Latina Administrators Applying Resonant Leadership Practices in Higher Education Settings

Patricia Arredondo, PhD
Arredondo Advisory Group

The purpose of this brief article is to highlight resonant leadership practices as applied by Latina administrators in varying higher education positions and institutions. With resonant leadership leaders work from their values and self-awareness and evoke emotions of people around them through the use of empathy, attentiveness, and encouragement (Goleman et al.,2002). Resonant leadership is an application of emotional intelligence. The data reported come from a qualitative study using appreciative inquiry methodology. Participants provided written responses to 10 questions inquiring about their experiences managing adversity and microaggressions, their use of authority, and the role of their identity and cultural heritage in enacting leadership. Latina cultural socialization, expectations about “niceness”, and walking the borderlands constructs are introduced.

Leadership Paradigms
Leadership models have been male-centric for many years with male’s styles of leading held up as exemplars to emulate. McGregor (1960) described Theory X and Theory Y type male leaders as individuals who are autocratic and exert command-and-control style of behaviors. McClelland, 1975) indicated that a leaders’ need for achievement and power would motivate them to be more authoritative and in control; women were not all part of leadership discussions. In a ground-breaking book, Men and Women of the Corporation, Kanter (1977) reported the need to recognize that gender socialization and stereotypes affected how women were perceived as managers and leaders. Her position was that women could not be compared to men nor could they have the spotlight on them constantly.

Relational styles of leading are often attributed to women in organizations. Research findings point to women’s collectivistic and interactive styles, coach and teacher-like that tend to be more people-centered and participatory (Eagly & Carli, 2007). The terms inclusive, relational, and transformative can characterize some women’s tendencies as leaders. Another paradigm widely used in organizations is the emotional intelligence (EI) model developed by Daniel Goleman (1995). The four EI domains are very similar to ones taught in multicultural psychology that promote cultural competency development (Sue, Arredondo & McDavis, 1992). They are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. The self-awareness domain is most critical in organizational behavior because it enables empathy and self-management, particularly emotional selfmanagement. Theoretically, leaders who are more selfaware of their biases, assumptions, and hot buttons can engage in more perspective-taking and empathy. With increased attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion as processes of change and best practices in organizations, culturally competency development is being positioned as a necessary learning process so that leaders can create a workplace climate where all can be respected and thrive.

Latina Administrators in Higher Education
Generally speaking, women administrators in higher education are highly underrepresented in roles of president, provost and deans and Latina leaders are an even smaller percentage (American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education, 2018). For Latinas, rising through the academic ranks generally requires walking through the “borderlands” (Anzaldúa, 1987) that is, managing expectations from the white majority structures while maintaining their cultural integrity and performing the responsibilities of their position. The chilly climate (Sandler and Hall, 1986) and stereotype threat (Steele & Aaronson,, 1995) are just two of the dynamics that affect women’s retention as leaders. For Latinas and other women of color, the culture of whiteness is always present.

The cultural socialization process for Latinas is grounded in values and belief systems with expectations for caretaking, putting others needs first, and conceding their power (Arredondo (2011). These norms about Latina behavior are not so different than those of the majority of women perhaps, but because of their ethnic minority status in the workplace, prejudice, low expectations, and stereotypes about their capabilities are not uncommon, the bar to accommodate and perform is set higher. Two additional dynamics relative to Latinas in the workplace are the constructs of niceness and colorism. Expectations of niceness are also held for Latinas—pleasantness, friendliness, and lots of smiles. In his study of Latinas in educational and political settings, Alemán (2009) found the “politics of niceness” as ever-present, and as forms of judgment about the women. Being nice, subservient, and agreeable were expected leading to double-binds for women who had authority and a sense of their autonomy. Because of one’s national origin, Latinas cannot be typecast as looking one way or another. The construct of colorism comes into play because the lighter skinned one is, the likelihood for more positive assessments and privileges (Adames, Chavez-Dueñas & Organista, 2016). The culture of whiteness is ever-present and Latinas often integrate a department whether as a colleague, supervisor, or the “boss”. Further, Latinas have lower ascribed status than white women, regardless of their position (Eagly xxx. Examples will be shared in this article.

The Study
An appreciative inquiry approach (Cooperrider, 1987) was used for a qualitative study with Latina academic administrators. It is a methodology that focuses on strengths, vision, and hopes for the future. It invites narratives for further thematic analysis or follow-up questions. Data were gathered from 8 Latinas in roles of deans, provost, and directors, on average with 10-20 years of administrative experience. A 10 item questionnaire was used, inviting the women to provide descriptions of their leadership roles, scope of responsibilities, most and least gratifying experiences as an administrator, and influences on their lives. The data yielded themes and narratives about the women’s experiences in managing adversity, effective use of their authority, and the role of their identity and heritage in enacting leadership. A few themes and case examples of what I learned follow.

Key Findings
The findings overtly align with the EI paradigm and cultural competency framework of awareness, knowledge and skill. All of the women described their mind-set or cognitive skills for leading; they thought about and processed what they heard or were asked to do. They would listen and apply emotional intelligence practices of resonant leadership, particularly emotional selfmanagement and empathy. They engaged in selfawareness, other awareness, and then considered how to respond in the given context. Consider the case examples that follow. All names are fictious.

