Considerations on Leadership in an Immigrant Population: Lessons from the Haitian Community

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Managing any nonprofit human service organization is a difficult endeavor. But for immigrant organizations the battle is even more taxing, requiring the organization and its participants to function between two worlds—each with a different set of priorities, standards, demands, languages, and cultural protocols. Leadership at such organizations must be particularly agile on the one hand and firmly grounded on the other to handle this bridging function without sacrificing important aspects of the organization. But this and other observations of leadership paradoxes can also be found in other kinds of organizations in communities that are culturally, politically, and economically marginalized.

Multiple studies on leadership have concentrated on the attributes and behaviors of the individual. A major flaw of this approach is that it ignores the environmental and situational factors that condition the leader’s orientation to his or her position in the situation.

While there is fairly wide acknowledgement of the critical role played by nonprofit organizations in building the health and overall viability of immigrant communities, there is relatively little recognition of the demanding complexity involved in leading and managing immigrant organizations. These complexities, in my observation, flow, in large part, from the mix of political histories in the organization; ingrained cultural assumptions and legacies that have been brought forward into the organizational setting; and the group’s experience of being culturally marginalized from the mainstream. All of these components create an organizational “habitat.” Building from empirical investigations in the Haitian community, this article will highlight leadership challenges inside Haitian organizations with the hope that these insights will be relevant to other immigrant and marginalized organizations.

Haitian by birth, I have worked with many community-based organizations over the past 14 years. As the Director of Community Planning at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, I helped design and provide capacity-building initiatives for many different types of nonprofits involved in public health initiatives. Particularly where communities were at special risk for health concerns, I have supported the creation of new organizations and overseen management-consulting services to existing nonprofits. In so doing, I have worked with mainstream American organizations, Hispanic and African American organizations, and immigrant organizations, including a number of Haitian organizations.

Over this decade and a half, I have repeatedly watched otherwise excellent management consultants fail miserably to assess the dynamics of Haitian organizations. Well-meant recommendations and interventions on issues such as constituent involvement, governance, personnel policies, decision-making, and transparency of operations produced little to no meaningful change inside these organizations. It became common to see these organizations involved in lengthy periods of paralysis, chronic conflict, and, sometimes, system-wide disengagement—by staff, board, constituents, and eventually, funders. A number of them have failed entirely.

These observations motivated me to engage in a series of investigations of organizational practices in Haitian-community-based nonprofit organizations in the U.S. This article draws on those empirical investigations, conducted over the last four years in multiple U.S. cities with large Haitian populations. My overarching finding is that cultural norms in the home country have profound and lasting impacts on the ways in which leadership and management are practiced in U.S.-based immigrant organizations. Further, I believe that the situation presents an extraordinarily powerful opportunity for leaders.

My research1 was based on the hypothesis that the repressive politics of the Haitian government have greatly influenced collective action and the formation of organizations in Haiti; and that, in their turn, these institutional experiences in Haiti influence the formation and the development of Haitian organizations in the U.S.

Unfortunately, few organizational studies have seriously looked at the replication of major societal issues in nonprofit organizations. While organization development theory, cross-cultural studies, and comparative management studies have emphasized the organizing power of culture in the way organizations look and act, transnational organizations and immigrant-based organizations in the U.S. significantly push even at the boundaries of this set of constructs. For instance, while most studies on comparative management examine the differences of management practices in organizations immersed in their home environments, a major focus for the ethnic-based organization must be on the adjustment of the interaction between external cultural pressures and the internal dynamics of the organization in its community.

Research conducted over the last four years has evolved from participant observation,2 phenomenonological interviews, and structured focus groups with different Haitian organizations. The major findings can be summarized as follows:

•    The reproduction of old patterns of organizing and managing organizations

•    The extension of social conflict and social competition inside the organization

•    Predispositions about Haitian leadership and cooperative behaviors

Haitians in the United States

Although it is impossible to obtain an exact number of Haitians in the United States, it is estimated that about one million Haitian immigrants live in the U.S.; the largest of these communities are in Miami, New York, and Boston. These communities number 350,000, 300,000, and 70,000 respectively and they include all strata of Haitian society. Haitian organizations exist in all of these communities, easing the transition process of Haitians to the United States and attending to the political, social, and human service needs of community members. With such strength of numbers comes the possibility of maintaining cultural prerogatives, and, as one participant commented, “The Haitian organization in the U.S. can be compared to an organization in Haiti that’s been transported”3—and that trip has involved a lot of baggage.

