Woo encourages leaders to focus on grace, not competition

July 1, 2012


PHILADELPHIA — As Carolyn Y. Woo settles into her new role as head of Catholic Relief Services, overseeing global outreach on many fronts, she has found it helpful to change the lens through which she views the world. People are trained from an early age to think competitively, she said, but those who hope to build a kinder world need to retrain themselves to look through a lens of grace.

Woo, a keynote speaker at the Catholic Health Assembly here, became president and chief executive of Catholic Relief Services in January, a job that puts her at the helm of an agency that serves more than 100 million people in 100 countries, one with an operating budget of nearly $1 billion and a global staff of 5,000. It's a vastly different reality than her previous role as dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, she said. Before accepting the deanship at Notre Dame, she had risen from assistant professor at Purdue University in 1981 to Purdue's associate executive vice president for academic affairs.

In academia, as in much of American life, competition rules, Woo said, in an address based on the personal journey that led her to leave academia for her new post. She laced her talk with anecdotes and personal experiences, beginning with her education by the Maryknoll Sisters in Hong Kong, whom she credited with not only giving her a strong educational foundation, but also, "most importantly, reflecting their joy in their work." That, she said, "made God so real to me. And that is a lifelong gift."

Measuring worth
Woo focused in much of her talk on the differences between competition and its antidote, grace. Even young children understand that people are rewarded for achievement, she said, whether it's related to classroom performance, or sports, or extracurricular activities.

Later, people are differentiated by the greater or lesser importance of positions they hold, the size of their offices, their names in the program — and even the size of the font in which their name appears.

Throughout people's lives a competitive society requires people to continually "make our case," she said. "We have to justify ourselves over and over again." In this world — in which everything, from schools, hospitals, doctors, companies and cities are ranked — people measure worth, their own, and that of others, by externals, she said. In a world of winners and losers, humor, particularly on television, is based on put-downs, and Congress can't get anything done because "compromise is viewed as a sign of weakness."

"Competition is not always bad," acknowledged Woo. "Competition can help us set goals. It can help us acquire certain skills and achieve excellence (and) give us a sense of accomplishment." In an economy where there is no competition, there will be monopoly and centralized control. In professional academic pursuits, if rewards are not based on merit, they will be based on "connections and favoritism."

"So competition in itself is not the issue; there's a place for it," she said. "The danger is when it dominates our life, permeates our thinking and behavior," particularly in areas where it is inappropriate. She illustrated with a self-deprecating story. When a security guard attempted to bar her from attending a funeral at the Notre Dame basilica, because he thought she might be a tourist, she reflexively pulled rank, she said, retorting, "I am the dean of the business school.

"What I said was completely irrelevant," she said, intended only "to let him know I was more important than him, when all I really needed to say was that I was there to attend the funeral.

"What competition does to us is, it changes our framework," she said. "We start keeping score. The whole idea of 'Did I win or did I lose?' becomes the way we think. It takes away joy from everything we do. If we win, we worry about losing in the future. If something good happens to somebody else, we may feel diminished."

Grace with a capital G
In her new role, Woo is drawn to religious and philosophical thinkers who look through that other lens, one that sees the world in terms of hospitality, empathy, "bondedness" and membership: Referring to the assembly theme, she said, "For me, this whole idea of leadership for healing is about grace."

She spoke of the concept of grace exemplified by kindness, compassion, generosity, consideration for others — and grace with a capital G — "what God gave us when he loved us into life, when he made us in his image, and when he breathed the Holy Spirit into us.

"Grace is there for the asking," Woo said. "It is part of our DNA, and it allows us to do three things which are essential to healing. It enables us to forgive; it gives us a healthier way of looking at competition"; and it gives us "a different way of seeing" the relationships between ourselves and others.

With grace, she said, competition becomes a device for sorting out strengths and weaknesses, for demonstrating to ourselves "where we can do the most good for ourselves and others." And grace, she said, expands people's boundaries. "It has been said that in the life of faith, God is always revising our boundaries outward," she added, quoting author Sharon Daloz Parks.

"Can we really make space for other people? Can we share the stage? Can we share the credit? Can we bring other people along, and if we can't, how can we live in peace; how can we live in a world of relationships?" Woo asked.

Servant leadership
She gave examples of some personal shifts, which, though small, have made a big difference. "As you know, I go to dinner as a way of life," she said, "often with people I don't know," and at some point, she said, she decided to use that time "to really get to know people." She became "a busybody," she said, asking a lot of questions in order to "learn each person's story" as a way of celebrating her companions. The surprising result, she said, is that people began to describe her as "really smart," just because she'd shown an interest in them.

She also cited examples of people who have made gifts of their lives or money or wisdom to help others. One such person "was a member of the (Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) church," who, before he died, crossed religious boundaries, designating a substantial donation from his estate to Catholic Charities after he and his daughter "did a lot of research to find out who really served the poor."

In response to a question about the difference between her new and previous role, Woo said that as dean, she'd been the one with the knowledge and the answers. But now, she said, everyone she works with "knows more than I do about international relief."

Woo said that from her personal perspective, leadership is less about being in charge and more about accessing the knowledge and creativity of others with more experience. "It's very humbling," she said, "to have to rely on everyone else."


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.