Ana, a graduate school dean spoke of being challenged her first day on the job by a supervisee who told her that someone else should have received the position because he had been there longer. Another supervisee did not know the Ana was close-by and stated she did not believe Native American students should receive scholarships. The man who did not receive the position spoke to the dean, now his boss, coaching her to not say so much at meetings because her predecessor rarely said anything. Ana indicated that she did not respond reactively or at the moment but thought about how to provide feedback in the particular context. Before arriving to the all-white department, Ana had heard that it was an “old-guard” type unit that wanted the status quo to persist, after all, they were the Graduate School. In fact her appointment was meant to challenge them . Ana described her meetings with the three individuals as firm and authoritative discussions, setting boundaries and reminding them that prejudicial comments about Native American students would not be tolerated in the office. She also invited the Chief Diversity Officer and the Human Resources Director to provide educational sessions to the employees on professional protocols and the laws on discrimination. Using available resources in and out of the department was a common practice of the 8 women. They did not go it alone.

Emilia had been both a founding department chair and academic dean. In her first meeting with Department Chairs that now reported to her, she received mixed responses. She was told that her predecessor did not have group meetings but met with each person one-toone. Emilia responded to the feedback and met with the five department chairs. This became a regular practice in addition to the monthly group meeting. In time the Chairs became more engaged and comfortable although one of the men remarked that working for a Latina was not what he was accustomed to. He went on to say that she was far too serious and a bit authoritative. Emilia decided this was a teachable moment for her direct reports and invited others to share their perceptions of her leadership. In so doing, she took a risk but one that she believed was necessary to model open and respectful dialogue. The discussion was pivotal, laying the foundation for honest and open dialogues. Rather than take the male Chair’s comment as an affront, Emilia used it to demonstrate that she was open-minded; she practiced resonant leadership. Often times, the Latina has to demonstrate patience, effective communications and empathy in order to shift the perceptions of those who have never worked with or for a Latina. Though Emilia admitted that taking care of those who were culturally unaware could be tiresome, she knew that as a leader, she had to shape behavior and create a climate of inclusion and respect. When it came time to hiring an associate dean, an African American woman was readily selected. The Chairs saw her as the best candidate and admitted proudly that their department was with only one in the College led by two women of color.

Latinas Leading Change with Cultural Integrity
Resistance to new leadership is not uncommon but when Latinas are part of the equation, the acting out of faculty and staff may increase. All of the women reported different and difficult experiences with resistance that they found disrespectful and racist, but they had to take the high road, applying their resonant leadership skills. Teresa reflected on her years growing up on the TexasMexico border and how often she heard racist language about Mexicans. However, her parents taught her that self-respect and relying on family members when such experiences occurred would be a form of strength. Thus, when she got push back about having diversity criteria for hiring of faculty, she listened and firmly stated why this was important for the department and the increasingly diverse student body. She used data to make her point and the faculty “got it”. Similarly, a dean at a Research 1 university also advocated for diversity statements from potential hires. This practice eventually became the norm for the entire university. It is likely evident that culturally integrity is embedded in the Latinas’ leadership behavior. They administer with firmness and authority, and a degree of persuasion.

The Latina administrators valued their cultural and linguistic heritage and used it as a source of strength to lead through adverse situations. Cultural self-awareness and integrity, recognizing one’s responsibilities, and keeping the big picture in mind were touch points all used. As one senior provost stated: “What kept me going was believing that I was making a difference in matters of equity and justice for faculty, staff, and students.”

Implications for DEI Organizational Initiatives
This qualitative study did not have hypotheses, rather, following the appreciative inquiry methodology, the goal was to learn about the administrators’ experiences through responses to a set of questions. There are several lessons learned about the Latina administrators’ leadership mindset and behavior that can be applied in academic and non-academic settings alike when it comes to positioning Latina administrators/leaders for success. A few examples follow.

  1. When conducting climate studies, 1-1 interviews should be held with Latinx or other underrepresented women administrators to learn about their individual and shared experiences. Too often individuals are expected to change, not the organization.
  2. Human Resource personnel and hiring supervisors need to attend to the talent they are considering when hiring Latinx women. Engaging in stereotyped assumptions about Latinas creates a reductionistic perspective about the women.
  3. Latina leaders have had to walk the borderlands and other tightropes to achieve; as the case examples demonstrated, intelligent and confident women are not going to play the “nice” Latina role. They are serious business leaders.
  4. There are differences among Latinas, thus, inquire respectfully if you want to know more about someone. Remember, Latinas have multiple dimensions of identity. They are women, professionals, of a certain age, national origin, geographic location, educational background, sexual orientation status, and so forth.

Organizational intentionality to promote diversity, equity and inclusion is stated widely in many work settings, including college and universities. However, the selection and appointment of Latinas and other persons of color does upset the status quo, no matter how talented the individuals may be. The implication for organizations is to ensure that the new leader have the resources and guidance to be successful and for senior administration to recognize that the appointment of a culturally different person creates cognitive and emotional dissonance. The examples shared in this paper are evidence of the overt and covert push-back the administrators experienced. Do not expect that Latinas carry the burden of managing everyone’s discomfort with respect to cultural differences because the end result may be burnout.

Leaders must ensure that individuals overseeing and supervising diverse hires engage in emotional intelligence and cultural competency development. In contemporary and future work settings, both global and domestic, these are skill sets that can support retention and success of all employees


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