Inaugural transformative leadership seminar makes the case for compassionate leaders
By: Sarah Murphy
“This was my favorite class; I think the professor really cared about me.”
For Chris Reina, Ph.D., this simple comment from a current student in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business speaks volumes about that student’s experience in the classroom.
Reina is the founding and executive director of the new Institute for Transformative Leadership, as well as an associate professor in the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship at the VCU School of Business. On Tuesday, April 11, Reina led the inaugural VCU Transformative Leadership Seminar in Cabell Library — an interactive event aimed at exploring how transformative leadership can unlock new possibilities for stakeholders and partners. Together with guest speakers and active audience participation, Reina discussed the importance of shaping leaders to ensure everyone within their community feels a strong sense of value and belonging.
“I hope today is a day where you reflect on what leadership is and how we can do it better,” said Reina. “This is the spark that will ignite the future of creating a more caring and compassionate VCU and world. This, today, is where the real work begins.”
More than 50 individuals from across VCU, VCU Health and the Richmond community participated in the seminar. It kicked off with welcoming remarks from VCU Business Dean Naomi E. Boyd, Ph.D., who shared how the School of Business is already weaving the transformative leadership mindset into every facet of the school.
“We’re looking at our values as a culture of care and are building out pillars that will allow us to truly transform the lives of those in our communities, our students, faculty, staff and everyone we touch,” said Boyd.
The Transformative Leadership Approach
The Institute for Transformative Leadership (ITL) seeks to build a more caring world by developing leaders who have the courage and skills to deeply connect with others. When Reina shared the undergraduate student’s comment, he said it should serve as a reminder that leadership starts with relationships and showing up fully for others.
“As professors, we prepare a lot of content. We read a lot of books and work on slides, tweaking them to make sure they look good. But how do we make people feel in the classroom? The content part is easy. It’s the relationships that we have to be mindful of and to show up for.”
The ITL approaches leadership training from a practical standpoint, teaching how leaders can exceed stakeholder expectations without abandoning personal and organization-wide well-being. It focuses on blending the best “soft skills” with the need-to-know “hard skills,” using the latest scientific knowledge from across psychology, neuroscience, education, health sciences and management science to guide curriculum.
At the center of it all is learning how to build caring, compassionate relationships.
Since its launch at the School of Business in December 2022, the ITL has designed and implemented a variety of leadership development opportunities for students, faculty and staff. Plans for open-enrollment courses and custom solutions for external organizations are in development for later in 2023.
A Special Corporate Partnership
In addition to outlining the ITL approach and goals, Reina shared his personal story and how he became interested in transformative leadership development, going back as far as his childhood.
“As a kid, I was obsessed with putting on shows and theater productions. When I think back to why, I realize now that it was all about creating experiences for others. I am at my best when I’m creating experiences.”
After college, Reina left his first two jobs due to ineffective leadership. He knew after those encounters that he wanted to study and work in a field that inspired him to create experiences where people felt valued and cared for. This led him to study leadership, and along the way he met Bob Chapman, chairman and CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, a $3.3B global capital equipment and engineering solutions company with more than 12,000 team members.
Chapman eventually became one of Reina’s close friends and mentors. He spoke at the seminar, sharing his “Truly Human Leadership” approach at Barry-Wehmiller and thoughts on how successful businesses can create a space for both people and profit.
“We have a broken idea of what leadership is,” said Chapman. “Management means the manipulation of others for your success. Leadership is the stewardship of the lives of those entrusted to you. In my education, I was never taught to look at the people I have the privilege of leading in the way I look at them today. It is completely transformative.”
Together, Barry-Wehmiller and the Institute for Transformative Leadership seek to redefine what it means to be an effective leader. Leadership is not about position or title, but rather about ensuring others feel valued and cared for. Reina and Chapman share the goal of spreading this message and equipping people with the skills and courage to lead in this way to be a force for transformative change.
Transformative Leadership Across Richmond and Beyond
Following Chapman and Reina’s presentations, the ITL seminar welcomed a panel of guests, including: Jimmie Gahagan, Ed.D., director, Student Leadership and Engaged Learning, VCU Division of Student Affairs; K.C. Ogbonna, Pharm.D., dean, VCU School of Pharmacy; Tim Davey, Ph.D., vice provost for faculty recruitment, VCU Office of the Provost; Naomi Boyd, Ph.D., dean, VCU School of Business; and Tom Epperson, Ph.D., president, InnerWill Leadership Institute.
Reina moderated, introducing questions about leadership for the panel and reading from audience questions that were submitted in real-time. He opened the floor asking panelists how they, as leaders, bring transformative experiences to life for their teams.
“At VCU, we provide our students with transformative experiences that help them reflect on what they have learned and apply it in a hands-on way in many different contexts and situations,” said Gahagan.
When asked what is going well when it comes to leadership, Boyd spoke to the optimism she feels coming out of a global pandemic, finding new ways to collaborate and solve problems with a variety of stakeholders.
“We are at an inflection point in the world,” said Boyd. “I think having these conversations to understand the potential of everyone around us is really special. We have such an incredible opportunity to impact the world and change the world in meaningful ways if we can simply care for one another.”
“Leadership is not just one subject to take a class on among many,” said Reina, knitting together each panelist’s perspectives. “It’s in everything that we do. Everything we do is about people, showing up, embracing and caring.”
For more information about the VCUbusiness Institute for Transformative Leadership, visit the institute website. For a complete list of upcoming VCUbusiness events, visit the events page.