Haitians created the third major revolution in modern world history. From the successful resistance of slaves and their organizing to defeat in 1804 the most powerful army of that time (the Napoleonic army), Haiti emerged as the first black republic and the second independent nation in the Americas. This caused colonial powers like the U.S. to isolate Haiti as a threat. However, there were major obstacles for development of the new republic. Isolated from the rest of the world for more than a century, Haitian politicians have manipulated the masses, marginalized the peasant society, and claimed power for personal gain, using patronage and coercion to maintain power. The bourgeoisie marchande allied to whomever was in power used commerce for enrichment and to sustain its social positioning. In this context, there is no history of accountable institution and community building. Organization is seen largely as the vehicle for exploitation and self-enrichment. Although some efforts were made in the nation’s history to change this system, these practices have prevailed. Pean summarized the Haitian experience with the following statement:

Very early after the Haitian Independence, the practice of corruption named Plumer la Poule (‘Pluck the Hen,’ in reference to the pillaging of public funds) explained all forms of loss for the nation—loss of credit, trust, knowledge—all together to explain the precariousness of the living conditions and the insecurity.4

The transition of Haitians into the U.S. has not been easy. Many came fleeing political oppression and bring strong feelings about the trustworthiness of political and other leaders. Once here, many have found that the experience of discrimination against Haitians in America is not only multilayered and intense in and of itself, but also reinforces existing divisions in the Haitian community. Very early in life, Haitians see the manifestation of social practices of exclusion: the moun la vil and moun an deyo (the antagonism between peasants and urban settlers). These and other deep divisions based on old class structures actively play out in the practices of Haitian nonprofits here in America. The stakes are quite a bit higher, however, than they might be in more mainstream organizations, because community-based organizations and the politics of the larger Haitian community are often solidly interconnected, with the power structure in those organizations representing the new field for power positioning and reinforcement of class distinctions.

Without understanding these stakes, the contextual politics of the community, and the cultural “markers” of class or power position embedded in a particular political history, a management consultant may be nearly oblivious to cues that might otherwise be essential guides to our work.

Handled traditionally as posts of authority, leadership positions bring with them a designation of social class and social status. We see this play out in all kinds of hierarchical organizations. But in any society deeply marked by class competition and social marginalization, leadership is seen as social positioning, providing power and control over the agenda. With Haitian organizations in the United States, you see this dynamic play out internally based on the politics of division brought over from Haiti, and also externally as this community tries to position itself in an environment that often discriminates against it based on a multiplicity of perceptions. Other communities of color have experienced this funneling effect in terms of leadership—the tendency to designate one or a very few leaders to represent a community.

An Example

The Haitian Minority Project is well established in Florida and involves a good representation of the Haitian population. Over the years the organization has built a solid reputation with private and public funders; it exudes a level of professionalism. The organization provides social services, health education, and client advocacy for a growing constituency. The organization recruits young Haitian professionals anxious to contribute to the life of the Haitian community.

Once in the organization, however, the aspirations of staff and their commitment to their own and their constituencies’ human development and empowerment are confronted with the lack of structure and lack of direction that permeates the entire organization. As noted by one staff member I interviewed, “In this organization everyone fends for themselves, there is no sense of direction, everyone does as they want.” The absence of internal accountability systems appears to be reinforced by a system of favorites, where your relation with the executive director determines your level of influence.

Why is it that the appearance of professionalism for the external world did not extend through to internal operations? How could the leaders not see the threat to the very infrastructure they have built over the years? What should the role of the leader be in creating and maintaining an energetic organization?

As we know, leadership is a continual interaction between the leaders and the followers. A closer look at the behaviors of followers and leaders in the Haitian context provides the insight that the followers heavily condition the leaders. One assumption embedded in Haitian culture and history is that leaders act as authority. The leader must have the requisite knowledge for a particular decision or, if not, must pretend to know. Participation and delegation, in this context, are often seen as weakness, incompetence, and laziness. Other related practices in Haitian organizations are that the followers need to be taught; they should limit questions in meetings (staying alive in an organization requires private, off-the-record conversations with the boss); and they need to watch out for the boss and try to get close to him or her—the closer you are to the boss, the more power you have in the organization. There is a constant manipulation of the leadership system for personal status, which requires competing with the others inside the organization. These practices are the grammar of everyday actions, jeopardizing organization unity and team spirit inside the organization. This, of course, also jeopardizes the quality of information the leader is working with.

Again, there are other types of organizations that exhibit this dynamic. Just keeping afloat within these organizations can take an enormous amount of energy, which is then not spent on the work or on ensuring that the community feels well served.

This context, then, might begin to mold organizational leaders in a charismatic and authoritative style, when a method that would produce a broader cross section of leaders would be more beneficial to the community in the long run.

An Example

Women’s Empowerment for Progress emerges from the collective action of a group of Haitian women determined to create an institution to deal with the multiple issues faced by Haitian women in Chicago. As a multi-service center, Women’s Empowerment deals with economic development, literacy, health education, and women’s advocacy.

The mission of the organization is totally in harmony with the mainstream liberal movement of women’s emancipation and advocacy, and serves a significant role in giving a voice to the struggle and suffering of Haitian women in Chicago. Inspirational leadership is at the heart of the movement’s call for women’s participation and liberation inside the Haitian community, and provides credibility to the funder community. The dedication and commitment of the organizational leaders are without question, attested to by long hours, often without pay. The vision of the organization is very clear, and has been stated by the leader and understood: The organization strives to create conditions in which Haitian women can grow and become fully liberated, with access to skills, jobs, and resources for the betterment of their lives.

However, in this organization of about 10 primarily female staff members, the climate is heavy. Staff complain of not having a voice in the affairs of the organization. The absence of communication, the decision-making processes, and the structure of the organization combine to create an environment of mistrust and dissatisfaction—all working against the laudable mission of the organization.

