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Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctorate-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.
As the leader of a faith-based institution that prides itself on providing students with an education focused on values, I am often asked how I can lead with compassion while simultaneously establishing bold goals and requiring accountability from employees integral in moving the organization forward. Compassion is vital in organizational culture today, and I’ve observed that the ones that prioritize people and kindness at their core are consistently recognized for bringing positive change to the world. Kindness is a correct response to suffering, and it underpins every decision I make.
As the global pandemic rages on, leaders must strengthen their resolve to respond to the latest threat as millions struggle to find solid footing again. However, a common misconception is that leading with compassion focuses only on addressing and alleviating the suffering of those looking to you for answers and guidance. I assure you, this leadership approach goes far beyond merely expressing kindness, feeling empathy and spreading goodwill.
Compassionate leadership calls for modeling and harnessing positive adaptive responses to complex challenges and ensuring the organization stays the course while also recognizing the moral imperative in alleviating the suffering of others. At its core, compassionate leadership calls for pushing agendas, making critical if unpopular decisions and using wisdom and experience to move your organization forward for sustainable success. To bring about real and lasting change, leaders must use their voice to advocate for those without one, work diligently with their teams to ensure equity through actionable steps and use their position to correct injustices and clear the way for ongoing progress.
Examples in Education
Over the past two years, navigating through the pandemic has required employees to take on new supporting roles to make up for sick co-workers, delays in the supply chain and an increased need for familial support at home. Employers needed to meet the needs of their clients while also providing alternative ways for their employees to get the job done.
An “aha” moment for me during the pandemic was observing how, barring healthcare workers, those with college degrees were afforded the luxury of working from home. I reflected on our organization’s outsourcing of many support services, such as cleaning, food and grounds keeping. Universities, like most corporations, have followed a trend to outsource services not considered part of “core” positions. Like so many others, Marymount University provides its employees with free education for themselves and their families. Outsourced services do not offer this benefit. I asked myself, does it make sense that we, by this arrangement, deny our outsourced employees the benefit of a college education that could help them?
Armed with this observation, I asked our vice president of finance and operations if we could restructure our outsourced relationships and, in essence, begin to “in-source” these workers as Marymount employees. This idea, which took months of planning before coming to fruition, has culminated in a more compassionate arrangement: Our new university employees now have comprehensive benefits, including access to a free college education and full retirement benefits.
When it comes to education, private corporations can similarly utilize their compassionate leadership by taking advantage of new legislation passed by Congress in 2020 that supports student loan repayment as an employee benefit, making employer-provided student loan repayment a tax-free benefit to employees. Great news, indeed, given the average U.S. household carries $59,042 in student debt, according to NerdWallet. A recent study by Society for Human Resource Management revealed that only 8% of employers made contributions to employees’ student loans last year.
Compassion in Action
First, compassionate leadership involves trying to walk in the shoes of others, be it your employees or your clients, in order to better understand what they are experiencing at a much deeper level. I can attest to precisely that when I used my position to stand for the Dreamers. My organization strongly advocates for our nation’s Dreamers, who were brought to this country at an early age through no fault of their own, and is also a founding partner with TheDream.US. In America, we have the precious gift of influence with our government. As a Cuban refugee, I do not take my freedom to influence government officials for granted. Compassionate leaders must speak up and advocate for those in need.
Next, take action to bring about real and lasting change. Compassionate leaders tap into their wisdom and use their collective resources to change minds, reverse unjust policies and raise the consciousness of others.
And lastly, to be effective as a compassionate leader, you will need to understand what motivates your people to stay the course in times of crisis. Leadership is complicated and involves making tough decisions — compassion cannot come at the expense of succeeding. To pull up employees who are working to meet goals is compassionate but enabling those not invested is reckless.
Actively fostering compassion in the workplace has a beautiful ripple effect, one that I have seen play out many times. As pressure builds in the coming months, leaders should use compassionate leadership to soften the harshest realities and humanize the heavy burdens placed on our organizations.