Over 31 years at LAYC, I have faced many difficult and sometimes uncomfortable circumstances and have made many tough decisions. The word “tough” might lead you to believe this sort of decision-making is really hard to do. I admit that in the beginning of my career that was the case. I would lie in bed at night listing pros and cons. I would discuss the issue with co-workers, friends, strangers, and just about anyone who would listen, until I got so many opinions that I would become immobilized.
One day, I figured it out. Since then, making tough decisions and managing complex circumstances has become easier. And, I believe, my approach to decision-making has been a key ingredient in my success as a nonprofit leader.
I use one litmus test for every decision that I make–the big ones, the little ones, the easy ones, even the most politically charged ones. Every tough moment is guided by one unequivocal value, my basic mantra: What is in the best interest of the young people, their families, and our community?
Guided by this simple formula, my decision-making process is not tough at all. Guided by doing right by the young people in our community, I feel empowered to charge forward, no matter how politically sticky or complicated the situation. Doing right by the young people is my golden rule. I carry this with me throughout the day; it impacts everything I do.
As LAYC has engaged in strategic business planning processes and complex funding investment agreements, I have repeatedly been asked “Can you make the tough decisions?” I often feel that behind this question, at times accompanied by a stern look, is the assumption that I cannot do what needs to be done, that I am not up for the job. Perhaps my warm, casual, and friendly demeanor has led the questioner to believe that tough is not part of my nature. Perhaps they have been mistakenly misled by the smile on my face or my southern upbringing. Perhaps for them the tough decisions and circumstances really are hard.
With a calm smile on my face and my mantra in my head, I warn them not to be fooled. Guided by what is in the best interest of the young people, families, and my community, I will do whatever needs to be done, say whatever needs to be said. I will handle the circumstance and, in the end, I will get the job done.
In addition to tough decisions, some of my most challenging circumstances are often political in nature. How many times have we heard that we should not bite the hand that feeds us? Tough situations can be confrontational and may involve taking on a staff person, a Board member, a partner, a funder, a government civil servant, or an elected official. With my mantra at hand, truly, I have no problem at all dealing with these circumstances. It may be way too time consuming; I may lose bit of sleep. But doing what is right on behalf of our youth, families, and community is all that I need to guide me.
During these times, I have wondered what mantra or value guides the tough decision-making of others. Is it pleasing a supervisor or self-interest? Is it lack of understanding of how hard our work is? Could it be that they believe they know what is best for LAYC or our youth community or that they know more than I do?
Strategically, if is important to understand where someone else is coming from. But in the end, it really does not matter. My job is to stand for community and do what is right. I am always willing to learn, hear opinions, and receive expert advice. In the end, though, I will be guided by the core values that we at LAYC — youth, families, staff, and Board – have developed over many decades: What is in the best interest of the young people, their families, and our community?
With my mantra in hand, I stand on my personal integrity and that of the amazing young people and their families and of the LAYC staff and Board of Directors who support our youth and families day in and day out.
Sometimes it feels easier to take the path of least resistance. But leadership means standing for what is right, no matter how time-consuming, how messy, how much I would rather be doing something else.
Next time you are faced with a tough decision or tough circumstance, stand on your personal guiding principle, on what brought you to this work to begin with. I feel confident that at the end of the day you, like me, will find that whatever you went through was worth the struggle and that the tough decision you made was also the right decision.