Leadership Lessons from Migrant Workers

Leadership Lessons from Migrant Workers


While many people associate Niagara with our tender-fruit farms and wineries, the vital role that migrant workers play in the success of these industries is often unknown or overlooked. Niagara’s community of migrant workers is made up of incredibly dedicated men and women who make the tough choice each year to leave their families behind in order to provide for them.

They travel thousands of kilometres from home because the same type of employment opportunities simply aren’t available to them in their own country. I have had the privilege of getting to know quite a few migrant workers that live and work near my home and am honoured that I now call many my friends. Recently, I was able to take a trip to Jamaica and spend some time visiting some of my seasonal neighbours in their home country. I got to finally meet the wives and children that I’ve heard so much about, was invited to stay as a guest in their homes and was fortunate enough to learn more about the land they love while they toured me around the countryside.

In addition to strengthening these friendships and making wonderful memories, my trip to Jamaica was a great reminder of three powerful leadership lessons that can be applied in any country and any profession.

Migrant Worker Leadership Lesson #1: Know Your “Why”

The migrant workers that I know leave loving families to work back-breaking jobs most Canadians wouldn’t consider taking. They often work ten and twelve-hours shifts, sometimes seven days a week. The reception they receive in their Canadian communities is sometimes far from warm and welcoming. These types of condition bring one obvious question to mind: why would anyone choose to do work like this?

I’ve asked this questions to many of my Caribbean friends and the response I get is always immediate and always the same: “I do this work to provide for my family and to have a safe home.”

Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’”

What I’ve come to realize is that my migrant worker friends are able to endure the challenging conditions they often face because they are 100 per cent clear on why they do what they do. At the end of an exhausting day, their “why” makes it all worth it. It also gives them the strength and motivation they need to get up and do it all again the next day.

worker with peaches

Photo Credit: Clifton Blake

Reflecting on this Leadership Lesson:

Are you 100 per cent clear on your own why?
Do you wake up knowing what you’re working toward and what will make all of your hard work
worthwhile after an especially tough day?
Do you have systems and structures in place to keep your why front and centre every day?

Migrant Worker Leadership Lesson #2: Evaluate What’s Behind Your “Why”

I never hear my Caribbean neighbours talking about buying the latest fashions, upgrading to the newest iPhone, going on an all-inclusive vacation or redecorating their home. Instead, their answers about why they are working always come back to the same two things: They want to ensure their children, and often their grandchildren, have the fees needed to complete their education. They want a home that is safe from hurricanes and other dangerous hazards.
That’s it.

It’s easy to get caught up in the race of working hard to acquire things we want that we mistakenly think we need. Unfortunately, fulfilling these wants often only keeps us satisfied for a short time. Before long, we’re feeling unfulfilled again and yearning for something else that’s new and exciting.

Reflecting on this Leadership Lesson:

When you think of the things that are driving you to work so hard, are they the right things?
Are you working to invest in things that will truly satisfy your soul and help those around you, or
have you become more focused on impressing others or acquiring more stuff?

group shot final

Migrant Worker Leadership Lesson #3: Choose Gratitude

When I stop by the farm to visit my Caribbean friends and ask them how things are going, I always get the same response: “I’m giving thanks.” Regardless of how much they are missing their families, how hot the weather has been or how they were treated that day by their managers, they are always grateful. While it may sound to some like a cliché, I can assure you it is not. This community of such strong people that I have come to know and love are truly thankful for the opportunity to work in Canada. They feel deeply blessed to have the strength and health to get up and go to work each day. It’s quite remarkable.

When working with leaders across Canada and the United States, the responses I hear when I ask them how things are going are often quite different. I know I’m sometimes guilty of this as well, but there is often a tendency to focus on things like how busy things are, the problems we’re facing, things that seem unfair, and the people who are grating on our nerves. Gratitude is often replaced with discontent.


Photo Credit: Clifton Blake

Reflecting on this Leadership Lesson:

How grateful are you on a daily basis?
What rituals and systems do you have in place to regularly practice and cultivate gratitude and

My migrant worker neighbours and friends constantly inspire me, humble me and remind me that whether our jobs take us to an office or an orchard, we all are faced with tensions that must be managed. Choosing to work in Canada each year creates three key tensions front for migrant workers to constantly manage:
The tension between work and home,
The tension between focusing on ourselves and focusing on others,
The tension between the short term and the long term.

I hate that my friends have to leave their homes and loved ones to find work, and I am hopeful that one day their country’s economy will allow them to thrive at home. Regardless of what the future holds though, I am thankful for their friendship and for the lessons they continue to teach me as a friend, a father and a leader.

Tim Arnold

President – Leaders for Leaders

Author – The Power of Healthy Tension

Many leaders have a great vision but fail to live it out.  They get stuck because of conflicting values and chronic issues.  Leaders for Leaders offers workshops and keynote that helps people get unstuck so they can unite their team, spark change, and live their values.  We can help get you unstuck at www.leadersforleaders.ca.  

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