LaVerne Harmon’s book on leadership gets to the heart of the matter

Stephen Covey for decades has been one of my favorite business authors and his “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” (1989) remains a timeless classic for businesspeople and leaders.

I love all the Covey habits, but, at year-end, often a time for reflection, it’s good to take note of No. 7: “Sharpen the Saw.” For many of us, that means “work on your game.”

And among the plethora of local authors emerging in the last year, Bobby Byrd, John Riley and others, that brings me to Wilmington University President Dr. LaVerne Harmon, whose 127-page “The Heart of Leadership” belongs in every businessperson’s Christmas stocking. 

The Heart of Leadership by Dr. Laverne Harmon

In a world of weighty business tomes, the heart of Dr. Harmon’s book is the cogent advice, “as a leader, listen to your heart and follow your heart.” And, at the core of what she has built her life on, it’s about bringing compassion to all that you do.

 Business, each of us knows, is about “the mind and the heart,” about reason and emotion, and sometimes – perhaps even too often – they appear to be in conflict. 

Dr. Harmon has an amazing personal narrative. Starting work at Wilmington University decades ago, an African-American woman without a college degree, beginning as a secretary, she earned an undergraduate degree and crossed over to the professional ranks.

She went on to earn a master’s degree, moving upward, and then a Ph.D., and in a short time, she was a protégé of then-President Jack Varsalona, on track to succeed him as the fourth president of Wilmington University. 

Descriptors for college presidents often might include academic, elite, haughty, autocratic, and others suggesting rank, privilege and entitlement. Few presidents would earn the descriptor compassionate, but, in her new book, just in time for holiday reading or gifting, Dr. Harmon describes how compassion has been the organizing force in her life.

“I compare it to a cardinal showing up in the middle of a snowstorm. It doesn’t happen very often, but, when it does, everyone in view notices it,” she writes about its importance in the workplace.

When you make compassion a part of your daily work life, “you have to be aware of your inappropriate conduct. You learn when you’re being unfair, or exhibiting other negative behaviors,” she says.

She talks about compassion as “having power over your emotions, attitude and actions, and to rise above adverse situations.” She addresses a variety of issues such as handling criticism and giving it, gossip, assumptions, accusations and speculations.

She coaches on praise, and setting expectations and handling disappointments, before closing the book with the classic Emily Dickinson poem, “I Shall Not Live in Vain.”

“If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.”

Clearly, LaVerne Harmon – growing up and achieving as a minority woman in what had been a white male ethnocentric culture and universe – has struggled to overcome issues unique to her experience.

And, in her triumph, she has given us an incredible lesson in her tiny volume on compassion, worthy of a read by each of us. 


Sam Waltz was the founding publisher of the Delaware Business Times.

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