Hammering Home 3 Leadership Lessons in Mexico

It’s not always easy to learn the lessons you need for leadership, and it can be even harder to teach them. To really drive home the key points, sometimes you have to use a hammer. Or a saw. Or a paint brush.

Last weekend I spent a few days on an annual trip to Tijuana, Mexico, helping build houses for families in need. And, as always, the trip was a lab for experiencing some of the most valuable lessons of leadership.

The trip was organized by Colorado Uplift, a non-profit that connects mentors to more than 5,000 students from some of the toughest neighborhoods in Denver. The organization has been around for more than 35 years, and I am the chairman of the board. We bring along approximately 70 kids from Denver’s inner city so they can experience what it means to love others and give of their talents to make a difference.

Many of these kids have parents who have been incarcerated. Many have parents who are on drugs. And they all are in need of relationships with others who can steer them clear of life’s darkest side.

The trip gives them an opportunity to spend time with mentors, serve others who are in need, and see the world from a different perspective. It’s the first time most of them have ever flown on a plane or left the country, let alone left the inner city. And we ask them to raise $500 (to go along with our contribution) to pay their way. That’s tough, but it ensures they have skin in the game.

Our mission is to teach them things they can’t learn at home, like character qualities and leadership skills for success. We’re only there for a couple of days, but we all learn some tremendous leadership lessons from the experience. There are three that jumped out at me during our recent trip and that I hope the students took home with them.

It starts with the heart.

Leadership is about serving others, not yourself. None of us know the family we are helping when we arrive. We meet them at the job site and develop an affinity for them while we are there. But we will likely never see them again. Yet we are called to be excellent in all of our work. We are called to be servants and work passionately at everything we do. Not for the benefit of ourselves, but for the benefit of others. Great leaders recognize and apply themselves to the human side of what they do.

Teams work together and are responsible to each other

It takes 20 people two days to build one house. Each of the 20 must be productive or the group won’t finish on time. A good team member demonstrates integrity and respect. It’s imperative that everyone communicate where they are and be transparent with one another. When you finish your project, it’s critical that you tell your supervisor so you can get put on something else. In doing so, you show you respect the work your teammates are doing. It’s the ultimate in team building and selflessness.

The value of trust

Many of these kids don’t grow up with trust. They are taught to trust no one in their dog-eat-dog world. In my view, good teams can’t operate without trust. Teams that don’t trust work in silos. And the pieces never fit together well in the end. Lots of things have to come together to build a home. Some build trusses, some paint, some erect walls, and some hammer shingles on the roof. The most interesting thing is that all of the pieces are critical path items. If one thing isn’t finished on time, it effects the overall productivity of the project. Everyone else suffers. So trust is really important in getting the house done on time and goes hand in hand with the responsibility lesson above.

At the end of the day, the trip was an awesome opportunity to teach kids great leadership lessons, real time.

They experience the value of leading with the heart by recognizing the human side of what they are doing. And they experience the value of good teamwork and the importance of trust in accomplishing something truly great and rewarding. What an awesome experience!

So who are the leaders you are helping build?

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