One of my most unique opportunities during 40 years of consulting was the gift of working with Sr. Joyce. She was a deeply spiritual woman, an amazing colleague, and a beloved friend. She so fully embodied what it means to encourage others that she became my role model of spiritual encouragement.
The context of my work with Joyce was a long-term project with a large Catholic health system. Our goal was to help the system’s executives identify the core values at the heart of the system’s uniqueness, integrate those values into their practice of leadership, and foster a distinctive system culture that encouraged every employee from the bedside to the boardroom to live those values.
The project was a bit like teaching navigational skills in the middle of a storm. Health care was – and still is – undergoing transformational change. The future of the system was in no way assured. The executives were working in a pressure-driven, adrenalin-fired environment. Their challenges included making and carrying out the decisions necessary to meet today’s needs while positioning the system for the future. As the executives dealt with the pressure of those challenges, we were asking them to take on another one: learning to lead in new ways.
I had the opportunity to observe Joyce as she interacted with the system executives over a long period of time. I was able to see the impact she had on transforming their practice of leadership.
Joyce’s way of encouraging the system’s leaders was anchored in three deeply rooted personal traits. First, as a former hospital chaplain, she had a vision of what the health system needed to be. Second, as a member of her religious community, she had a moral compass that pointed to the values that shape authentic leadership. Third, as a deeply spiritual woman, she had an unwavering trust and confidence in the innate goodness of the leaders of the system. These traits guided her and gave her the staying power to do what she needed to do.
As significant as those three traits were, it was Joyce’s consistent and intentional way of acting on them that encouraged the system’s executives and had a transformational impact on the way they exercised leadership.
In the face of difficulty, we all need encouragement. On the days when the challenges seem beyond our ability, we need inspiration and hope. We need someone to believe in us, to motivate us to keep going, and to give us the confidence we need to endure. When the days are long and the climb is steep, we need the mental strength and the moral conviction to persevere, to stay the course, and to overcome the obstacles in our way.
Three dynamics were at the heart – literally – of Joyce’s approach to encouraging the system’s leaders.
First, Joyce was a chronic affirmer. As a good listener and an astute observer, she was able to recognize and appreciate the strengths that the system’s leaders possessed. She consistently named the good things they were doing, complimented them on their positive behaviors, and thanked them for their contributions. In both group settings and individual conversations, I saw her recognize leaders for their hard work, persistence, and accomplishments. I also saw how her ability to recognize and name those strengths made the executives more intentional and consistent in using them. In short, Joyce’s affirmation encouraged them to do more of the positive practices they were already doing.
Second, Joyce paired affirmation with challenge. While recognizing the good things the executives were doing, she also challenged them to do more and do differently. She urged them to take their practice of leadership to the next level. By itself, affirmation can lead to self- congratulatory behavior and complacency. When paired with challenge, it sets a higher bar, creates a vision for where the journey leads, and asks people to go even further. Joyce’s challenge was always grounded in a compelling “why” that touched the deepest motivations of the executives – appealing to their desire to improve and grow.
On any number of occasions, I saw executives – some of whom were worn down by the overwhelming challenges they were facing – smile when Joyce’s affirmation recognized and appreciated their efforts. I also saw many of them double down on their efforts to improve in response to Joyce’s challenges – somehow finding the stamina to do more and do differently.
As I reflected on the way Joyce embodied the paired dynamics of affirmation and challenge, I realized that she possessed another personal trait that increased her effectiveness: authenticity. She was honest about what she saw that was good, but she never pulled a punch on what needed improvement. She was realistic about how difficult the challenges were and what was at stake, but she never flinched in urging the executives to improve and grow – both as leaders and as people.
It’s important to note that there were also things I never saw Joyce do. She never pretended the situation was worse than it was or laid guilt on the executives for what they weren’t doing. She never used empty slogans to motivate or appealed to superficial incentives like money and status. She never stated or even implied that there was a punitive “or else” if they didn’t’ do what she was urging them to do.
Because of her authenticity and directness, Joyce’s interactions with the executives were always respectful. Over time, she cultivated a trust and credibility that made her efforts even more effective.
A surprising lesson that I learned from Joyce is that all encouragement is spiritual. It strengthens the human spirit, and it keeps us from losing heart in the face of difficulty. Encouragement has the power to stimulate, motivate, inspire, enkindle passion, and fuel hope. When spiritual encouragement is rooted in a profound awareness of God’s presence and love, it reveals our authentic identity as God’s beloved, opens us to conversion, motivates us to self-emptying service, and invites us to surrender our lives and our futures to the mercy and love of God.
Sadly, Joyce has gone home to God. As a result, she has also become my patron saint of spiritual encouragement because it’s now up to me and others to embody the qualities that she taught and modeled. We need to become chronic affirmers who see, recognize, and name the good we see in others. We need to become respectful challengers who are honest about what is at stake and persistent in urging others to do more and do differently. Perhaps most
importantly, we need to grow in authenticity in the ways we interact with others – including admitting the ways in which we are the ones who also need to change.
Thanks, Joyce! Many of us are forever in your debt. I hope to see you on the other side!
Questions to Ponder
As you reflect on Joyce as a role model of spiritual encouragement:
– Who are the people in your life that are role models of spiritual encouragement?
– What opportunities do you have to affirm others?
– What opportunities do you have to challenge others to do more and do differently?