Compassion is never a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of greatness.


Recently I had the wonderful, yet solemn opportunity of attending my ninety-three-year-old paternal uncle’s funeral.  I purposely choose the word “wonderful” to describe this experience because honoring the life of such a remarkable man, surrounded by my family who will continue to love him dearly, was such a special gift.  Amid today’s increasingly complex world of business and “social” media, it is often a challenge to pause, to reflect, to take stock, and to seek moments of clarity.  At a simple chapel, alongside family and friends, we collectively and personally said good-bye to a man who marked both my father’s life, and consequently my life, forever.

My father immigrated from Cuba to the United States in the 1960s in order to escape Fidel Castro’s communist government.  As a part of the historic Operation Peter Pan, which the U.S. initiated to allow children to seek asylum as refugees initially in Florida and later throughout the country, my father was sent away from everything he knew in Cuba, with no guarantee of ever seeing his parents or his family again.  Thankfully, my uncle Santiago was also able to escape and provided for my father while my grandparents stayed behind in Cuba, waiting for their own opportunity to leave.  My uncle and aunt took on my teenage father, raising him alongside their own two children, helping to shape him into the man he is today.  My father shared a powerful message at my uncle’s funeral, poignantly reminding us all that the kindness of one man is everlasting and can transcend generations.

My uncle, having been a lawyer in Cuba, immigrated to the U.S. and became an exceptional Spanish teacher.  Throughout his career, he demonstrated tenacity, perseverance, and resilience.  My father, like my uncle, has lived a life of dedication, hard work, and generosity.  My father has always modeled “true grit” and continually encourages my younger sister and me to achieve the highest levels of education and professional experience.  Throughout the process of pursuing a career in medicine, completing my residency in pediatrics, and obtaining my health care-focused MBA,  I have always felt a responsibility to continue the family legacy of determination.  My father never asked me to be the smartest student in my class, but he always encouraged me to be the hardest working and most tenacious.  He took the time to teach me that life is not only about your I.Q., but what you do with the level of intelligence you have been blessed with.  Hard work, determination and asking the right questions always helps.

As a health care leader today, I have the honor and privilege of working with so many talented and exceptionally intelligent individuals.  Among the many challenges inherent to the health care industry, I am reminded that as a physician leader, compassion goes a long way.  It is not a coincidence that recent studies support that allowing physicians the time and encouraging opportunities “to care” improves health outcomes and reduces instances of physician burnout.  When patients perceive compassion from physicians, they develop greater trust in the medical profession. Unfortunately, I have also seen how an individual’s compassion and kindness may be misinterpreted by others as a sign of weakness.  Compassion is not an indication of a leader’s vulnerability, but rather a differentiator revealing inner strength and confidence.

As a physician leader, your team looks up to you whether you are cognitively aware of it or not.  Compassion can be contagious that can lead to a positive and flourishing work environment.  If you desire a team that shares your vision, priorities, and work ethic, is effective and high performing, compassion will always be part of the path to true and lasting success.

Physicians need to also demonstrate compassion with each other.  When my uncle passed away, I had just started a new job.  When I told my physician’s leader about my uncle’s passing and that I would need to travel out of state to attend the funeral, I was told to go without hesitation.  The compassion expressed to my family and me in our time of grief will never be forgotten.  This personal experience reinforced what I already knew, that kindness and compassion are core values in our company and that our senior leader’s commitment to our team is real.

I will not hesitate to go the extra mile for the kind of leader who understands and exemplifies the importance of helping others and that compassion is never a sign of weakness, but of greatness.

Johanna Vidal Phelan is a pediatrician.

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