Effective, compassionate leadership is a skill that can be difficult to master during the best of times. In moments of uncertainty and rapid change, it can be even harder.

This was the focus of “Leading in Difficult Times,” an April 7 presentation by Chris Lowney, FCRH ’81, GSAS ’81, that was part of the Fordham University Alumni Association’s Forever Learning Month.

During his presentation, Lowney, the author of six books, including Make Today Matter (Loyola Press, 2018), talked about the past year in terms of the acronym VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

Facing the COVID-19 pandemic, economic difficulties, and the need to foster equity in the workplace and society, leaders have had to find creative ways to build skills and inspire colleagues and constituents. When Lowney prompted the more than 30 attendees to state whether there was more or less volatility, complexity, and change today than there was 15 years ago, every respondent in the Zoom chat said they believed there is more now.

He cautioned the audience not to think of this past year as an exception, though, instead urging them to look at it as a somewhat more extreme version of the world in which we will continue to live. He also made clear that when talking about leadership, we shouldn’t just think about public figures, or even just high-level managers.

“I’m not talking about Pope Francis, Barack Obama, Joe Biden,” Lowney said of his definition of leaders. “I’m talking about every one of us. We’re all implicitly pointing out a way [for each other]and having an influence.”

In breakout rooms and after returning to the full group, attendees talked about what they’ve learned about leadership over the past 12 months. Patrick McGuire, Ed.D., GRE ’86, shared that volunteering has ­­been an essential part of his life, echoing Lowney’s call for gratitude in the face of so much suffering and hardship.

Jackie Fenley, TMC ’68, shared her efforts to cherish the things she has in her life even when losing touchstones, and Sharmini Pardo, GABELLI ’02, said she had learned many lessons about both joy and gratitude from her children in the past year.

“My kids have the innate ability to live in the present,” Pardo said. “They wake up in the morning, and they jump out of bed, and they’re excited that it’s a new day. I think as adults, we lose some of that, so I’ve been trying to appreciate it.”

Lowney’s experience is well-tailored to conversations about how to employ those values, as he began his own career journey with spiritual contemplation. As an 18-year-old, Lowney entered a novitiate with the plan to become a Jesuit priest, but as he told Fordham Magazine in 2018, “life happened. I discerned that my calling in the world lay outside the Jesuits.”

Lowney left the order in the 1980s after earning degrees in medieval history and philosophy at Fordham, and he went on to become a managing director at J.P. Morgan & Co. He published his first book, Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World (Loyola Press), in 2003, shortly after leaving J.P. Morgan.

In 2006, he established a nonprofit, Pilgrimage for Our Children’s Future, to support education and health care initiatives throughout the world, and he also co-founded Contemplative Leaders in Action, an emerging leader formation program now active in a half-dozen cities. He is currently the vice chair of the board of CommonSpirit Health, America’s largest nonprofit health system, regularly writes about leadership strategy for Forbes, and has been an adjunct professor at Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business.

Even as a student at Fordham, Lowney recognized the value of Jesuit ideals and how they can serve as a foundation for a lifetime of both learning and leading. While introducing Lowney to the attendees, John Pettenati, FCRH ’81, chair of the Fordham University Alumni Association, read a quote that his classmate contributed to their 1981 yearbook, where Lowney was highlighted as a “Tomorrow Scholar”: “Jesuit education is supported by a wisdom of what it means to be human.”

Forever Learning Month events will take place throughout April. For a full list of events, all of which are free to attend, visit Forever Fordham.