Change at Work

Lessons from the Last 20 Years: How Leaders Respond in a Crisis

To effectively lead, executives must first address the real pandemic: fear.

In his career as an executive coach, Kerry Sulkowicz has coached many leaders through crises, from September 11th to the Great Recession and most recently, COVID-19. He shared some important reminders on how leaders can effectively support their teams through the real pandemic: fear.

  • Labeling the spectrum of emotions is important. Feelings may run from denial to panic and hysteria. In the middle—although it’s sometimes hard to know where the middle is—is a healthy amount of fear.
  • Be empathetic, but practical. It’s important to give people a sense of hope, and demonstrate care and vulnerability. But you must also develop a plan for keeping employees safe first and foremost, and then focus on sustaining the business.
  • Never underestimate the importance of the social connections. Deepen the social bonds that help teams build trust.

Read the Transcript


Next we’re going to hear from Dr. Kerry Sulkowicz. I think I saw him log on, so I know he’s here. Kerry, you can turn on your video while I do your intro. I’ve had the pleasure of actually seeing Kerry at work. He is a master at what he does. He really invented the convergence of strategy and psychology or business and psychology. Kerry is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst but actually spends his days advising CEOs, senior teams, boards and startups. They… Facing everything. I think this is obviously unchartered territory and so I’ll be really interested to just have a conversation with Kerry about what he’s seeing today. Kerry, thank you for being with us.

Kerry Sulkowicz:

It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks Lucy.


I’m just looking at to make sure we’re okay on sound. Okay, we’re good on connectivity. Big picture, Kerry, let’s just dig in. Big picture. What’s going on right now in the business community? What’s happening with your clients who are really the kind of who’s who of the Fortune 500 and startup leaders, et cetera. What are you seeing?

Kerry Sulkowicz:

Well, as you’ve said these are unprecedented times. As experienced as any of us may be, I don’t think any of us have ever seen anything quite like this. I have been spending every waking hour practically Lucy speaking with CEOs and management teams and boards around the country. Most of my clients are in the US, a few are outside of it. Frankly everyone is scrambling to cope with something of a scale that we have really not dealt with before. The way I see it and the way I’ve been talking with my clients about it, and it’s very much of an evolving situation because I certainly don’t have all the answers either in terms of knowing how best to deal with this.

But the way I see it is that there are in a sense two pandemics going on at the same time. There’s obviously a pandemic of the coronavirus. But the second one that is intimately connected with the first is really a pandemic of anxiety, pandemic of fear. That’s the part that I try to talk to the leaders that I work with about. That’s maybe what we can talk a bit about here today. The first thing I’d say about it is that it’s important to know, and I think the last speaker’s comments about the importance of facts, I couldn’t agree more with that comment. One of the facts that’s important for people to understand who are in business and who are grappling with not only their own emotions but trying to lead their organizations through this situation is to understand the difference.

A spectrum of feelings ranging from outright denial, burying one’s head in the sand, which I don’t think there’s that much of that going on, although there still is some. That’s at one end of the maladaptive spectrum. And at the other end is what I would describe as panic and hysteria, which is also clearly not helpful. In the middle, although it’s sometimes hard to know where the middle is exactly is a healthy amount of fear and concern. The reason why I think it’s so important to think about this spectrum of emotions and trying to pay attention to one zone as leaders first before then being able to help the people that you’re leading through it is that, and this is where I think a wartime analogy can be helpful.

When a war is going on, in addition to the position in a sense, wanting to win the war, part of the way that they try to win that war is by instilling so much fear in those who are on the receiving end of their attacks, that that fear interferes profoundly with our ability to think clearly and to perceive reality clearly. We’re not at war with another country, we’re at war with the virus. But I think the analogy is apt because I think we need to be cognizant of the fact that our ability to think clearly is really entirely linked to our ability to survive this. If we’re not thinking clearly, that diminishes our chances. I think just labeling the spectrum of emotions is, is important.

I think that that the leaders that I work with, they’re struggling themselves. It’s not like they’re having an easy time and it’s just their employees who are struggling. Everybody is in some ways. We have to be realistic about that. To the point of giving hope, in the previous conversation, I agree that that giving hope certainly that comes across as giving false hope that actually backfires. But I think for leaders to be in touch with that reality and to then come up with concrete plans for sustaining the business, first and foremost, concrete plans for keeping employees safe. That’s the first and foremost task and then the continuity of the business can follow.


I’d be curious to hear… I think it’s brilliant the town of two pandemics. I love the way that you articulated that. Tell me more about the specific examples you’re hearing and then what you’re saying in response… Along that spectrum, what are you hearing that’s really in that maladaptive fear camp? What are you hearing that’s more in that healthy camp and how are you helping advise them through this really, really kind of unchartered time?

