Leading with a heart like Mary’s

Every life is filled with joy (hopefully!) and sorrow. As the mother of Jesus, Mary’s life was no exception to this rule. It was also an example of how to rejoice and grieve with — and trust in — the Lord.

We call Mary’s heart “Immaculate” and celebrate it with a feast in July. Unlike the happy images of hearts we often see around Valentine’s Day, Mary’s heart is typically pictured with seven swords piercing it. They represent her seven sorrows and the prediction of Simeon the prophet during the Presentation at the Temple: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:34-35).

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Mary’s heart experienced great joy and great sorrow. It shaped the woman she was and the way she mothered her son (and, likely, the apostles as a spiritual mother). Similarly, as leaders (as humans, really), we experience both joy and sorrow, sometimes seemingly on a daily basis. Fortunately, we have the example of Mary’s immaculate, joyful, sorrowful heart. It tells us how to deal with whatever comes our way as leaders, whether we lead in the workplace, in the home or both.

Mary experienced seven major sorrows (dolors in Latin) in her life, which Pope Pius VII organized and gave us to pray with in 1815. In fact, the Seven Sorrows Rosary is a Rosary organized around the seven sorrows instead of the traditional mysteries. Notably, however, many of Mary’s sorrows are also mysteries of the Rosary, because the events of her life are inextricably intertwined with the events of her son’s life, which were joyful, luminous, glorious and, yes, sorrowful.

Sorrow No. 1: The prophecy of Simeon

When we receive bad news as leaders, how do we respond? There may be some action we need to take, some people we need to reassure. But Mary shows us the first step: Repeatedly, in the events of Jesus’ childhood, Scripture tells us that she pondered or reflected on them in her heart (cf. Lk 1:29, 2:19, 2:51).

The first thing we should do as leaders when we receive difficult news is to take it to prayer — to reflect on the news, what it means for us and our team or organization, and then ask God for his guidance.

Sorrow No. 2: The flight into Egypt

When St. Joseph received a message in a dream that his family was in danger, he immediately obeyed, packing them up and moving to Egypt during the night (cf. Mt 2:13).

We may not always receive explicit messages from God in a dream, like Joseph did (and, through him, Mary). We are, however, expected to discern God’s will and then follow it. There are many decisions we must make throughout our career, not just for ourselves but on behalf of other people. Fortunately, we know that God cares about all of it — big and small decisions alike, whether they explicitly relate to our faith life or not. Just as a human parent is always wanting to give advice to their child, God is always wanting us to ask him for help and guidance, no matter what the question. So we pray to know God’s will and obey when we recognize it.

Sorrow No. 3: The loss of Jesus for three days

Anytime I’m in a crowd with my daughter, I hold on tightly to her hand for fear of losing her. And that’s just what happened to Mary and Joseph: They lost Jesus in Jerusalem for three whole days. Their son and the Son of God. Fortunately, at the end of those three days, they experienced the great joy not only of finding Jesus but of finding him mysteriously demonstrating his great wisdom in the temple with the Jewish teachers (Lk 2:41-51).

We can’t always see our happy ending (and, in fact, we may not always experience a happy ending in this lifetime). But, we can always have hope. In fact, God asks us to always have hope. It is “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1817).

We can certainly have hope that we will meet our business and career goals, and we can ask God for his blessing on those goals. But our ultimate hope should be for God, for heaven — and because that is a goal we can never achieve on our own, that hope will remind us to rely on the Holy Spirit, not on ourselves.

Sorrow No. 4: The carrying of the cross

Is the fourth sorrow the carrying of Jesus’ cross or of Mary’s? Mary didn’t carry a literal cross, but she certainly followed her son as he carried his, and her heart certainly broke as she watched him suffer. We don’t know how much Mary knew about why Jesus allowed his passion and death, but even if she’d understood everything Jesus did, it wouldn’t have made it easier to watch him experience so much pain.

I frequently wonder if I would be able to stand by and watch my own child be unjustly persecuted. Of course, there is a time to stand up and protest injustice, but Mary somehow knew either that she shouldn’t or that she couldn’t (or both). Similarly, as leaders, we can’t always fight our employees’ fights for them. We have to pray for the prudence to know how (or whether) to respond — and the patience to let God’s will take place, whether it was what we wanted for our employees or not.

Sorrow No. 5: The crucifixion of Jesus

Jesus was fully God, but he was also fully human, and I can imagine that it gave him comfort to have his mother by his side as he was killed.

It hurts to watch people we care about suffer, perhaps especially if we don’t know why — and so often we don’t get to know the reason. An empathetic leader will hurt when her team members are hurting and will sympathize with her customers when they experience suffering. From Mary, we can learn to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). We don’t have to make a scene, and we don’t have to change the situation if it’s beyond our power to do so. But we can be there with them.

Sorrow No. 6: Jesus is taken down from the cross

I had the gift of seeing the beautiful Pietá in person back in 2008. I was a college student, and I considered myself Catholic but was not exactly practicing. Still, I couldn’t help but be touched by the famous Michelangelo sculpture of Mary holding her dead son’s body. It’s not just a technical masterpiece; it is a monument to a mother’s love and to the devotion to Jesus that Mary can inspire in all of us. It was one of many seeds God planted to help me find my way back home to the Church.

Mary saw Jesus’ life through to the end and, ultimately, what came next. She did not abandon him while he was alive, and she did not leave his body to grieve in private when he died. She held it, she mourned, and she made sure it was taken care of. Her behavior is an example of how much we should love Jesus, including the body that was so damaged for us. It’s also an example of the faithful perseverance with which we should approach the work that God has given us to do.

Sorrow No. 7: Jesus is laid in the tomb

Those three days between when they laid Jesus in the tomb and when he rose from the dead must have been full of sorrow for Mary. She was missing her son and mourning in particular the way he died. We can also speculate that her motherly heart was caring for the apostles as well, especially John, to whom Jesus had entrusted her and whom he had entrusted to her. What would it be like, to go from seeing and touching and hearing and talking to Jesus to silence?

We can’t ever literally see Jesus, outside of the Eucharist. Often, we can sense his presence, especially in prayer. Other times, though, he feels totally hidden from us. St. Teresa of Kolkata (Mother Teresa) famously experienced a long period — most of her life — when she did not feel Jesus’ presence. Yet, she continued with the mission he had given her. Just so, when we go through spiritual dry spells, we must continue to pray, continue to frequent the sacraments, and continue to lead the people God has entrusted to our leadership.

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