Service is the path to leadership

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Lahela Williams, 32, is the executive director of Hawaiian Community Assets, a nonprofit that works with individuals and families to help them achieve personal finance and housing goals. Lahela was born and raised in Papakōlea and is the oldest of five children. She graduated from high school at 16 and started working at age 15 to help out her family. She balances family life with her husband and two children, with her work advocating for affordable housing and equitable access to finance and capital

What is the most valuable leadership lesson that you’ve learned so far?

“One of the most valuable lessons that I’ve learned is to lean in. For me, personally, it was easier to shy away, to delegate, to digress, to not have to step up and take on more. But that never got me anywhere. And so really leaning into the opportunities that presented themselves and being a mentee is never a bad thing. You don’t know everything. So, just lean in.”

Looking back, was there a defining moment that affected your journey thus far?

“Yes. It was losing my great-grandmother. When she passed there was a void. She saw in me a potential that I never wanted to experience or explore myself. When you sit with a kupuna, and they know where you’re destined to be, but you don’t see that…you don’t have that foresight.

“Just reflecting on those moments when I’d be in her presence, and I knew that she knew where I was supposed to be, but I shied away from it. That defining moment was her not being here anymore. And me not having that opportunity to lean into that moment. Losing her allowed me to step up to take my place.”

What’s your advice for young kānaka who aspire to lead and contribute to the lāhui?

“My advice for young kānaka wanting to lead is to serve. Every good leader begins their journey in service. Also, don’t be afraid. Don’t shy away from opportunities to be of use. If you live in a homestead, get involved with your Homestead Association. If you live near the Boys and Girls Club, go and volunteer your time. If you live in close proximity to a lo‘i or local farm, go give your time there.

“Service has empowered me. By serving the community I developed the tools I needed to prepare me to become a leader…and it wasn’t out of a book. It wasn’t something that I learned at a training. What really prepared me was just serving my community. So take time and serve. And along the way, you’ll pick up everything you need to prepare yourself.”

Lahela (far right) with her wahine mentors Aunty Puni Kekauoha and Aunty Adrienne Dillard and other members of the Papakōlea community.- Photo: Courtesy

Can you describe the attributes of good leadership based on your experience?

“I look for someone who is driven; someone who doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. A good leader is able to make a decision, forge a path, and accept all of the responsibility, right, wrong or indifferent, for the decisions that they make, but at their core, they have the lāhui at heart and are passionate about serving the community. I look for servant leaders. I consider myself a servant leader. You can’t lead unless you’re in the trenches doing the work yourself. That’s definitely what I look for when I’m looking for someone to follow.”

Was there a particular person who acted as a mentor and helped you get to where you’re at today?

“I have had the privilege of working with a few individuals who have really shaped who I am today as a leader. We are the women of Papakōlea. Aunty Puni Kekauoha and Aunty Adrienne Dillard are definitely some of my ‘go-tos’ when I need to make sure that I’m on the right track. I look for people who are okay correcting me; people with a heart for service. I look for people grounded in community. Another mentor is former HCS executive director Jeff Gilbreath. He challenged me to take on kuleana that I wasn’t quite ready for, and supported me through that journey.”

What are your hopes for the future of Hawai‘i and the Hawaiian people?

“My vision is for Ka Lāhui to be economically self-sufficient. And I don’t mean that by any Western personal finance definition. I mean that in a kānaka version. I want to see our lāhui have strong businesses that support each other. I want to see kānaka supporting those Native Hawaiian businesses. I want to see kānaka homeowners in every other house or condo. I want to see our lāhui not only surviving, but thriving, and earning incomes that can support their lifestyles. And when I say that, I don’t mean ‘be rich.’ We don’t all have to be rich. I don’t strive to be rich. I strive to provide for my family and contribute to my community. I know that’s enough for me. I want a lāhui that is happy and satisfied.”