Moral Leadership in Action

Chávez Propelled by a Lifelong Desire to Transform the World through Servant Leadership

ARTICLE | Oct 25, 2017

As Assistant City Manager Reina Schwartz, San Pablo, California, so accurately characterized in her keynote session introduction, Tuesday’s keynote speaker Anna Maria Chávez is driven by “her desire to transform the world through servant leadership.” Chavez spoke on the topic through the lens of moral leadership, which she defined as the leadership required especially during challenging times, when people most look to you, as leaders, to model behaviors. To paraphrase Chávez, it’s the ethics and values of leaders that shine the brightest.

Chávez, the first woman of color to lead the Girl Scouts of the USA (from 2011 to 2016), peppered her observations about moral leadership with numerous examples from her professional and personal life. Take, for instance, the California city that requires its elected officials to take an online ethics course and then makes public on its website their completion of the course.

Or the superintendent of the Air Force Academy who, upon finding out that racial slurs had been written on the walls of the academy’s preparatory school, assembled all 1,500 staff and 4,000 cadets and said to them, “If you are not going to support the people who are different from you, then get out.” He then instructed them to take out their mobile phones and record his next statement: “There is no place in the academy or the Air Force for a leader who doesn’t support everyone in their ranks.”

A point Chávez emphasized several times was that local government professionals are already modeling moral leadership. She noted the example of a local government that is creating a welcoming community for immigrant populations, committing to supporting educational programs, and understanding the need and importance of diversity.

Local Governments Are Ground Zero for Diversity and Inclusion

Chávez drilled down on the issues of diversity and inclusion. Why, Chávez asked members of the ICMA audience, should they care about diversity and inclusion? For one, she said, it’s about communities, about families, and making sure everyone has a voice. It also makes economic sense, she continued, referencing statistics that indicate that by 2020 more than half of the children in the U.S. will be part of more than one race or ethnic group. And by 2044, the U.S. will no longer have a single ethnic majority.

“You are ground zero,” proclaimed Chávez, “because the community is where inclusion and diversity reside.” She also noted, “In the absence of national leadership, the local government professional’s role is to be creative in integrating these issues into policy making—celebrating diversity and making it part of the business plan.”

Chávez has experience setting policies and changing organizations. While CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, which at the time was in decline as measured by standard business indicators, Chávez set out to understand the organization’s stakeholders’ wants and needs through their eyes. A structure was set up to get feedback from 12,000 customers—girls, boards of directors, and field and headquarters staff. (The Girl Scouts is a federation and located in 94 countries.)

Chávez traveled the world to see what was and wasn’t working, and redesigned the organization on a customer-centric model. As Chávez put it, feedback is a gift, growth is optional. Since leaving the organization last summer, membership was up for the first time in more than a decade.

Gender and Leadership

By the third grade, Chávez explained, girls start opting out of leadership roles because they get negative reactions. In society, people see female leadership differently than they view male leadership. When girls look around, they don’t see anything that resonates with them. Chávez believes that girls need to have a safe space in which they can be free to develop their leadership. It’s about investing in the future, Chávez emphasized.

From the Girl Scouts and her own parents, Chávez learned about true leadership and how parents teach leadership to their children. Likewise, adults have a clear role in creating leaders in their communities. It’s the job of adults to give children good values, good lessons, and the right path. Crucial moments in one’s life, Chávez offered, create true lessons of leadership. When as a child Chávez questioned her mother about why she ran for elected office, her mother explained: It’s not why we do it, it’s for whom. If you don’t do the right thing, the underserved won’t get the resources they need.

Chávez told the story of going out to a restaurant soon after being asked to lead the Girl Scouts. At the restaurant, all of the wait staff congregated to acknowledge her achievement, clapping as she walked by. “This gentleman with weathered hands,” described Chávez, told her to lead this organization “for all those little girls who want to come after you. You are their legacy.” That is when Chávez realized that her role was about leading change, building a legacy for those she serves.

Standing Up for Your Values

As Chávez acknowledged, however, it can be scary “leaning into leadership” when everyone else is leaning out. And sometimes, she said, you have to encourage people who don’t necessarily see themselves in a leadership role. Never one to ignore what’s not fair, Chávez has gone on to advocate on behalf of issues of diversity, inclusion, and homelessness, and can say through experience that “at times of need, moral leadership requires us to stand up.”

As a leader, Chávez explained, when driving change, you have to surround yourself with people who will bring you the truth. And you have to understand the cultural context you’re stepping into. “I’ve learned the biggest lessons from my biggest critics” Chávez proclaimed.

In March 2012, Chávez received a particularly loathsome letter that declared foreigners—and Chávez’s advocacy on their behalf—to be the cause of all that is wrong with America. Chávez uses that letter to remind herself that the role she plays and the work she does is about standing up for her values, and doing so in a way that enables her team to emulate those values behind her.

It’s the same, Chávez said, for professionals in local government. “We’re pulling the best out of people, not the worst.” And so, Chávez pointed out, the letter writer in 2012 gave her the best feedback؅ because it evokes Chávez’s core feelings—“That I’m proud to be an American.”

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