Fernando Torres-Gil: get out of your comfort zone, be self-confident and resilient

Editor’s note: This past January, ASA surveyed its members about what it takes to be a leader in the field of aging, what members would like to learn about how to develop leadership knowledge, skills and abilities, and who best personifies leadership. ASA members identified respected leaders in aging—many of whom are well known to the ASA community and to the field at large. This following Q&A with Fernando Torres-Gil is one in a series of leadership profiles we will feature on Generations Today and Generations Now in the coming months.

Fernando Torres-Gil headshot
Fernando Torres-Gil

Fernando Torres-Gil is a Professor of Social Welfare and Public Policy at UCLA, an Adjunct Professor of Gerontology at the University of Southern California and Director of the UCLA Center for Policy Research on Aging. Torres-Gil was recently appointed to California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Stakeholder Advisory Committee for developing the state’s Master Plan for Aging.

Torres-Gil has served in three presidential administrations (Carter, Clinton and Obama) in the Federal Council on Aging and as a White House Fellow. He was the first appointed U.S. Assistant Secretary on Aging, was Vice Chair of the National Council on Disability and served as Staff Director of the U.S. House Select Committee on Aging under his mentor, Congressman Edward R. Roybal (D-CA).

Generations Today: How might you describe the ways leadership in the field of aging differs from leadership in other fields?

Fernando Torres-Gil: We in gerontology and geriatrics are now exercising major leadership roles in our disciplines—roles that impact scholarship, research and practice and, in some isolated cases, public policy.

Yet, are we providing leadership for a nation, society and world growing older? I would say not really—with important exceptions (e.g., Paul Irving, Key Dychtwald, Gov. Gavin Newsom). Those of us who are experts in gerontology and geriatrics are not central to the larger issues of influencing global aging and population aging, reframing the public narrative about what it means to live a long life and being ‘key players’ in how all sectors are responding to longevity. Other disciplines—business, economics, politics, journalism, the arts—seem to have greater influence as aging has become mainstream.

GT: How did you use networking to progress in the field of aging?

FTG: I learned early on to have big dreams (however unreachable!), to have mentors and to listen to those mentors. Growing up in public housing, I never had a friend who was not Mexican, but I always reached out to get to know people who were not like me. At San Jose State, I worked with the United Farm Workers and learned the value of building relationships with a diverse set of individuals, to get out of my comfort zone and to build relationships with people I was not comfortable with.

That lesson has paid dividends over decades, and has made my career, my political connections and my political appointments possible. Networking and nurturing those relationships is a job in and of itself, on top of making a living, and having a family.

GT: What sort of education did you find most helpful?

FTG: My government and political science courses. And history, which was always my favorite topic throughout middle school, junior high, high school and college.

GT: What do you think is the most critical skill to have as a leader?

FTG: There are three things to assimilate over a career: skills (to write well, understand technology); capabilities (networking, public speaking); and competencies (being an expert at something).

But to be a leader, maybe there are just two things: self-confidence and resiliency. To know who you are as a person. To be able to persevere and hang in there when you fall down and make mistakes, and to cultivate an ability to look forward and be optimistic.

GT: Can you speak to one leadership challenge encountered on the job and how you met it?

FTG: I’ll tell you about one failure and one success.

Where I felt I had totally failed and was in over my head was when I was a White House Fellow and appointed to work with Cabinet Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) Joe Califano as Special Assistant.

My first assignment was to develop an initiative for Hispanics on how HEW could better help the growing Spanish population. I blew it! I had no idea how to understand the bureaucracy or the complexity of what I was working with, no idea how to define outcomes or processes or who should be part of it. After about six months, they pulled the assignment away from me and gave it to someone else. Fortunately, I had built up good relationships, a network, and had generated tremendous good will, so those people covered for me and protected me. They completed the assignment—and even gave me some credit.

A success was when I served under President Carter as the Special Assistant to Joe Califano and was given the least glamorous responsibility, in the summer of 1979, overseeing immigrants and refugees. Califano was in China on a fact-finding mission, when a huge wave of Vietnamese were fleeing their country in boats, into the South China sea, and they were being attacked by pirates; they were in tremendous danger. The question was, do we rescue the boat people? Because if it’s a U.S. policy decision, and the U.S. Navy rescues them, then the United States is responsible for resettling them.

A frantic call comes in, saying we need a representative of HEW to come to the Situation Room to address the impending crisis. The Secretary and Deputy Secretary were in China, so they sent me. “What does the HEW say?” they asked.

I was overwhelmed, but decided I had better just rely on my self-confidence, and on what I know and to face it directly. “Should we pick them up? Should HEW take responsibility?” I answered yes to both questions. The Navy picked up the Vietnamese refugees and brought them to the Philippines. I was admonished by several top level career staff for making a decision to which I was not given authority or discretion and that I would pay a price for it. But then Califano called to commend me for making the decision and exercising my autonomy.

Many years, later I met a number of successful Vietnamese people who had been rescued and had done incredibly well in business and academia. It’s a nice legacy.

GT: What might you say to inspire younger potential leaders in the aging sector?

FTG: You’re coming into the field at an opportune time, when the field has yet to move into its most exciting period: the real action lies ahead of us.

We need you younger leaders to make a difference in how America responds to its demographic inevitability. It’s your responsibility, and a great opportunity to make a difference in the field.