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Leading With Compassion

One of the main reasons we started Back of House was so we could have one place where active industry members can share and learn from each other. In that spirit, we’ll be featuring some of our favorite people from across the industry in this section of the newsletter to share their expertise. This week’s guest is Mike Hanley, who has been in the music festival and event industry since 2002, working his way up from Volunteer to Manager and Director level roles. One of his highlights of 2019 was being Festival Director of Wonderfront Music + Arts Festival’s inaugural year in San Diego, where he led a team of over 200 people. As his experience and leadership responsibilities have grown, so has his desire to find better ways to connect with and motivate his staff, as well as to provide educational resources for everyone. He created the free industry guide website, Festival And Event Production, with this goal in mind and recently created and produced a hands-on, in-person Production Workshop with plans for more to come. Below is the first of a two-part article on how he’s discovered beneficial ways to be a more compassionate leader.

PART ONE – JULY 28TH, 2020

Leading With Compassion as We Slowly Return to "Normal" in the Event Industry

As 2020 and the pandemic marches on, it is more important than ever to take good care of ourselves, not only to endure our industry’s hiatus but to also thrive quickly once events and festivals are back in full swing. So with that in mind, one area I’d like to highlight today is that of instilling more compassion and empathy in your daily life, so that it’s easy to integrate it into your work life moving forward. Think of it as muscle memory training to be kinder to both yourself and others.

When you wake up each morning, especially when your life was busier, are you focused more on what you don’t have (i.e., enough time to go through all of your emails; enough money to pull off your projects; enough staff to move all those bike racks before doors) or are you focused on and thankful for what you do have – also known as gratitude (i.e., a fantastic job in your dream career; your physical health so that you can help move bike racks, too)? If you're like me, you may sometimes tend to focus more on what might go wrong instead of being thankful for you have right – and while it's important to be prepared for worst-case scenarios, it's just as important to keep your brain focused on the positive – so you're in a good place mentally to lead and do your job well.

And by shifting our focus away from scarcity and shame to gratitude and empathy, we see a significant positive shift in our mindset, resilience, and ability to solve problems. We also are more open to being empathetic, and truly listening to others – be it our co-workers, volunteers, patrons, or other staff onsite – without trying to just force them to our way of thinking. When you’re letting empathy in, shame gets shut out – the two can’t exist simultaneously. This means you’re more capable of avoiding low-level, ego-centric behaviors like blaming, gossiping, complaining, comparison, and bragging and instead focusing on holding space, listening, understanding, being compassionate, and additional others-focused behavior. Imagine a festival where leadership on down takes the time to listen in times of conflict instead of quickly assigning blame; this helps encourage a high-morale environment where everyone feels heard and respected.

Mike Hanley
(Mike Hanley teaching at his Production Workshop in Austin, Texas)

For me, one of the best ways I have been able to stay on track with this way of thinking is to remind myself, whenever I’m making a decision, to really think if my chosen action is based more on what others think of me or how I make them feel. As an example, if you’re hearing two people debate a benign topic, like how much capacity the festival has, and they’re both wrong – if your inclination is to walk up and say “well, actually, this festival holds 75,000 people” because you want to appear smart and worthy of your role there…the irony is you likely didn’t suddenly become more respected by the other two people. They likely are thinking that you’re trying too hard and/or being a know-it-all. By either letting them carry on without you interjecting or by taking a softer approach “I think the capacity might be this..”, you’re focusing less on what others think and more on how others are going to feel based on your behavior. This is crucial and has guided me a lot since I’ve become aware of it. In short, I keep my mouth shut more frequently now. 😊 

One fantastic book that covers all of these topics in more detail is Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. She is an acclaimed researcher on vulnerability and shame, and she distills all her primary findings into a business setting for leaders. She provides a large list of values and encourages you to discover which two values you hold most important, which can then become your foundation for owning your story, living your values, establishing your boundaries, and feeling like you belong rather than just trying to fit in. As Brené says, "Clear is Kind...Unclear is Unkind."

