Cesar Chavez was a Mexican-American union leader for farm laborers in California. When he first began working in the fields, Chavez was a field laborer and did not have many of the beliefs and values as he did later on in life. He was well known for having strong ethics and for practicing non-violence (Tejada-Flores, 2004). Chavez exhibited several different sources of power that is found in successful leaders and was able to convince grape growers to accept collective bargaining contracts for field workers by using effective influence tactics (“United Farm Workers,” 2006). Through his hardships, and because of his compassion to help others, he gained the knowledge and experience he needed to become a great organizer and leader.
Cesar Chavez was born in Arizona to a very poor family and by the late 1930s he and his family re-located to several farming communities in California (“Tejada-Flores,” 2004). According to the United Farm Workers web site (2006), he began to work in the fields rather than attending high school in order to help his family financially. During his youth, Chavez’s attitude toward formal education was that of the common misconception that “the only school you learn leadership from is the school of hard knocks” (Hughes, Ginnet, & Curphy, 2009, p. 17). He attended many schools and once he finished the eighth grade, he gave up because “he felt that education had nothing to do with his farm worker/migrant way of life” (“United Farm Workers,” 2006). Even without a high school education, Chavez possessed a high level of practical intelligence when it came to farm workers and their needs. Practical intelligence is important because it helps a leader know what to do and how to do it when they come across certain leadership situations and they can also use it to help a team to work together more effectively. Although Chavez did not receive formal education past the eighth grade, “later in life, education was his passion. The walls of his office in La Paz (United Farm Worker Headquarters) are lined with hundreds of books ranging from philosophy, economics, cooperatives, and unions, to biographies on Gandhi and the Kennedys’. He believed that, ‘The end of all education should surely be service to others,’ a belief that he practiced until his untimely death” (“United Farm Workers,” 2006). Hughes et al. (2009) believe that formal education and learning from experience complement one another and Chavez recognized this as he aged (p. 17). He realized that education was an important aspect of becoming a better leader because it allowed him to expand his wisdom and become a more authentic and servant leader.
Chavez showed traits of being an authentic leader because he had strong ethical convictions, which included treating others with respect and dignity and he stood firm when it came to his fundamental values on important issues (Hughes et al., 2009, p. 186). According to Hughes et al. (2009), “Authentic leaders behave the way they do because of personal conviction rather than to attain status, rewards, or other advantages” (p. 186). Chavez did not attain any material wealth during his duration as the leader of the United Farmworkers Union (UFW). In fact, “during his lifetime, Chavez never earned more than $5,000 a year” (“United Farm Workers,” 2006). He was able to relate to his followers because he also in the same position they were in and he faced the same difficulties they faced.
In addition, Chavez displayed qualities of a servant leader. Other historical figures that exhibited traits of servant leadership are Jesus Christ and Mahatma Gandhi (Hughes et al., 2009, p. 187-189). Some of these qualities that Chavez exhibited were: (1) he was empathetic towards his followers because he knew what type of situation they were in, (2) in addition to being able to communicate effectively, he was able to listen effectively to what his followers had to say, (3) he was aware of what his own values were as well as his strengths and weaknesses, and (4) he was able to successfully persuade resistant grape growers to approve bargaining contracts with farm laborers through influential tactics rather than being coercive or violent (Hughes et al., 2006, p. 187-188).
