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More on Service Leadership with Tara Davila, LCSW

July 13, 2023

In the last edition of the Yale Child Study Center (YCSC) “On Leadership” column, YCSC Vice Chair for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Tara Davila, LCSW addressed what the term “service leadership” means to her, her leadership role models, and key leadership practices that inform her efforts to enhance diversity, equity, inclusion at the YCSC. In this second of a two-part series, Davila continues the conversation with Daryn H. David, PhD, by reflecting on lessons learned from utilizing different leadership styles and the legacy she hopes will eventually mark her work.


Daryn David (DD): What has been your most important lesson about leadership?

Tara Davila (TD): The importance of being led by my values and holding true to myself. Early in my career, I was so insecure and made to feel unseen as a multiracial, Puerto Rican woman with a master’s degree in a school of medicine. That insecurity, coupled with years of cultural conditioning in relation to authority, structural racism, and misogyny led me to emulate a style of leadership that was antithetical to my nature. I thought that to succeed, I needed to support and emulate the only leadership model to which I had access.

This model was punitive, untrusting, controlling, and invalidating. I did not listen to my instincts about the ineffectiveness of this model, and instead worked to emulate it, ignoring how uncomfortable it was for me and the harm I worried it caused (and it did). Since others in power had not challenged this leader, I thought “that is just the way it is done here, and I must embrace this if I want to be successful here.” I operated with the fear of falling out of favor and what this could mean (i.e., retaliation – losing my job and being slandered) and with this focus on preserving self I was complicit in creating and upholding a toxic culture.

DD: What is the most valuable thing you learned from that difficult experience?

After the leader who espoused this style left and I remained. I had to reflect on the impact of this on our community and take accountability for my role in it. At first, I blamed the leader exclusively. As I have gained more distance, I have reflected on my decision points and why and how I chose the path I was on. I had to face that I was complicit and that I had choices. It made me recognize the importance of engaging in my own reflection on identity and experiences. Had I done that sooner, I would have known what to look out for, what my pitfalls were, and how to work to avoid them. I would have been able to anchor into my values and interrupt the structures that support and perpetuate harmful ideas of power.

Through tears, apologies, reflection, learning, and very difficult conversations, I was able to find my way to new role models and opted to engage in formal and informal learning about identity, leadership, supervision, and teaching. These experiences set me on a path to embrace the courage and humility to stand in the style of leadership that aligns more with my soul, which is serving and supporting my community to meet its fullest potential.

That was one of the hardest and most valued experiences of my professional career. The lessons gleaned from that experience are what allow me to courageously embrace vulnerability as a leader. I have had the profound privilege of being accountable to my community to repair harm and have seen that change is possible. I am proud that I am still in deep and meaningful relationships with many who would have been impacted by my former approach, as this means I effectively made amends.

What gives me hope in the DEI space is this: I have seen difficult yet important change happen. My leadership course correction has also prepared me to embrace not knowing all the answers, trying something new, evaluating, and changing my approach as needed.

I am human, which by definition makes me imperfect. Even with my values as my true north, I will make mistakes – and I know that I will learn from them, correct them, and be accountable for them. I would not have arrived here were it not for the hard things.

DD: What is the single most lasting leadership legacy you hope would come from your various efforts at the Center?

TD: I can only hope that I will have contributed to co-constructing a community that centers connection; sees and respects the dignity of all people; embodies the conditions that support psychological bravery; and genuinely cares for one another. If I have contributed to this, then the gifts and talents of all would be seen and supported. People would know they belong. Diversity (by the numbers) will be easier to achieve, and our community members will hold themselves accountable to and for one another.

I hope that I will have made a deep and significant contribution to supporting my community in an authentic culture shift that embraces the truly messy and imperfect human experience and works to support it rather than stifle it. I hope that I will have modeled that authentic connection and care for the people in our community is at the heart of equity, inclusion, and belonging; and we will easily attract and sustain diversity and recognize and promote people that represent that diversity.

Submitted by Crista Marchesseault on July 11, 2023