Being a leader right now feels a bit like having your finger taped down on the fast-forward button. We have no option but to fast-track major business decisions that may otherwise take months or even quarters — from new sales initiatives to potentially painful reductions in force.

Every leader experiences rapid change differently, but right now, many of us are reminded of the hackneyed Mark Zuckerberg motto: “move fast and break things.” More often than not, this mentality truly means, “move fast and break people.”

Well-intentioned as we all are, even the best of us can succumb to harsh leadership under pressure. Speed and surprise compound the intensity of difficult decisions, and if you’re forced to evaluate many unexpected decisions during this crisis, you may not handle every situation as gracefully as you’d like to.

Regardless, we have no choice but to move quickly right now. How can we do so while protecting our teams, businesses, and sanity?

A simple mindset shift can make a profound difference: Lead with strength, but more importantly, lead with compassion.

“People trust leaders who care about them — who see them as human beings, see their strengths and their challenges, and are honest about both. People trust leaders who tell the truth even when it hurts, and people trust leaders who show themselves to be real human beings with feelings,” explains Dr. Annie McKee, Senior Fellow and Director of Penn Graduate School of Education’s Executive Doctoral Program.

“When leading in times of crisis — whether we’re in a one-on-one telling someone their job no longer exists, or sharing painful information in a company-wide conversation — it’s very tempting to shut down and be the emotionless, rational leader we think we’re supposed to be,” McKee continues. “But the opposite is actually true. In these moments more than ever, we need to lean into empathy, making sincere efforts to understand the experiences of people who depend on us.”

While we’re socialized to see strength and power as antonyms of compassion and humanity, research suggests that the more employees are moved by their leaders’ kindness, the more loyal and motivated they become.

“Compassion and hope are powerful antidotes to fear, stress, and despair, and literally change our brain chemistry,” says McKee. “When we feel compassion, our blinders fade and we become more open-minded, creative, and better suited to make complicated decisions. These feelings are contagious, so when we behave compassionately, others catch our positive emotions and their side effects.”

Moving quickly is inevitable right now. But if we can't control the pace, we can control our empathy. Showing up as a compassionate leader will not only help your team weather this storm, but it will also relieve some of your own anxiety, clarifying your vision and empowering you to make even smarter, faster choices.

Published April 3, 2020