Joseph J. Helble and Amy Weaver

Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble ’82 (center left) and Amy Weaver ’23P (center right), the ceremony's keynote speaker, lead the processional into Goodman Stadium Saturday morning.

Salesforce President, CFO Amy Weaver Encourages Graduate Students to Lead with Kindness

Weaver delivers keynote address at 2023 Graduate Commencement and Doctoral Hooding Ceremony on Saturday.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

Confidence, decisiveness, fearlessness, resourcefulness and resilience. Those are just some of the qualities that define a leader, said Amy Weaver ’23P, president and chief financial officer at Salesforce and member of Lehigh’s Board of Trustees.

On Saturday morning at the Graduate Commencement and Doctoral Hooding Ceremony at Goodman Stadium, she encouraged graduates to also embrace another quality of leadership: Kindness.

Weaver’s remarks helped kick off Lehigh’s 155th Commencement Weekend as the university conferred 507 master’s degrees and 118 doctoral degrees for the Class of 2023 prior to Saturday evening’s Baccalaureate and Sunday morning’s undergraduate Commencement.

Amy Weaver ’23P

Amy Weaver ’23P, president and chief financial officer at Salesforce and member of Lehigh’s Board of Trustees, delivers the keynote address at Saturday's Graduate Commencement and Doctoral Hooding Ceremony.

“For too long, kindness has often been seen as a weakness in the workplace,” Weaver said. “Think of the attributes often celebrated in supposedly “great” leaders: An iron hand. Ruthlessness. A killer instinct. One radio program even had a segment positively comparing executive leadership traits to those of psychopaths. And in some quarters—especially Silicon Valley—we were told we had to tolerate The Brilliant Jerk.”

She said being nice was even considered an insult to both men and women, referencing the saying, “Nice guys finish last.”

Weaver said she witnessed these attitudes throughout her career and at one point, during tough business negotiations, was advised that being nice wouldn’t work. She said she was even told to start swearing.

In another example, Weaver said the chief operating officer of a major company who had interviewed one of her former colleagues called her about the candidate. Weaver described the young woman as “bright, hard-working and excellent at her job,” while also being “soft-spoken and unfailingly polite.” The only question the COO had, she said, was if the candidate was too nice.

“I’m here to tell you that kindness is not a weakness in the workplace, it’s a strength,” Weaver said. “Real leadership is not the ability to dominate and control others. “It’s the ability to bring people together—across any differences—to get things done, to build, to create. And that takes many qualities—including kindness. Treating people with respect, civility and decency. Carrying yourself with humility and honesty. Leading with gratitude and empathy.”

Kadia Nichelle Hylton-Fraser ’23G and her son

Kadia Nichelle Hylton-Fraser ’23G hugs her son following the 2023 Graduate Commencement and Doctoral Hooding Ceremony.

Weaver, however, acknowledged that it is not always easy. Tough news has to be delivered, there will be disagreements in the workplace, and an employee may have to be fired, she said.

While it’s not easy, she said doing the job with kindness makes everything better for both the person leading and the employees.

Weaver laid out a number of ways to lead with kindness, including making time for others, being honest and insisting on kindness from others. She added that kindness doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. When she went from chief legal officer to chief financial officer at Salesforce, one of the things that inspired her most was daily messages of encouragement from an employee in India she had never met.

She also reminded graduates to be kind to themselves, which can often be the hardest thing to do.

“As Lehigh graduates, you’re already leaders in your field,” Weaver said. “As you rise through the ranks of your professions, the pressures will only grow. In theory, you could work all the time. But—if you do, and take my word for it —you will burn out. You’ll lose the very spirit, the optimism, the camaraderie you feel today. Because when we’re self-absorbed and tired and stressed in our own life, we cannot be kind and civil and decent to others. So even as you’re relentless and devoted in your work—take care of yourself.”

Caroline Ferguson ’23G

Caroline Ferguson ’23G reminded her fellow graduates that their communities allowed them to "become the best versions of ourselves."

Weaver said that includes eating right, exercising, getting more sleep than needed, taking breaks, sustaining relationships with friends and family, giving back and learning to walk away from the laptop and cell phone.

