Marco Aponte-Moreno - Immigration as a Leadership Crucible

Global & Culturally Diverse Leadership in the 21st Century
Immigration as a Leadership Crucible

By Marco Aponte-Moreno with Epilogue by Jean Lau Chin and Joseph E. Trimble

Marco Aponte-MorenoMarco Aponte-Moreno, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Global Business at Saint Mary’s College of California. His research focuses on global leadership. He also researches the role of the arts in leadership development. He graduated from the University of Paris (Sorbonne) and received his PhD at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has also written extensively about the crisis in Venezuela, his native country.


Joseph E. TrimbleJoseph E. Trimble, PhD, is Distinguished University Professor, Department of Psychology; and Research Associate, Center for Cross-Cultural Research at Western Washington University. His career has focused on promoting psychological and sociocultural research with indigenous populations, especially American Indians and Alaska Natives. A highly decorated teacher, Trimble has held offices in many associations and received the Lifetime Distinguished Career Award from the American Psychological Association's Division 45. Outside the academy, he has served on numerous scientific review committees and research panels for federal agencies such as NIAAA, NIH, and National Academy of Sciences, among others. He has presented over 180 papers and invited addresses and generated over 150 publications, including 22 authored or edited books. 

Jean Lau ChinJean Lau Chin, EdD, ABPP is a professor at Adelphi University in New York, and was the 2018 Fulbright Scholar and Distinguished Chair to the University of Sydney, Australia for her research on global and diverse leadership. She has held leadership roles as Dean at Adelphi University, Systemwide Dean at Alliant International University, Executive Director of South Cove Community Health Center and Co-Director of Thom Mental Health Clinic. Her scholarship on diversity leadership, women’s issues, diversity and cultural competence, and psychotherapy includes 18 books and many publications. She is the first Asian American to be licensed as a psychologist in Massachusetts.

Chin and Trimble are co-editors with Joseph Garcia of ILA’s 2017 volume Global and Culturally Diverse Leaders and Leadership: New Dimensions and Challenges for Business, Education, and Society.

The Importance of Immigration in Global Leadership

By Marco Aponte-Moreno

Immigration is often referred to as the human face of globalization. Movements of people, especially toward developed countries, have taken center stage in today’s global economy (Keeley, 2009). In the U.S., where the majority of the literature on global leadership is published, immigrants have historically been considered fundamental elements of the American story. People often take pride in their immigrant pasts and in the traditions of enterprise, struggle, and courage that immigrants have brought to the country (Schuck, 2011).

However, immigrant leaders are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the leadership literature. This despite the fact that nearly half of U.S. Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children (Hathaway, 2017). In addition, the rise of an anti-immigrant rhetoric, which conceptualizes immigrants as “criminals” (Gessen, 2018), has certainly not contributed to call attention to the role of immigrant leaders in global leadership.

In this context, leadership scholars have focused on global leaders, but have overlooked those global leaders who are or have been immigrants. Although expatriates have been widely studied and could technically be considered immigrants, the focus of those studies has been on adaptation techniques, culture shock, and other elements related to the expatriation experience, which is assumed to be temporary (Adler, 2008).

In this article, I want to open a conversation about the importance of immigration in global leadership. For this purpose, I explore the immigration experiences of prominent immigrant leaders and look at how they use these experiences in their narratives as global leaders. My analysis is grounded on the model of “leadership crucibles” proposed by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas in their book Geeks and Geezers. It is based on an examination, through current press articles and interviews, of the narratives of twenty prominent global leaders who immigrated to the U.S. These leaders were randomly selected by a group of undergraduate students of international business who were asked to prepare profiles of prominent immigrant leaders in the U.S. A complete list of these leaders is included in the list at the end of this article.

Leadership Crucibles

Leadership crucibles are transformative life events that change a person's sense of identity and therefore his or her leadership style. Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas coined the term “crucibles” after the vessels used by alchemists in the Middle Ages when trying to turn metals into gold (Bennis & Thomas, 2002).