Kerry Sulkowicz:

Sure. First of all, one of the things that I’ve been advising my clients to do and most of them fortunately are responding well to this. Some of this may seem like motherhood and pie Lucy but one is that leaders do need to be very present right now. They need to be speaking to their teams. Again, it may seem obvious, but for the leader to go hold up and not communicate right now is a mistake. Another issue is obviously a lot of work has… Overnight been converted to virtual, although clearly there are some workers who need, depending on the kinds of businesses and the kinds of roles, clients in the real estate business, they’re still people who need to man the buildings and do maintenance for instance, just as one of them million possible examples.

To be sensitive to the fact that not everybody has what in a sense as the luxury of being able to work virtually, although clearly we’re learning a lot about how much can be done virtually right now. The other thing… Like this conference being done virtually. The other thing is that we need to be thinking about the implications of working virtually, particularly given that it’s highly likely that this is going to be going on four months. We obviously have no idea how long this is going on for and that’s what makes it more warlike than analogous to something like a 9/11 or a hurricane Sandy here in New York. Both terribly traumatic events to be sure and I’m not minimizing that.

But with those events… The catastrophic event happened and then we dealt with the aftermath for a long time. Right now we’re not in the aftermath phase. This is still a very evolving situation with an indefinite timeline. But in any event, back to the use of virtual technologies, which are really in many ways lifesaving for us and business saving. One of the things that leaders need to be attuned to is, and to encourage and almost to give permission for, is to not just conduct meetings as many meetings as possible virtually but to recognize that one of the things that is missing is the casual, informal kinds of human contacts that take place in the workforce.

I think over time that’s going to get even more difficult because people will have cabin fever, that’s the mild version or various kinds of anxiety and depression problems. I think to encourage workers to not only have meetings by this case, Zoom or what have you, pick your favorite technology, but also to encourage workers to socialize via Zoom too. Because the social connections that we make at work, we often underestimate the importance, but that’s how our teams can function better by building trust, by depending the social bonds that allow teams to perform well. I think that’s something else we need to pay attention to and that I think the more enlightened leaders are intuitively doing,


Going back to your leaders need to be present piece. Because I think that’s so… it’s so important. What are you saying to the leaders that you’re dealing with but really don’t know what to say and don’t really know how to show up? This is so new for them, whether it’s a first time leader or it’s a leader that’s just never been through this kind of complexity and uncertainty. How are you advising them to show up? What does that look like?

Kerry Sulkowicz:

Well so perfection is the enemy of the good, everybody’s familiar with that statement, but no… that never been more true. By the way, I would say it’s not like the more experienced leaders are necessarily better than the first time CEOs of a startup, for instance necessarily. I think sometimes the startup leaders, first time CEOs are intuitively better. I think it is less in some ways dependent on experience. Although experience does count and more dependent on the personality, the kind of constitution if you will of the individuals. But to try to answer your question Lucy a bit more specifically, I’m really saying you need to speak, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it should be brief but you have to be present. It should be by video, ideally, which is better than phone. Writing has its virtues as well and frankly all of the above or are useful. But the presence part is important.

Number two, I would say that, and again, I apologize in advance if this sounds like it’s stating the obvious but the need for sincerity and for something that sounds unscripted. If you spend two days having your marketing department develop your next presentation to your employees about Covid, I would not do that. It’ll sound like the marketing department wrote it. No offense to marketing departments but I think, you know what I’m saying. It needs to just come from from the heart. It needs to be a fact filled but not overwhelming with facts. Because I think you have to be cognizant of the fact that everybody is anxious to varying degrees. I think our ability to take in a lot of facts is limited by anxiety, much less our ability to retain and kind of hold it.

I think that the messages need to be brief. I think if you have two or three things to say to your employees, that’s probably plenty. The most important one I think is probably about, again, tending to the safety of employees and their loved ones. And then second, what can be done about business continuity and also instilling a sense of responsibility to the broader community. I think that the isolation, social distancing and so on that has been mentioned is obviously critically important to public health. I think again, leaders have not just the positional authority as the boss, but they have moral authority. I think it’s from that position of moral authority that leaders need to support the best recommendations coming out of the public health officials around the world.


I want to make sure people are starting to throw in questions for you Kerry. People who are listening definitely start to put your questions and I’m already seeing a few come through on chat, on the Q and A piece. Kerry, I’m curious how you’re handling it. Because obviously you’re on the phone and on video with all of these leaders and organizations going through these really tough times and I’m sure it’s taking a bit of an emotional toll on you as well. Not to mention that you’re also in the midst here in New York city as where definitely, there’s a heightened sense of anxiety and and panic. How are you managing? Any tips on that?

Kerry Sulkowicz:

I appreciate the question. No, I do. I think that’s a good question that we all need to ask each other. By the way, at the beginning of meetings, one of the things that I recommend for CEOs, their meetings with their teams, and I will answer your more personal questions in a second, Lucy. At the beginning of meetings. I think rather than just diving into the first item on the agenda, which is next year’s budget or what have you, I think leaders should go around the virtual circle if you will, and ask each person there just to say a bit about how they’re doing kind of the way you just asked me.

