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On Service Leadership: Q&A with YCSC Vice Chair for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Tara Davila, LCSW

May 18, 2023

The On Leadership blog is led by Daryn H. David, PhD, YCSC associate research scientist and associate director for leadership development in the Yale School of Medicine Offices of Academic and Professional Development and Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion. Initial posts addressed the concept of conscious accountability in various settings, including the importance of connection, collaboration, and compassion in professional and personal contexts.

The focus has since shifted to highlight various service leadership principles more directly through Q&A discussion with leaders at YCSC and YSM. The first of these posts was shared in a two-part series with YCSC Chair Linda Mayes, MD. This month, we hear from Tara Davila, LCSW, who serves in multiple roles in the department, including assistant clinical professor of social work; vice chair for diversity, equity and inclusion; and associate director of youth services. Learn more about Davila’s work. This is the first of a two-part interview with Davila.

Daryn David (DD): What does the term “service leadership” mean to you?

Tara Davila (TD): Service leadership is a style of leadership that resonates with me. For me, the “North Star” for service leadership is a focus primarily on what will benefit those in my community collectively, versus me individually. This is not to say that these things are mutually exclusive; I often find that I grow and am deeply gratified when my efforts respond to what is explicitly and implicitly expressed by those in my community.

Service requires deep listening and ongoing reflection. It requires being aware of one’s own “shark music” (what makes them scared) and why and how to navigate it in ways that lead to courage versus the desire to hide or defend. It requires being attuned to your own bias and working to not be led by them.

One who embraces service leadership intentionally centers diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, as these benefit the entire community. It requires connection, accountability, and creating spaces that support psychological courage. It centers mentorship that helps others to expand in their interests and talents instead of centering growing the legacy of the mentor.

Service leadership requires the courage to be vulnerable and embrace all parts of ourselves as humans, centers connection and intentionality, creates conditions to support our community in doing the same, and always endeavors to do the next, right thing.

DD: How might a service leadership mindset influence your work as vice chair for diversity, equity, and inclusion for the YCSC?

TD: I first want to highlight the main tenets of service leadership:

  • Honor Others (Before Yourself)
  • Inspire Vision (Before Setting the Course)
  • Choose Ethics (Before Profit)
  • Empower Others (Before Personal Gain)
  • Privilege People (Before Tasks)
  • Balance Focus with Flexibility (Before Making Decisions)
  • Serve With Humility (Before All Else)

I see these as integral to creating truly inclusive spaces and to creating the conditions that foster connection and support psychological courage. When we privilege people before tasks, choose ethics, and empower others, we create the conditions that allow us to interrupt the structures that perpetuate harmful and exclusive norms. I endeavor to serve with humility, by engaging in an ongoing practice of self- reflection. This allows me to reinforce strengths, identify and address my own growing edges, identify fears and how I respond to them, and scrutinize and understand what leads to my view of the world and how it and my experiences help or hinder my work.

This constant self- reflection also helps me to recognize my own biases and work to create friction so that I can work against their automatic influence. Centering connection, expanding empathy and understanding, and leading with humility, integrity and accountability are required to support enhancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB). In my view, they are inextricably linked. I do not think you can lead authentically without focusing on DEIB, and service leadership holds principles that align with practices that will center DEIB.

DD: If you had to choose, what is the one key leadership practice you feel everyone at the YCSC could adopt in order to work toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion?

TD: Courage with vulnerability!! We need courage to disrupt the norms and vulnerability to realize how we have upheld them. Courage is required to create psychologically brave spaces and vulnerability allows us to take the leap and model being brave in spaces together. Courage is needed to have hard conversations and vulnerability allows us to move away from our defenses, realize where we have mis-stepped, and hold ourselves accountable. Courage and vulnerability are required to lead in a way that centers the community and moves away from the styles that have been lauded in the academy and have perpetuated harm.

DD: Who are your leadership role models?

TD: Although I do have role models, I find myself compelled to share the leadership practices that I find stifling and harmful. I have learned that I cannot be in spaces led by people who expect others to operate within their narrow definitions of what is acceptable and are not open to expanding that definition. Invalidating and controlling leaders who are punitive and lead from a place of anxiety, positioning themselves as the only person with the answers also give me pause.

I gravitate towards leaders who admit that they don’t know all of the answers, are okay with that, empower their colleagues and staff members, and do with versus to others. I admire leaders who take risks and are willing to see what happens versus those who stay in their comfort zones even though they know that comfort zone has caused discomfort and harm for others. Within my time at the Child Study Center, I have had access to all kinds of leaders, and feel fortunate that my everyday dealings are with smart, thoughtful leaders – many of whom identify as women – who are embracing a more collectivistic style of leadership.

Look for more on service leadership with Tara Davila early this summer.

Submitted by Crista Marchesseault on May 16, 2023