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Legacy of Leadership: Legacy of Service Award

Legacy of Leadership: Legacy of Service Award

Gloria Gray – “Reflections on Leadership”

Chairwoman Metropolitan Water District of Southern California Board of Directors
Director, West Basin Municipal Water District

An early commitment to hard work and community service set Gloria Gray’s path to leadership. Growing up the daughter of a Houston steelworker who relocated to a working-class suburb of Los Angeles, she learned the value of hard work first hand. Her parents were like many; sacrificing to provide for her siblings and her. They made sure they had character, fortitude, respect for others and integrity -- values that Gray says have helped her throughout her life and career. 

Gray earned her bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Redlands, a Health Services Management Certificate from UCLA, and Governance Certificates from both the California School Boards Association and the Special Districts Board Management Institute, all while raising her family and working full-time.

“Bring others along with you, leave the ladder down, and encourage each other.”

– Gloria Gray

As she worked her way up the professional ladder, each job opened her eyes to the world around her, the diverse needs of the communities served, the complexities of the problems we face and the variety of stakeholders working to make a difference. She began to appreciate public service and the value of giving back to her community. Her job as a healthcare administrator was service-oriented, but her commitment to public service went further.  She realized that action and involvement make a community a better place.

So, that’s exactly what she did – and continues to do.  

Gray began to serve on community boards. These experiences taught her the value of learning about complex issues and finding ways to collaborate with diverse interests to solve problems.

Later she was recruited to serve on the Inglewood Unified School District, where she focused on the diverse needs of students, parents and teachers. She learned to ask questions and to seek to understand each perspective as they all worked together to provide education and opportunities to students. Her pursuit of that insight and being a mentor to others have been  hallmarks of her leadership.

Her introduction to the water industry came when two directors from her local water board approached her about running for a seat on the board. Gray seized the opportunity to serve her community in a new way. She was elected to the West Basin Municipal Water District Board, and she quickly became passionate about water policy. Fascinated by the complexities of water issues, she learned everything she could. She built on the relationships that she had in the community and started to talk to them about the challenges of delivering safe and reliable water. 

“Prepare yourself for future opportunities and build the confidence you need to accomplish your goals. When those opportunities become available, believe in yourself and take the leap!”

– Gloria Gray

Her elevated and collaborative leadership style was noticed – and helped earn her an appointment by then-Assembly Speaker Karen Bass to the Delta Stewardship Council.  With complex and controversial issues being discussed, Gray looked to create more inclusive ways for the public to be heard, including working groups that brought the many diverse voices together to find solutions. 

Through her work in water, she has been surprised by just how little people know about water and how it arrives at their tap. She notes that we rarely stop to think about what it truly takes to deliver our most precious resource, perhaps partly because it has always been there.  Gray sees a significant opportunity to educate people in communities about what water districts do and how they move the water to meet the needs.  

Her service to others and desire to educate communities has now brought her to her biggest and most notable role yet. She was selected in 2009 to serve as West Basin’s representative on the board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – the nation’s largest water district serving a region of 19 million people through all or parts of six counties in Southern California. She became Chairwoman in January 2019, and she is the first African-American and the second woman to lead the district.

In her current leadership role she said has been moved by the people she meets who share that her role as Chairwoman opened their eyes to the possibilities in their own lives and inspired them to consider public service.

In many ways, Gray is not a typical water leader. She is not an engineer, a lawyer or a scientist.  Instead, she came to her current role because of her hard work and drive to serve others — first in health care, then in education, and eventually water.  She has been able to apply lessons learned and relationships built in each distinct sector.

Her mission to serve others has always been the driver of her work, her steadfast determination and her leadership. She is where she is today by trying to do the right thing, being responsive to others and being willing to step up. She works hard and lets her values guide her. She treats people with respect and she’s dedicated to maintaining relationships built over a lifetime – with so much more to come.

Leadership Lessons from Gloria Gray

  • Embrace diversity – diversity of thought, of perspectives and of solutions.  Our challenges are very complex and diverse input provides better solutions to those problems.
  • Listen—find ways to agree—treat people with respect, even when they have a different opinion.  Everybody deserves to be heard.
  • Build coalitions.
  • Ask “What do you think?” and listen carefully.
  • Compromise when you can, but never on integrity.
  • Don’t be afraid to be the first.