Crucibles can be life-threatening, like overcoming cancer or surviving a car accident, but they can also be more commonplace, such as being influenced by a teacher or climbing a tall mountain. In all cases, what matters is that these life events generate a narrative of transformation in leaders, who talk about how they overcame challenges or seized opportunities as a result of the crucibles (Bennis & Thomas, 2002).

Immigration as a Leadership Crucible

At first glance, immigrating to another country seems like a clear leadership crucible. It involves a transformative life event likely to change the person’s sense of identity, and therefore his or her leadership style. However, since the definition of leadership crucible also involves the creation of a narrative of transformation in the leader (as a result of the transformative life event), it is essential to analyze what the person says about his or her immigration experience before it can be classified as a leadership crucible.

Considering the stigma associated with being an immigrant in today’s world, the question is: Does the leader choose to adopt a narrative of transformation in relation to his or her immigration experience? If the immigration experience does not generate this narrative in the leader, then it is not a leadership crucible. But if the leader speaks about how he or she was able to overcome obstacles and take advantage of opportunities because of the immigration experience, then it is a crucible.

Immigration as a Leadership Crucible for Global Leaders

My analysis of press interviews and articles related to the twenty prominent global leaders shows that most of them consider immigration a defining leadership crucible. Specifically, two thirds of leaders in the sample (or fourteen of them) not only consider immigration an important life event, but also speak about its transformational quality.

All fourteen leaders speak about how their lives improved when they immigrated to the U.S. Many talk about how they were able to overcome difficulties, achieve personal and professional goals, and provide a better future for their families. Their narratives unmistakably show that, for them, immigration was a leadership crucible.

It is important to note that although the data indicates that one third of the sample (six of them) do not consider immigration a leadership crucible, it is possible that they do, but that the information is either unavailable or difficult to find online. The list at the end of this article includes information that specifies whether or not I found evidence of considering immigration a leadership crucible for each of the twenty leaders in the sample.

The following excerpt taken from an article about Andrew Ly, the founder and CEO of Sugar Bowl Bakery, is a good example of how immigration is conceptualized in the narratives of those leaders in the sample who consider immigration a leadership crucible: “When I came here, I didn’t speak the language or have any money. I am proud that I’ve taken my family where they hesitated to go years ago. Whenever I mentor young people, I tell them, never give up. Work hard, have a good heart, and be disciplined. Those are the ingredients to success,” (Eng, 2015).

A closer analysis of the narratives by global immigrant leaders who think of immigration as a leadership crucible (a transformational life event) reveals three types of narratives: Those that focus on adversities and difficult circumstances, those that emphasize the outcome of the immigration experience as a transformational life event, and those that focus on the U.S. as the agent responsible for the transformation.

Leadership Narratives Focusing on Adversities

Leaders who focus on adversities and difficult circumstances talk about either the challenging conditions left behind or the difficulties encountered when they first arrived in the U.S. Andrew Ly’s excerpt above is a good example of this type. Another example can be found in a quote from Christian Gheorghe, the Romanian-born limo driver turned founder and CEO of Tidemark: “In retrospect, not knowing English when I first arrived at the modern version of Ellis Island–a brightly lit immigration room at JFK airport–was a blessing in disguise. Freedom, the first word I ever learned by listening to Pink Floyd records in communist Romania before escaping to America, was one of the few English words I did know and muttered to the immigration officer when he asked me, ‘Why are you here?’” (Nasri, 2013).

The Immigration Experience as a Transformational Life Event

In regard to the narratives in the sample that conceptualize the immigration experience as a transformational life event, all of them frame it as a positive experience. They often mention that life in the U.S. is better than in the old country, and talk about the opportunities found in America. Arianna Huffington, the Greek immigrant who founded the Huffington Post, provides a good example of this in one of the narratives analyzed in this study: “When I was growing up in Athens, my mother would tell me, ‘Failure isn’t the opposite of success; it’s a stepping stone to success,’ and when I came to America, I was given many opportunities to fail my way to eventual success. But my story is just one of millions. And it falls to all of us–especially those of us who have come here and started businesses–to do whatever we can to make sure the same opportunities we’ve enjoyed are there for the immigrants of today and tomorrow,” (Nasri, 2013).