How does one reconcile visionary leadership, servant leadership, and what appears to be close to autocratic behavior? How does one make sense of those conflicting behaviors?

Charismatic and visionary leaders work well in America. This can be acknowledged as a “romance for leadership,” and there seems to be a continual search for it. Research from Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research Project ( supports that love for the charismatic, visionary, and inspirational characteristics of leadership.

The assumption that many on the outside of such models hold is that the charismatic, passionate advocate represents accurately the needs of the people who are supposed to benefit from the work of the organization—and possibly this is true for some limited period of time, but it may not be the way to develop sustaining community organizations for a number of reasons.

First, in a country such as Haiti, plagued with a history of deception, charismatic or inspirational leadership is viewed with great skepticism. Inspirational leaders with honorable causes have routinely betrayed constituents throughout Haiti’s history. They come and go in both the public and private domains. In other words, charismatic leadership and visionary leadership are often associated with autocratic and repressive forms of management. Staff and constituents’ experience is that management led by inspirational leaders tends to cultivate personality cults that have to be played to. Accordingly, it is familiar for staff to have either a heavy structure or absence of structure, supporting autocratic control of the agenda.

To pose an alternative, if the well-established concept of servant leadership were embraced as a conscious goal, it might serve to help Haitians running organizations in the U.S. to change the level of trust between stakeholders. This would simultaneously increase the potential and power of those organizations. Greenleaf’s idea of servant leadership proposes that leaders first be experienced as a servant to others, including employees, customers, and community. This, however, might not be an easy shift to make. Applying and implementing the servant leadership paradigm in the organization could, at least at first, be seen as manipulation strategy. A passive-aggressive reaction could range from refusing to participate to excessive unrealistic demands on leadership. Consistency of practice would need to be maintained over time to ensure that both leaders and followers were confident in the new approach and in hopes that the ranks of leaders would grow exponentially over time.


Haitian organizations are not, by any means, the only ones that function within these paradoxes—we see the same model in many organizations led by native-born people. In such organizations, the leader is often both the victim and one of the major perpetuators of this disposition. In America, it is only relatively recently that a conscious effort has been made to eradicate the long history of “top-down” approaches to leadership and management practices. These practices, left over from the management theories of a long bygone era, provide a thin patina of order and clarity. One can well understand the allure of the highly traditional for an organization attempting to establish itself in the mainstream of public life in a foreign culture.

Leadership in the immigrant community—and especially in the Haitian community—is very complex, as it requires the understanding and the reconciliation of two worlds. Social and cultural factors pose significant constraints to the management of immigrant organizations. Based on empirical investigation conducted in the various Haitian communities in the U.S., I propose the following elements as the foundation for core leadership and organizational development in the context of immigrant organizations:

1. An Appreciation for Cultural Heritage. How does a good organization work in the home country? What does not work, and for what reason? What prevents the organization in the home country from working effectively?

What type of organization do we want to create? To what extent does our history in our home country influence organizational practices in our host country? What do we want to bring forward and what don’t we want to repeat? How should we define new norms of practices?

2. Greater Individual Awareness on Issues of Personal Accountability. Ego defense mechanisms are actively reinforced and reproduced, even with environmental change. A conscious effort should be made to look in the mirror. It should be encouraged and nurtured.

Haitians tend to talk about Haitians in the third person. How could we talk about the “I”? For instance, what role do I take in supporting unproductive behaviors? For Haitian leaders, how do our actions support or limit our effectiveness in organizations? How do we unlearn unproductive behaviors? How do we engage others in a collective search for authenticity and accountability? Do I encourage feedback on my behaviors? Could I listen differently?

3. Staff and Constituent Participation and Accountability. How do we give everyone a voice in the making of the organization? How do we ensure a culture of execution and joint accountability for the whole? How do we reward good citizenship behavior in the context of the organizations?

These things can be collected under the umbrella of a shift from a charismatic and autocratic leadership style to a more facilitative leadership style, and under a shift in organizational form from a hierarchical to a learning organization. Haitian community organizations and Haitian communities are rich with talent and drive—figuring out how to help all of this reach its collective potential should be a large part of the work of our community-based organizations.


1. Metayer, N. The Politics of Marooning: Trust and Distrust in the Haitian Community [research paper] Cleveland, Ohio; Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University; 2002. and Metayer N. Jan’l Passé, l’passe: The Haitian Organization in the Landscape of America [doctoral dissertation]. Cleveland, Ohio: Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University; 2003.

2. Ibid.

3. Metayer, N. Jan’l Passé, l’passe: The Haitian Organization in the Landscape of America [doctoral dissertation]. Cleveland, Ohio: Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University; 2003.

4. Pean, LJR. Economie Politique de la Corruption: De Saint Domingue a Haiti 1791–1870. Port-au-Prince: Editions Memoire; 2000.

Nesly Metayer is a fellow at the Mandel Center for Nonprofit Organizations (2001-2005) and director of community development and capacity building at the Center for Community Health, Education & Research. He has a doctoral degree from the University of Paris and is an EDM Candidate at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.