Do You Operate Above or Below the Line?

G Rabalais - November 10, 2020
Do You Operate Above or Below the Line?

Have you ever been the recipient of compassion from a supervisor or manager? Have you ever extended compassion to someone who you didn’t know or they did nothing to deserve your attentionHow did it make you feel? 

As UofL faculty members, we are all leaders, whether we have a formal leadership title or not. We lead research teams, teaching teams, administrative teams, clinical care teams, operating room teams, etcCan we impact those around us in meaningful ways by showing compassion for those under our oversight? Compassion means noticing a need, having empathy for that person, and then doing something for them. Our followers watch us carefully and take cues from us. What we do, say, and what we condone influences the organization. Let’s look more deeply into this question. 

Allow me to share a story concerning President Obama and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting tragedy in 2012. There were 26 victims, 20 under the age of seven years. The President’s response could have been a letter or phone call from the White House consoling each of the families. Ohe could have gone to the school, assembled the families in the gymnasium, and expressed his condolences for their loss. However, he did neither of these. He chose to show up at the school to meet personally with the families. He instructed his staff to assemble two families per classroom in the school so he could meet with them individuallyYou may not have heard of this because this event was never officially recorded or publicized by the White House. It was captured by the White House minister (Joshua Dubois), who accompanied President Obama on his visit to the school that dayThis is what Reverend Dubois recorded in a book, The President’s Devotional.  

"The President took a deep breath and steeled himself and went into the first classroom. And what happened next, I’ll never forget. Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander in chief. He’d say, "Tell me about your son. . . Tell me about your daughter," and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away—many of them two, three, or four years old, too young to understand it all—the president would grab them and toss them, laughing, up into the air, and then hand them a box of White House M&M’s, which were always kept close at hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break. And then the entire scene would repeat—for hoursOver and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss."                                                          ~Joshua Dubois, White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships 

President Obama chose to be personally present in humility. He brought dignity and empathy and the immense power of the office he held to these grieving families. He embodied the spirit of compassionate leadership in that very long day.

But does leader humility make a difference in other settings, like for-profit corporationsJim Collins, the author of the business classic, Good to Greatinvestigated which CEO characteristics were present in U.S. corporations that enjoyed enduring success or successful turnaround initiatives in the 20th centuryHe was surprised to find that the most successful companies were led by a CEO that demonstrated personal humility and professional will toward the organization. He called this behavior Level 5 leadership (Collins, 2001). 

More recently, UofL’s Dr. Brad Shuck (College of Education and Human Development) has demonstrated that in organizations with a leader-initiated culture of compassion, several factors that drive business success surface in the employees…increased engagement, improved discretionary effortless turnover, and enhanced psychological well-being(Shuck et al., 2019). Shuck describes such a leader as one who serves and is in service to their employees and teams. Compassion is transformational because no one earns it-they simply receive it. It is something that we give as leaders not because we have to, or that it is expected-rather, leaders extend compassion because they can. Leaders who operate from a place of compassion are unselfishly humble, and they pursue this kind of leadership with relentless commitmentwith every employee, every dayHere is his compassionate leadership model:  

Note that it takes courage to operate above the line. We all need to ask ourselves the question, do I operate above or below the line? Leaders who exhibit accountability, empathy, and dignity toward employees have the strongest loyalty and engagement, and the best predictor is dignity. Showing compassion is neither weakness nor compromise. In fact, it is the opposite. Be courageous and lead from above the line. 

Need more evidence? The Gallup organization asked over 10,000 employees in U.S. corporations to consider the leader who had the most positive influence in their lives and then list three words that best described what that leader contributed to their daily lives. What did they say? Trust, compassion, stability, and hope were the top words submitted (Rath & Conchie, 2009).  These are the outcomes of compassionate leadership, and as faculty and administrative leaders, we should crave this from our staff.

So what does all of this mean? It tells me that treating others with compassion is not only is the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense. Wouldn’t compassionate leadership delivered with relentless pursuit and a spirit of humility and dispensed regardless of whether it was deserved make UofL and great place to learn, work, and invest? The “above the line” behaviors of compassionate leadership perfectly align with the CARDINAL PrinciplesLet’s commit to living up to them. If you are not already leading from above the line, try it and see how you and those around you feel. 


Shuck, Brad, et al. "Does Compassion Matter in Leadership? A Two-Stage Sequential Equal Status Mixed Method Exploratory Study of Compassionate Leader Behavior and Connections to Performance in Human Resource Development." Human Resource Development Quarterly30.4 (2019): 537-64.  

Collins, J. (2001). Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve. Harvard Business Review (January 2001).  

Rath, T., & Conchie, B. (2009, 2009-01-08). What Followers Want From Leaders. Gallup.