The U.S. as the Agent Responsible for the Immigrant’s Transformation

In the cases in which the U.S. is presented as the agent responsible for the immigrant’s transformation, the country is given human characteristics and is often presented as a saviour. One quote by Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, illustrates this very well: “This country was brave and welcoming and I wouldn’t be where I am today or have any kind of the life that I have today if this was not a brave country that really stood out and spoke for liberty,” (Samuelson, 2017).

It is interesting to note that Brin’s excerpt was part of a speech given as a reaction to President Trump’s policies regarding refugees such as the “refugee ban” in 2017. In fact, most of the articles and interviews analyzed in the study were written in the context of President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. This was particularly true for leaders in the tech industry, which relies heavily on immigrant labor (Rodriguez, 2017). The following quote from Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, illustrates well this point. It was taken from a public letter he wrote in response to President Trump’s policy of separating undocumented children from their parents in 2018: “Like many of you, I am appalled at the abhorrent policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the southern border of the U.S. As both a parent and an immigrant, this issue touches me personally,” (Nadella, 2018).


To initiate a conversation about the importance of immigration in global leadership, I have looked at immigration as a key experience in the narratives of global leaders who are also immigrants. An examination of press interviews and articles related to a sample of twenty prominent global leaders who are also immigrants indicates that most of them consider immigration a defining leadership crucible that transformed their lives. While some narratives emphasize adversities and difficult circumstances, others focus on the immigration experience as a transformational life event. There are also those narratives that conceptualize the U.S. as the agent responsible for the immigrant’s transformation. In sum, this analysis suggests that in order to better understand global leadership, the immigration experience deserves to be studied.

List of Twenty Prominent Global Immigrant Leaders in the Large Sample

The list below includes the Leader Name, Country of Origin, Affiliation, and Yes/No Immigration Crucible.

  • Albright, Madeleine; Czech Republic; Former Secretary of State and Chair of ASG; Yes
  • Brin, Sergey; Russia; Co-founder of Google; No
  • Gheorghe, Christian; Romania; Founder and CEO of Tidemark; Yes
  • Huang, Jen-Hsum; Taiwan; Founder and CEO of Nvidia; No
  • Huffington, Arianna; Greece; Founder of Huffington Post and CEO of Thrive Global; Yes
  • Jaber, Phil; Palestine; Founder of Philz Coffee; Yes
  • Kandil, Ammar; Egypt; Co-founder of Yes Theory; No
  • Koun, Jan; Ukraine; Co-founder and former CEO of WhatsApp; No
  • Laplanche, Renaud; France; Founder and CEO of Lending Club; Yes
  • Levchin, Max; Ukraine; CEO of Affirm / Founder of PayPal; Yes
  • Ly, Andrew; Vietnam; Founder and CEO of Sugar Bowl Bakery; Yes
  • Mirza, Claudia; Colombia; Co-founder and former CEO of Akorbi; Yes
  • Musk, Elon; South Africa; Co-founder of TESLA and CEO of SpaceX; No
  • Nadella, Satya; India; CEO of Microsoft; Yes
  • Nooyi, Indra; India; Former CEO of Pepsico; Yes
  • Pichai, Sundar; India; CEO of Google; Yes
  • Santos, Victor; Brazil; Founder and CEO of Airfox; Yes
  • Schwarzenegger, Arnold; Austria; Former Governor of California; Yes
  • Tran, David; Vietnam; Founder of Huy Fong Foods; No
  • Ulukaya, Hamdi; Turkey; Founder and CEO of Chobani; Yes