These traits of being both an authentic and servant leader showed that he had strong ethical convictions. Similar to Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the beliefs Chavez had was that non-violence was the best way to influence someone and in Chavez’s case, he was trying to persuade the grape growers to agree to the bargaining contracts. Chavez stated, “Farm workers everywhere are angry and worried that we cannot win without violence. We have proved it before through persistence, hard work, faith and willingness to sacrifice. We can win and keep our own self-respect and build a great union that will secure the spirit of all people if we do it through a rededication and recommitment to the struggle for justice through nonviolence” (“United Farm Workers,” 2006). He firmly believed it was possible for the farm workers to use other tactics to win bargaining agreements and in the end his beliefs were validated. Chavez also followed the non-violent tactic of Mahatma Gandhi by fasting. Chavez fasted several times during his struggle to win farm laborers rights (“United Farm Workers,” 2006). Many events initiated Cesar to choose to fast such as “the terrible suffering of the farm workers and their children, the crushing of farm worker rights, the dangers of pesticides, and the denial of fair and free elections” (“United Farm Workers,” 2006). Chavez believed in the power of fasting because it would focus national attention to farm workers problems and he believed it was a way for someone to purify their mind, body and soul (“United Farm Workers,” 2006). Additionally, Chavez initiated non-violent protests, including boycotts, pickets and strikes. Tejada-Flores (2004) claims, “At its height, over 13 million Americans supported the Delano grape boycott.” A couple of major events for the UFW were the Delano grape strike and a 340-mile march from the small community of Delano to Sacramento (Tejada-Flores, 2004). According to the UFW (2006) web site, “The marchers wanted the state government to pass laws which would permit farm workers to organize into a union and allow collective bargaining agreements. Cesar made people aware of the struggles of farm workers for better pay and safer working conditions.” These were all major milestones in the fight to win rights for the farm laborers and although it was a long and challenging struggle, Chavez and the UFW prevailed. Cesar Chavez demonstrated many leadership qualities that are shared among effective leaders. This includes exhibiting different sources of leader power and possessing key work values. Chavez had referent, expert, and legitimate power as a leader. In addition, he exhibited traits of being motivated by socialized power. According to Hughes et al. (2009), “Referent power refers to the potential influence one has due to the strength of the relationship between the leader and the followers” (p. 141). Chavez was able to influence his followers because his followers identified with him and he could relate to the problems that his followers faced. He knew what needed to be changed and his followers needed someone to guide them in pursuing these changes. Chavez started a cause that gave farm laborers hope that they can come to an agreement with their employers. Chavez possessed expert power because this type of power refers to the power of knowledge and being able to influence others because of their expertise on certain topics (Hughes et al., 2009, p. 142). Chavez was a farm worker for many years before becoming the leader of the UFW so he knew what was happening out in the fields and he experienced the unfair treatment of farm laborers firsthand. Also, Chavez had legitimate power. Legitimate power is a person’s official authority in an organization (Hughes et al., 2009, p. 145). He possessed legitimate power because he was chosen to lead the UFW in their battle against unfair treatment of farm workers. Furthermore, Chavez possessed socialized power, which Hughes et al. (2009) defines as “the service of higher goals to others or organizations and often involves self-sacrifice toward those ends” (p. 152). Chavez did not lead the cause of the UFW to make a profit or gain wealth; he did it to achieve rights and fair treatment for the unrepresented farm workers. He made sacrifices by fasting and living a modest life. Furthermore, Chavez possessed key work values that helped him become an effective leader. Firstly, he exhibited altruistic values. According to Hughes et al. (2009), “Leaders with strong Altruism values…believe in actively helping others who are less fortunate. They are motivated to help the needy and powerless and to improve society, and believe in social justice” (p. 178). Chavez showed that he was altruistic because he fought for field workers who had no rights and were being treated poorly in their work environment. Chavez also exhibited the key work value of tradition, which is present in those who “believe in family values and codes and conduct, and value moral rules and standards” (Hughes et al., 2009, p. 178). Being an authentic and servant leader and showing a high level of ethical and moral standards showed that Chavez believed in doing things right in order to reach a goal. He was able to encourage his followers to participate in non-coercive acts and showed them there are ways to effectively fight for their cause without doing unethical deeds. In addition to possessing many leadership qualities, a