Five years ago, I helped create the Latino Leadership Alliance (LLA) Leadership Academy in collaboration with Stanford’s Center for the Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity to identify, develop, and support emerging leaders that work with Latino communities. Last week, the group introduced Cohort 5 of the LLA Leadership Academy and Stanford Leadership Institute, and continued to strengthen its role as a respected institution of leadership training and learning in the Silicon Valley.
The LLA Leadership Academy developed a model of servant leadership based on bringing together the business, community, education, and public sectors for the common good of the community. In addition to the intensive eight-month program, one of my favorite dynamics of the academy is the ongoing dialogue the cohorts have about the practical practice of leadership after graduation.
At last Thursday’s announcement event, one of the academy alumni posed a fascinating question. She was deliberating on an issue as a leader of a community group that appeared to be in conflict with her role at work and her personal values. Her thought-provoking description of the situation reminded me that leadership is a complex and tough business.
Although there have been leaders since the dawn of humankind, leadership as an academic discipline has only been around for about 50 years. The academic research has resulted in many schools of thought on business, organizational, educational, and political leadership. There are common threads like trust, integrity, and the common good. Unfortunately, however, there’s no silver-bullet to help resolve complicated questions around conflicting considerations.
As a corporate executive, I faced many decisions when company goals, a community group’s objective, and my personal beliefs were seemingly in conflict. Adding to that soupy recipe are personal relationships and political considerations. Once you stir it all up, it’s a thick stew that requires balanced deliberation to get to the right decision. So how do you do that? One question serves as a solid starting point when confronting these sticky situations: What’s the goal?
The question sounds so simple, but making difficult decisions is usually fraught with a complex web of potential winners and losers, advocates on all sides of the issue, and negative impacts if the decision isn’t sound. If your goal is to save your own skin, then get out of leadership business. However, if your goal is to take the best course of action, you must eliminate the noise that could cloud your decision.
Executive management deals with thorny choices on a daily basis. One such decision I made in my corporate career stands out for me. When I had secured a coordinator position for my department, the job description was going to be a dynamic on-the-job process because the position was new to the organization. Therefore, the qualities needed for the role weren’t cut and dry, which made the decision even more complex.
After an initial round of interviews, two candidates stood out from a long list applicants. They had distinctive personalities, unique relationships within the company, and different skill sets. Since I’ve never made a secret about my passion for providing opportunities to qualified and talented Latinos, the fact that one candidate was Latina and the other wasn’t complicated matters.
The lobbying for both applicants was spirited to say the least. At the local office, managers and employees vouched for the Latina who worked there while higher-ups and department colleagues advocated for the other candidate who had previous experience in the department. I had to consider how the decision would impact my personal relationships with the local team and my department colleagues, not to mention trying to keep my bosses happy.
It was a perfect storm where upper management and local office wants, and my personal beliefs seemed to swirl in conflict with each other. The whole purpose for creating the job posting in the first place disappeared in the cacophony of issues not related to the position. Since the pressure from upstairs and my department was stronger than that of the local team, I leaned toward hiring the applicant with department experience.
When I shared my thoughts with Sandra, which I always do before making a decision on complicated work matters, she counseled that I may be hiring someone for the wrong reasons. A sleepless night of tossing and turning ended when I finally cut through the noise and asked myself what I advise others to do in that situation.
With one simple question, I started a deliberation process that addressed the needs of my department, not the personalities or external desires of others. I had created the new position to coordinate employees in the field from the local office to better meet department needs and achieve company goals. Out of that simple question came a simple answer.
I ultimately selected the person who met the company’s needs and reflected my personal values, the Latina from the local office. At first, the decision was met with skepticism from upper management and my colleagues. But the new coordinator turned out to be an excellent choice and erased any doubts. I also learned a valuable leadership lesson: When confronted with a complex decision, cut to the chase and ask yourself, “What’s the goal?”
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