Global & Culturally Diverse Leadership in the 21st Century

By Jean Lau Chin and Joseph E. Trimble

As we express our thoughts and findings about culturally diverse leadership in the 21st century, Marco Aponte-Moreno gives us a vibrant look at narratives of immigrant leaders. The stories reflect the sociocultural change and transformation characterized in the growing demographic of diverse and global citizens in the U.S. Their leadership is informed by both the struggles and accomplishments of their lived experience. The values that propelled their growth inspire how they practice their leadership. He identifies the immigration experience as a leadership crucible — i.e., a transformative life event that change a person's sense of identity. This expands our paradigm of the importance of social identities in our understanding and exercise of leadership. From a 21st century perspective, our leaders no longer focus on efficient production of products; instead, leaders now find themselves in more heterogeneous organizations and communities that demand greater inclusivity, innovation, and change. Aponte-Moreno challenges the omission of attention to the immigration experience in leadership and highlights how important this cultural diversity is to leadership.

With the growing population diversity and mobility, leaders and members will find themselves in more heterogeneous contexts within organizations and communities than ever before. Leaders of tomorrow must be responsive to rapid sociocultural change, prepared to lead a diverse workforce, and practiced in ways that are culturally responsive and competent in meeting the needs of a diverse population. This demands that leadership theories and research be more inclusive and robust if they are to remain relevant. Aponte-Moreno’s article provides some insight into the leadership styles and practices of culturally grounded leaders who guide populations undergoing rapid sociocultural change.

With a very few exceptions, culturally grounded leaders of the past did not seek the distinction or appointment; they did not campaign or pursue community support. In some instances, leaders emerged because of their hereditary lineage; however, in some of those such instances, the leader was also reluctant to assume full and complete responsibility for their role.

These leaders typically embraced strong positive values such as generosity, respectfulness, kindness, integrity, and trustworthiness. When leadership direction was requested of them, they acknowledged their responsibility to set a strong positive example for members to observe and follow. Firm values were essential in honoring the connectedness and relationships in the community.

Traditional, culturally grounded leaders made it a point to engage the community in all discussions, and especially in ones requiring serious attention. Many leaders would spend their time visiting with families and elders. In effect, they saw their appointment as “a sphere of influence that must be contextualized” (Warner & Grint, 2006, p. 231) rather than as a formal, coveted, delegated position. The role was primarily that of a facilitator and promoter of community values, traditions, beliefs, and interests (Badwound & Tierney, 1988).

Gathering information from community members was a key element in reaching decisions, and in resolving conflicts and issues. Reaching those decisions was not always guided by fixed time constraints. Leaders generally considered everyone’s opinions, often gathered in collective settings where information gathering was group-centered rather than individual-centered. Decisions were not reached until all of the opinions and voices were heard. Leaders placed a high premium on respect that carried over in the conduct of the discussion and deliberation process. The leader’s goal was to achieve consensus; achieving that laudable goal was tedious and time consuming. The process represented the leader’s deep respect for connectedness. In honoring the connectedness of all things, the traditional, culturally grounded leader recognized that a decision could never be ordered or imposed on the community. Decision and outcome were respected by the elders and community because all voices were thought to be heard, valued, and considered.


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Schuck, P. (2011). Some Observations About Immigration Journalism. In M. Suárez-Orozco, V. Louie, & R. Suro (Eds.), Writing Immigration: Scholars and Journalists in Dialogue (pp. 73-89). Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Editor Note: Jean Lau Chin, EdD, ABPP, Professor of Psychology, Gordon F. Derner School of Psychology, Adelphi University and Joseph E. Trimble, PhD, Distinguished University Professor, Department of Psychology, Western Washington University. Correspondence concerning current or potential newsletter articles and themes should be addressed to Jean Lau Chin. Email:, Telephone: 516.877.4185 or Joseph E. Trimble. Email:; Telephone: 360-650-3058. The authors’ surnames are listed in alphabetic order. Each author has contributed equally to the content of the introduction and forthcoming columns.

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