Compassion and Consequences: Can We Lead Students with Both?

By: Tim Elmore


Last month, a Chicago Metra train conductor was robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight. Not long after, photos of the robbery suspect were released, and that’s when the armed thief was apprehended. Even though he was wearing a mask, it all happened so quickly. 


You’ll never guess how the thief was captured so fast.


When the security camera’s photos were published, the suspect’s mother saw them, recognized her son, and brought him to the police station to turn himself in. I’m not joking. Zion Brown was a sophomore at Loyola University in Chicago and got away with about $100—that is until mom stepped in. Brown was represented by a private defense attorney who argued his client was hungry and was looking for a bite to eat. The lawyer asked Cook County Judge Maryam Ahmad to remember her days as a hungry college student in determining his bail. Ahmad replied she did remember her days as a hungry student but would have never considered robbery to solve the problem. She ordered Brown to be held without bail.


As I review this story, I have to applaud these two ladies for their leadership. 


When Compassion and Consequences Collide

Very often, I find myself feeling compassion for young people today as they face the stressors of an uncertain future. I believe, however, if we allow empathy to let students “off the hook” for wrong behavior, it creates a slippery slope for them morally. Further, it may be a less compassionate response in the long run. What if Zion Brown’s mother had merely felt sorry for him and decided to let him get away with it? Wouldn’t he do it again and again? What if Judge Ahmad had merely felt sorry for him and let him off with a small bail. At first, it might feel good to an 18-year-old young man, but it sends the message that illegal behavior can be excused in dire circumstances. But who determines what a dire circumstance is? Over time, “dire” could be defined as any difficult situation. Can they cheat if a class seems too hard? Can they lie if they don’t want to face adverse outcomes for a poor choice? Can they steal if they get hungry between meals? 


Even when I feel empathy, I must understand the difference between explaining poor behavior and excusing it. I’m sure Brown’s mother empathized with her son’s predicament, but she still knew right from wrong and believed he did as well. Even if he was hungry, there are legal ways to obtain enough cash to get food. Excusing it would send him down a bad trajectory. I’m sure Judge Ahmad empathized with the defendant’s case, but she knew she could not lighten the sentence just because Brown or his attorney asked for it. Soon, everything would be on a sliding scale. 


Why We Must Extend Empathy Wisely

This mother and judge are exceptions to the rule. They conducted themselves in a way few parents do, at least in our current culture. Because so many don’t understand empathy, adults have allowed the headwinds of culture to weaken their leadership. Parents will often side with their children (even adult children) against other adults who attempt to teach, coach, manage or lead their sons and daughters. We feel sorry for our stressed-out kids and soon excuse all sorts of wrong actions. This sets them up to be sabotaged later in life when the law is enforced. They will most assuredly meet employers, landlords, police officers, and even partners who don’t let them off the hook, and they will feel like victims. They may be blindsided. 


We can differ in our morals and values, as they often represent personal convictions. But ethics and laws are part of our social contract. Stealing from someone, while it’s understandable, is not right. It is wrong. Brown’s mother reinforced this fact, even when it would likely cost her something before her son’s indictment was over.


So, what are some steps to show empathy but not cave?


How to Lead with Both Compassion and Consequences

Leaders must communicate to someone like Zion Brown, “I care for you and believe in you. And because I do, I will not dilute the consequences for your wrong choices or actions. In the short run, I realize you’d like to be let off the hook for this one. But I refuse to reinforce this poor choice by removing the consequence for it. You are better than what you just demonstrated in this choice.”


Then we, as leaders, can demonstrate our compassion by walking alongside them as they face the consequences, showing them our care and belief along the way. In short, don’t remove the outcome, but improve the outcome. As our young mature, there will be times to extend mercy and forgiveness for crimes, but those should be seen as gifts. They are exceptions, not the rule. 


A cursory observation of Zion Brown’s crime and punishment may appear to be the story of a misguided young man who did not have a compassionate mother or judge. On the contrary, I believe they led him well. And prepared him for his future. 

  • Always stand for truth and justice.
  • Always walk beside them as it’s leveled.


Years ago, I read a story about a young man who was sentenced for a crime he committed. His father, while embarrassed by his son’s actions, was with him through the entire process, from the arrest to the jury’s verdict. When the judge asked the defendant to stand for his sentencing, the father stood with his son, facing downward as if he’d committed the crime. It was an act of solidarity without removing the consequences of a poor choice. 


Be with them. Be for them. Be behind them. But don’t remove the outcomes of their choices. 

Compassion and Consequences: Can We Lead Students with Both?