“Just remember how amazing you already are and that you’ve got this,” Weaver said.

Prior to Weaver’s remarks, Caroline Ferguson ’23G addressed her fellow graduates about being one of 6.8 million people diagnosed with a mental illness. She shared her struggles to succeed while her mind and body had trouble processing stress.

Ferguson, who was introduced by Provost Nathan Urban, said her “invisible illness” prevented her from always having the energy to do what she wanted or needed to do, which led her to struggle when she first began her research at Lehigh.

“My project required long periods of intense experiments during which my mindset seemed to shape the success of data collection,” Ferguson said. “I needed focus, patience and level-headedness that I had never associated with myself. I felt like an imposter and isolated myself so nobody would catch on.”

Things changed, she said, when she began to study how stress impacts individual cells.

Commencement stage with graduates seated in front

Graduates seated in front of the stage during Saturday's Graduate Commencement and Doctoral Hooding Ceremony at Goodman Stadium.

“Cells belong to populations that benefit from their diversity,” Ferguson said. “Given the same exposure to stress, some cells don’t change, some have strong responses and some fall somewhere in the middle. Looking at these tiny models, I finally understood that resilience looks different on each of us. That maybe there is no right or wrong response. Almost all cells eventually recover from stress, helped along by the other members of their population.”

Ferguson said she benefitted from allowing those principles to guide her own life.

She asked graduates, as they celebrated, to remember that the work they did to get where they were mainly was done with help from others, including colleagues, family and friends. It was their communities, she said, that allowed them to “become the best versions of ourselves.”

Kelby Smith '22 '23G

Kelby Smith 22 ’23G after Saturday's Graduate Commencement and Doctoral Hooding Ceremony at Goodman Stadium.

Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble ’82 followed the conferring of degrees and doctoral hooding as the ceremony’s final speaker and shared reactions he received from students when he asked them about their graduate experience. He said he received a range of answers including having had the freedom to study whatever they were interested in, the thrill of asking—and trying to answer open-ended questions and taking steps to enhance their career.

They also expressed being part of a global community. “One of the best-kept secrets of American higher education is how truly international it’s become,” Helble said.

Forty years ago, around the time he graduated from Lehigh, just over 7% of master’s degrees in the United States were granted to international students, he said. By 2021, it was 15%. He said the percentages for doctoral degrees are similar, with 12% of doctoral degrees granted in 2021, and 60% of those granted in engineering, being received by non-resident international students.

Lehigh has followed the trend, Helble said.

Of this year’s graduates, 23% of the master’s degrees granted were to international citizens while 47% of the doctoral degrees were granted to international citizens. In addition to the United States, China and India, Helble said Lehigh’s graduate degree recipients hailed from 32 additional countries, including the United Kingdom, Greece, Nepal, Kenya, Australia, Jamaica and Colombia.

JJ Swenson '22 '23G

JJ Swenson 22 ’23G greets Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble ’82 on stage at Saturday's Graduate Commencement and Doctoral Hooding Ceremony.

“I mention this because I am hoping you, our graduates, will reflect on the tremendous value that that has brought to your Lehigh education,” Helble said. “I mention this because, as you reflect on your years at Lehigh, you recognize that you chose to come here not to be surrounded by the same, but to be able to learn from the world’s best and brightest. To learn in spite of your differences, to learn across your differences, to learn from your differences.”

Helbe told the graduates in this “world of instant communication” and “social media amplification,” people are too easily labeled as “different” or “other.” And in this case, those words, he said, mean “lesser” and “wrong.”

If they ever find themselves in a group that is being looked upon as different, Helble said they should reflect on the lessons they learned as part of the global Lehigh community, on what they were able to learn from those “who might seem a bit different.”

The Allentown Band, under the direction of conductor Ronald H. Demkee, opened the ceremony with a musical prelude and the processional and concluded the festivities with the recessional. Mitchell J. Hendricks ’23G sang the national anthem and Lehigh’s Alma Mater. University Chaplain Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion studies, offered both the invocation and the benediction.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

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