) and contribution to innovation (+35 percent), just to name few.

We have shown time and again that when people embrace their heritage and cultural values as sources of strength, they become more authentic leaders. They begin to connect the dots between the unique differences yet common values of immigrants that made America great and the role of diversity as an economic enabler.

Just think of the possibilities if the immigrant mentality was awakened throughout America once again. Not only would we be more willing to embrace new immigrant populations, but even more it would inspire us all to reconnect with our heritage and the cultural values that enable us to think, act and innovate most authentically. But first we need to step back and think of what the original immigrants brought to America and how their hunger for a better life fed their willingness to fight for opportunity and sustainable solutions.

Unfortunately, most people in America don't pay much attention to their heritage. They have quickly forgotten that we are all connected directly or indirectly to the power of the immigrant perspective, which I define as follows:

Like an immigrant who comes to a new country with nothing but faith, hope and love -- we must not have myopia where opportunities are concerned. We must see opportunity everywhere, every day and make the most of those that cross our path. Many times they are opportunities that others don't see.

I am not suggesting that we start a separatist movement. To the contrary, I am encouraging all of us to become more educated about our cultural roots, because when we do we'll discover that we all share many common threads that should unite us, not divide us. The word "immigrant" must become valued and respected for the many ways that immigrants have contributed to American innovation, and how that same mentality will once again reinvent America. By focusing our training on the six characteristics, what they each mean and how they help build great leadership, we are simultaneously countering misrepresentations, stereotypes and negative political connotations -- as we enable leaders to organically discover the immigrant perspective as a great source of strength and opportunity.

Everyone wants opportunity. But in order to see and seize it we must find new ways to forge trust and work together again. To do this, we must begin to accept the rapid demographic shift that is upon us -- 54 percent of the country will be minority by 2050 -- and awaken to the great opportunity it represents. America's increasing diversity is a resource that can be tapped to stimulate economic growth. Yet people continue to interpret diversity through the lens of "race relations" rather than find ways to transition our societal melting pot into an economic mosaic for global competitiveness. This is a change management effort in which culture must become the new currency for growth and innovation.

Changing the conversation from one of misrepresented stereotypes to one where we recognize the immigrant perspective as a catalyst for growth will strengthen our global competitiveness, prepare organizations for worldwide market expansion, and enable us to innovate and create the best new products and services. As the country and the business world move to accept our new demographic landscape and the inherent socio-economic, cultural, workplace and other changes that will come with it, one simple fact can no longer be ignored: America is being reinvented by immigrants once again.

Neither can the fact that we are experiencing a major leadership meltdown. From the boardroom to the campaign trail, some of America's most influential leaders, are uncomfortable -- and uncompromising -- when it comes to this demographic shift. They are uncertain about how to lead because they have not taken the time to understand the cultural nuances associated with these budding immigrant populations emerging -- not just from across the border -- but from all over the world.

If America is indeed the land of opportunity, we must become more open-minded and allow these new, tech-savvy, STEM-educated, entrepreneurial-driven, socially-conscious, globally-minded immigrants to unleash their passionate pursuits. They will not only drive economic growth and innovation in America -- but inspire us all to reconnect with our own immigrant past and the cultural values that made America great.

Until then, America's global competitiveness ranking will continue to drop. We have lost our game. We have lost focus on those things that really matter. We need to stop protecting old-school domains that have lost their relevancy and focus on giving the next generation the opportunity to thrive. Instead of squabbling about issues that only make us weaker, we must enable our resources to their fullest by leveraging our country's advanced infrastructure for economic growth and competitiveness.

Let's stop judging people based on what they look like and start valuing people -- regardless of rank or race -- for what they are capable of delivering. Let's begin to accept the new, more cosmopolitan, less vanilla America in all its many flavors. Let's begin to think of Hispanics, Asians, Indians, African-Americans, Europeans, the LGBT community and all other diverse groups and immigrant populations as powerful sources of strength to help us:

Our leaders must recognize the new normal -- that culture is the new currency for growth -- and that we are stronger when we find ways to work together rather than looking for reasons not to.

Are we ready for 21st century leadership that embraces the values of the immigrant perspective? Or will we continue the slow weakening of America's global competitiveness because we fail to accept that the old ways of doing things are no longer relevant?

The choice is ours.