situational factor that affected his potential to influence others was the presence of a crisis (Hughes et al., 2009, p. 140). The crisis was that many farm laborers were not given any rights in the fields that they worked in and were grossly underpaid to do this type of hard labor. Chavez was able to organize the field workers together for a cause they all believed in. According to Hughes et al. (2009), “during crises followers are more willing to accept greater direction, control and structures from leaders, whatever power may be involved” (p. 141). The field workers needed a leader to guide them in their battle with the grape growers and to gather their resources and people together to create a stronger resistance and they found that in Chavez. Chavez was able to use influence tactics to organize a union to come together and fight for their rights as employees and also persuade the grape growers to agree to bargaining contracts with their employees. One of the influence tactics he used to get the farm laborers to work together was rational appeal because he used factual evidence (Hughes et al., 2009, p. 155). The farm workers were being paid only ninety cents per hour to do the hard work out in the fields and also they were being exposed to pesticides that were hazardous to their health and had caused illnesses among the field laborers (Tejada-Flores, 2004). He used non-violent pressure tactics to sway the grape growers that if they do not agree to the bargaining contracts, the resistance from the UFW and the farm workers would continue (Tejada-Flores, 2004). Cesar Chavez once proclaimed, “We shall strike. We shall organize boycotts. We shall demonstrate and have political campaigns. We shall pursue the revolution we proposed. We are sons and daughters of the farm workers’ revolution, a revolution of the poor seeking bread and justice” (“United Farm Workers,” 2006). This type of influence tactic took a very long time to wear down the grape growers because they were resistant to give farm laborers rights and they did not want to pay them higher wages but the farm workers persisted in their cause (“United Farm Workers,” 2006). Chavez also used inspirational appeal, which is when a person makes “a request or proposal designed to arouse enthusiasm or emotions in targets” (Hughes et al., 2009, p. 155). Chavez told the field laborers “We are confident. We have ourselves. We know how to sacrifice. We know how to work. We know how to combat the forces that oppose us. But even more than that, we are true believers in the whole idea of justice. Justice is so much on our side, that that is going to see us through” (“United Farm Workers,” 2006). He inspired many field laborers by reminding them of their ultimate cause and kept their spirits high so they could keep fighting for their rights and so they can have the strength to resist unfair treatment.
Cesar Chavez was not just a union leader; he was also a community leader. Community leaders build a team of volunteers to accomplish an important community outcome and are different than being a leader in a government agency or publicly traded company because they cannot discipline followers and typically have fewer resources and rewards than other leaders (Hughes et al., 2009, p. 274). Chavez did not have any authority to punish those who did not follow his beliefs for winning the rights of farm workers. The organization he led did not directly employ the farm laborers and he had no official authority to reprimand anyone yet his followers believed in the cause so much that they followed Chavez’s way of achieving the union’s goals. Furthermore, Chavez did not become the organization’s leader because he was going to be paid large amounts of money, he lived a modest life and as stated previously, he did not earn more than five-thousand dollars a year. This shows that he did not lead the union for extrinsic rewards. He was rewarded intrinsically.
Chavez demonstrated many qualities of an effective leader. While he did not always possess these qualities, his life experiences and hardships allowed him to acquire many of his beliefs and values. Chavez was a great leader for the farm workers because he knew their situations since he lived under the same conditions himself. He organized a strong union that was able to gain rights for field laborers even through the strong opposition they faced from the grape growers. His leadership values included using non-violence and he had strong ethical beliefs. In addition, Chavez possessed diverse sources of power and key work values that are shared amongst successful leaders. Chavez was a modest man trying to fight for the rights of the underdogs and was able to change history because he had strong convictions in the cause he fought for and was able to successfully lead his followers to fight for their rights in a non-violent way.
Hughes, R., Ginnett, R., & Curphy, G. (2010). Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience (sixth ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. Tejada-Flores, R. (2004). Cesar Chavez & the UFW. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/itvs/fightfields/cesarchavez.html United Farm Workers: education of the heart- quotes by Cesar Chavez. (2006). Retrieved from http://www.ufw.org/_page.php?menu=research&inc=history/09.html United Farm Workers: the story of Cesar Chavez. (2006). Retrieved from http://www.ufw.org/_page.php?menu=research&inc=history/07.html