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Radical Compassion: A Leadership Lifeline During Times of Crisis

Barbara Shannon
Barbara Shannon

Radical compassion is the act of directly aligning ourselves and our mission with the moment.

If you feel like the earth is shifting beneath your feet, that's because it is. We are being challenged to change the way we live our professional and private lives overnight. The unexpected pressures of COVID-19 are now meeting the pressures of a social movement long overdue, and the seams of business, as usual, are starting to give way. 

Whether or not we were prepared for this upheaval, one thing is painfully clear: To get through this, we need new business models and, above all, new models of leadership. It is time to adopt radically compassionate leadership to create lasting change.

Why radical compassion now? 

Imagine that we are all actors in this play called "The Fog of Change."

We are on stage during a live performance. But the script is unfinished, the scenery keeps changing, and we are expected to improvise to keep the audience from walking out. 

To succeed as entrepreneurs, we must do what great actors do: Stay deeply present and innovate our responses, direction, and actions based on the moment-to-moment cues we receive from customers, fellow players, and circumstances.

We are able to control the narrative by staying intimately connected to the needs of everyone on and off stage while always keeping our core objective in our sights. This is the definition of radical compassion: connecting deeply to self and others in the moment. 

Radical compassion is the only leadership model that works in times of chaos and crisis. It allows us to align the needs of the people around us to the mission of our company, all the time giving us the collective strength to push forward.

Radical compassion starts with you.

How are you doing? How attuned are you to your own feelings and responses to the crisis and current protests? Are you holding yourself to your previous high standards? If so, you may be wondering why yo'’re not operating with the same consistency or decisiveness as before.

Maybe your type A feels like it's slipping into a type B. Maybe you are moody or having dark thoughts.

Whatever seems different, know that there is nothing wrong with you. Chaos and uncertainty try our sanity. They are also the petri dish for innovation. Breathe. Hang in there. Take things one step at a time.

Embrace the struggle.

Only when we have honestly opened ourselves to our own frailties and fears are we then attuned to hear and respond to the fears and frailties of others. Once this level of personal honesty occurs, then, and only then, can radical compassion occur. 

Forgive yourself.

I grew up Catholic, and one of my greatest life lessons came from my beautiful Irish grandmother. One night after failing to make progress on a homework assignment due the next day, I panicked that I would not be able to do what was being asked of me.

In the middle of my teenage meltdown, my grandmother took me in her arms and said in her soft voice, "Barbara, you are not God. Do your best, and let the good Lord do the rest." Her words and the love behind them gave me a ray of hope and a dose of self-forgiveness. I went back to my room to do my best and accept that that would be enough. 

You don't need to believe in a deity to apply this uplifting principle. There is only so much a simple human can control; in the end, we're all simple humans. Let's commit to doing our simple best, forgive our shortcomings, and be grateful that we get to try again tomorrow.

Put on your life vest before assisting others: self-care.

Some of us think we can bypass self-care and fake it 'til we make it, but saying "I’m fine" when you're not does nothing to resolve your struggle. Better to take a walk, cry with someone who loves you, share how you're really feeling, eat something healthy, and get a good night's sleep.

You can't do this alone.

There is no honor in being a decision loner who only asks for help when you've tried everything else. Routinely sharing your concerns and ideas with trusted peers, mentors and close team members establishes you as a generous collaborator. In a post-COVID-19 world, business performance depends more than ever on deep, trusting relationships.

Create your close-hold team.

These are your trusted advisors. Ideally, you want to include at least one family member and one friend who can ensure your personal well-being, positive mindset and self-care, along with two to three or professional colleagues to help with business decisions and tough conversations. 

Find a coach.

If you are not currently working with a coach, find someone you trust and commit to a minimum three-month trial. If you think you can't afford to prioritize this investment, you've probably not yet met the right coach for you.

Share the reality along with the dream.

When Martin Luther King began his "I Have a Dream" speech, he was reading from a script. Before those four iconic words were launched into American history, Dr. King spoke of a darker vision, grounded in the reality of the moment. Here's how he began his speech:

"One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Negro still is not free.

One hundred years later the Negro is still crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination."

For several paragraphs, Dr. King depicted the stark, painful realities at the center of the march. Then he paused for a moment and a shout rang out from a woman standing alongside him. "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" He recognized the voice of his friend, the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. Dr. King pushed his prepared speech aside and the words that have inspired generations flowed from his soul.

In times of crisis, it's important to be real. That means sharing the dream and the reality in the same breath. This is level 5 leadership. Though it’s hard to strike this balance, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Frame the positive possible outcomes and the bigger vision that binds you together.

  • Admit what is unknown, broken and needs fixing.

  • Invite input.

  • Listen.

  • Put the situation in context. Speak to the hard times you've already made it through.

  • Articulate your organization's strengths.

  • Speak to your culture and the unique capabilities that will see you through.

  • Use impactful data that illustrates your points.

  • Share your feelings.

  • Present specific next steps as well and your high-level long-term commitments.

Execute tough decisions with care and humanity.

Not all the decisions you make will positively impact every member of your team. If you're forced to let some valuable workers go, reduce their pay, or put them on furlough, carry out these decisions with compassion and humanity, for them, but also so you and others can look back on how you handled the crisis and respect the way your company cares for its workers.

Airbnb has given us an inspiring example. Forced to lay off 1,900 workers due to COVID-19, its leaders were transparent about the facts that forced them to make that decision, and they went above and beyond to assist those they had made redundant. The company offered several job-placement initiatives, it repurposed much of its recruitment team to help former employees find their next career, and it let them keep their work laptops.

Make every effort to help your former staff on the next leg of their journey. If you know of companies within their field that are hiring, or of networks that are helping unemployed people in their sector, try and connect them. 

When history looks back on COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, businesses' responses will be evaluated by many measures. Chief among them will be the degree to which radically compassionate leadership drove our commitments and our actions.

Image Credit: Rawpixel / Getty Images
Barbara Shannon
Barbara Shannon Member
I advise CEOs and entrepreneurs on how to lead a purpose-driven business in a way that amplifies the brand and attracts a steady stream of loyal customers and committed employees. I've been working with C-level executives since 1998. I began my career helping leaders at big companies like Hewlett Packard, Virgin Media, MetLife, Lumentum, HireRight, Thermo Fischer, Flextronics/NextTracker. For the past 10 years, I've exclusively coached the CEOs and owners of small to mid-market companies. I am the CEO of TSG The Shannon Group, a management consulting company, BarbaraShannon, Inc. an executive leadership company and THECEOBOARD, a San Francisco Bay Area CEO network and advisory group. After founding and leading two New York-based start-ups and spending 9 years working with global clients as a senior executive at Deloitte Consulting, I decided to launch my private consulting practice, TSG The Shannon Group, in 2006. My client list includes FEI/ThermoFisher, Flextronics/NexTracker, HireRight, Hewlett Packard, Xilinx, Virgin Media, JDSU/Lumentum along with dozens of Bay Area mid-market firms. I received my BA from Smith College and my MBA at The Wharton School.