Panic and pandemic: a series of coaching and leadership conversations – part 8

In this series, leadership coach Rachel Ellison MBE shares a beneath-the-surface approach to what’s going on around us, for leaders and coaches.

Part 8: widening our circle of compassion

At a time when we are being instructed to avoid and even fear physical contact with other people, we must not close off and shut down emotionally. Finding a way to give or contribute in some way can be a helpful strategy for navigating lock-down.

Albert Einstein once said: “our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty”.

Those widening circles of compassion are highly evident. Thousands of retired healthcare workers are returning to support the NHS during Covid-19. Thousands more doctors, nurses, paramedics, porters and cleaners are holding our hospitals together and trying to save lives.

In the community, pharmacists, bus drivers, care home workers and shopkeepers have become vital pieces in a mosaic that is the drive for public health. Broadcasters are also part of that mosaic, delivering public health messaging and holding governments to account.

In response, each Thursday night, a nation of ordinary people lean over their balconies, open their windows and stand by their gates to clang on saucepans, ring their doorbells and applaud them all.

Some food banks are running on empty, because of a surge in demand from people who’ve lost their jobs and need help. In response, neighbourhood Whatsapp groups and inter-faith initiatives have put out calls for donations of tins, packets and toiletries. We are seeing not just compassion, but also a passion to help – a passion to take part.

Shame versus autonomy

The flour grab and run on frozen foods seems to have calmed. Psychoanalysts have interpreted this behaviour variously, from concepts of shame versus autonomy to notions of loss of control, fear of having inadequate defenses, to not being able to trust that there will be enough – enough supplies or enough supplies of love? These beneath-the-surface themes are likely to be present in many of us, without the need for a full-scale pandemic. Perhaps the Covid-19 emergency is awakening deeper, unacknowledged concerns.

Depriving others of a box of laundry detergent or taking out the cake decorations section of the supermarket seem unlikely mechanisms to protect against a virus. Such behaviours may instead, represent ‘splitting’ or ‘projection’ as we swipe our inner most fears off the supermarket shelves and into our shopping trolley. Freud called this ‘acting out’. I oscillate between interpretations of ‘extreme nesting’ and unhinged ego-orientation. Better emotional self-regulation increases our capacity to hold the community in mind, as well as our personal concerns.

What we can do

There is much currently that we cannot do, and much we have to do which we normally may not. Remembering these new boundaries takes up energy. Reminding ourselves of why may take up even more.

On the BBC’s Newsnight programme, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sachs predicted that the coronavirus pandemic would see society reverse the recent dominance and egocentric focus, to replace it with a more societal, collegiate way of being – a shift from ‘I’ to ‘we’. A shift from taking to giving. A shift from shopping to creating and being happy with what we already have. Let’s explore ways in which we can internally, as well as externally widen our circle of compassion.

Reflective questions:

  • What am I currently not allowed to do?
  • What am I doing that I don’t normally do?
  • What am I enjoying that surprises me?
  • What would I like to keep doing – because in some way, this is good for me?
  • What can I do more of?
  • If you have had coronavirus or know someone who has it, what are you learning?
  • What are you learning about you?
  • What do you want to do differently as a result of the Covid-19 context, that you could start doing right now?

Beneath-the-surface themes to explore with leaders and in coach supervision:

  • Shame versus autonomy
  • Greed and grabbing
  • Insufficient supplies
  • Inadequate defences
  • Loss of control


A version of this article first appeared in the online publication Training Zone.


About the author

Rachel Ellison MBE is a former BBC news reporter, now executive leadership coach. Rachel was awarded an honorary doctorate for her book, Global Leadership & Coaching – flourishing under intense pressure at work. She takes a beneath-the-surface psychological approach to leadership challenges and events in the world around us.

Rachel is currently offering short-burst 30 minute virtual ‘emergency coaching’ packages, for leaders and those supporting them during the Covid-19 pandemic.


The Leader’s Way: the art of making the right decisions in our careers, our companies and the world at large.