In Part Two, I’ll discuss how to apply some compassion-focused strategies to your teams (which can also help you with any interpersonal relationship with friends, family, and significant others).  If you have any questions or are just interested in talking more about these ideas, I can be reached at Thank you for reading and see you all in Back of House's next newsletter.


Last week we touched upon ways you can improve your positive thinking skills, so this week I want to share a couple of compassion / empathy based tools to improve the way you interact with your co-workers and lead your teams. I have upper management on my festival teams take the following two quizzes. The first is a version of the popular Five Love Languages quiz – it helps you understand how your staff prefers to be appreciated, and once you know that, you can help ensure an environment with higher morale, ambition, and compassion. Everyone will feel heard, appreciated, and will be more determined to do their best for the team. Read more and have your team take the quiz (there is a small cost associated with the quiz) here. The Five Languages of Appreciation (with brief examples) are: 

  1. Words of Affirmation – letting staff know they are doing a good job.

  2. Acts of Service – diving in and helping staff directly on finishing a project.

  3. Gift Receiving – handing out gift cards or bonuses at the end of a project.

  4. Quality Time – scheduling meetings even when busy and having an open-door policy.

  5. Physical Touch – high fives, pats on the back, hugs (obviously, more difficult during COVID-19).

So, for example, if one of your managers prefers acts of service, they will respond much better when you stay late and help stuff artist envelopes (#2) rather than telling them they’re doing an awesome job (#1) and heading home for the night, leaving them to do it alone.

Mike Hanley
(Mike Hanley and Briana Purdy act out a skit using the appreciation languages during the Leadership Session)

Second, I have my staff take a quiz on how they manage internal and external expectations. Called The Four Tendencies, this book and free online quiz shows your strength in one of the four areas below. And as the author describes, “knowing our Tendency can help us set up situations in ways that make it more likely we’ll achieve our goals…while knowing other people’s Tendencies helps us to work with them more effectively.” The Four Tendencies are:

  1. Obliger (focuses on outer expectations, not on inner expectations) – they need accountability and are people pleasers.

  2. Rebel (doesn’t focus on inner or outer expectations) – they want freedom to do things their way.

  3. Questioner (focuses on inner expectations, not on outer expectations) – they want justifications when being asked to do things.

  4. Upholder (focuses on both inner and outer expectations) – they want to know what should be done.

Mike Hanley
(Mike Hanley and Briana Purdy act out a skit using the appreciation languages during the Leadership Session)

If you show a preference in meeting external expectations, but when it comes to your own internal expectations, you don’t prioritize those, and you consider yourself a “people pleaser”, you are likely an Obliger. By understanding where people tend to land in this way, you can understand that if you have, for example, a Questioner on your staff, they aren’t asking their extra questions to try and usurp you, or make you look bad, or waste your time, they clearly need to understand why they need to do something before they’ll commit to doing it.

If you were to put a sign up that says “Stay off the Grass,”, Obligers and Upholders would follow that rule because it’s an outer expectation. But Questioners would want to know why, and Rebels would naturally resist unless it aligns with their values. By saying something like “Stay Off the Grass due to reseeding, so we can soon have a great park for everyone” you are letting the Questioners know why you’re asking, and you are giving the Rebels who value having a great park and being a good citizen a reason to stay off the grass. By employing the strategies above to gain more insight about your staff, and utilizing the mindfulness and gratitude techniques to keep your mental health strong, I believe you’ll be in a great position to be both a compassionate leader and a team member when we all go back to events and festivals. Just remember to have your values and boundaries set as much as you can (Dare to Lead is a great guide in setting those), and that something as simple as taking a deep breath before engaging in anything stressful or important can have an immediate positive impact on the action you take.   We are hard wired to have an ending - that’s why we make up stories when we aren’t sure, and why this pandemic is so hard on so many of us. We don’t know what is going to happen next. No one does. But we’re also hard wired for connection. It’s in our DNA to be social beings and to communicate and interact with one other. In taking advantage of safe ways we can stay in touch with each other right now and not feel so alone, such as this newsletter, group texts, and video chats, we help eliminate shame, increase empathy and compassion, and help each other not only cope, but thrive during this time. Thank you for reading, and if you have any questions, please reach out to me at You can also view a video of my Leadership Session here.


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