Just very briefly go around and just to kind of take the pulse of the people in the room to see how people are handling emotionally. It’s really important to do and shouldn’t be underestimated. I’m doing okay under very difficult circumstances. I’ve been hearing a lot of my client’s worries and I certainly have my own, I’m far from immune to any of this, trying to take decent care of myself physically and get some exercise everyday and eat reasonably well. I get some fulfillment out of trying to help others but one has to take care of oneself first. I am trying to cope.

What helps me is it’s also just feeling like I’m part of a community. I think that’s the way leaders by the way, should think of their companies. They’re not just businesses but they’re also communities. I think that sense of community right now has never been more important.


Couldn’t agree more. We’ve been doing all this prep you and I were on a call earlier, the first thing we start with is, are you and your loved ones okay and healthy? I think doing that humanity check is just so important. We have a bunch of questions and I want to get to some of the ones that I saw. I like this one. Expand a little bit on what you mean when you say moral authority. Because I think that is part of this uncharted territory is leaders figuring out what that means in terms of their role. Say a little bit more on that.

Kerry Sulkowicz:

Sure. That’s the way I think of an authority in general. When I work with CEOs, one of the things that I tell them is that, you’re the boss, you’re the CEO. Nobody has any doubt about that. And that there’s a lot of virtue that comes with that, a lot of power and authority. But if you rely on that alone, you’re not going to be a very good leader, you’re not going to be a very good CEO. Because I think the way to get things done is partly through the positional authority of being the CEO or the leader of a team, but really through the quality of your, of your behavior, your values coming through what you model.

I think that it’s the modeling part. It’s not unlike the role of parents with their children, if parents just clamp down on children and order them to do things. You might get them to do what you want them to do but you certainly won’t engender deeper love. I’m really talking about the emotional side of the one case parenting and the other case leadership. I think now is the time when this, what I’m referring to as moral authority has never been more important. A simple example Lucy, then we’ll get onto another question, is if your employees see you panicking or not complying with the best practices from a public health point of view, then how can you expect them to do that even if you’re uttering the words that they should be doing that.

I think leaders need to know that how they conduct themselves during this prices is going to be extremely closely scrutinized and for better or worse. It’s an opportunity for leaders to really rise to the occasion. That’s where, again, this moral authority concept I think comes in.


That’s helpful. I think there’s a couple of more practical questions which I think I’d be really curious to hear your perspective. How often do you think leaders should be communicating with the full company? When you say, they should be being present and not holding up, what does that cadence look like? Is there a best practice for that in your mind?

Kerry Sulkowicz:

Well, I think we’re inventing best practices as we go. I certainly don’t think that leaders should go more than a week without communicating with their employees. I think in some cases it can be quite a bit more frequent than that, even daily. I’m really hard to say there’s a hard and fast rule about a best practice, whether it’s once a day or once a week just because it varies so much depending on the circumstances of each individual organization, what they’re going through. Certainly if there is news, whether that’s a change in the way we’re as a society attacking the problem or if there’s an employee who has the illness and… It really varies so much depending on the circumstances. But I wouldn’t go more than a week.


Okay. I love that we’re inventing best practices as we go. I think you’re right about that. We got… I’ll be curious to hear your answer on this one. I thought we might get one like this. How as an employee or more of an individual contributor or not the kind of leader of the organization, how do you deal with a quote unquote dysfunctional boss? What do you do if your leader is not showing up the way that you’ve just described and is actually using this crisis as an opportunity to sort of manifest some of the toxic culture or the toxic behaviors that already exist within the organization. Thank you for that question. I know that that’s showing up on a [inaudible 00:17:45]. We really appreciate these kinds of questions.

Kerry Sulkowicz:

It’s a great question and a hard one. Let me try my best here. Clearly if you had a, let’s use the shorthand of bad boss before this crisis, they may still be a bad boss now. Although surprisingly some may rise to the occasion under these really difficult circumstances. But I’d say a few things. One is if your boss isn’t showing up the way that you would like, now is a time to, if ever, to offer some constructive feedback that can be offered virtually in whatever channel feels safest. I know that that’s easier said than done because one of the consequences of having not really good leaders is that they sometimes don’t create the conditions of emotional safety to give feedback in the first place.

But I think that to the extent that you can try to overcome whatever inhibition there may be in the workplace culture that you’re living in to offer some feedback and constructive suggestions, I think that would be helpful. The other thing I’d say about this is that, and I think this is a broader point, but I think it applies to this issue of dealing with toxic leaders, is I would make a plea for a greater measure than ever of tolerance right now. Tolerance amongst employees, between employees and their leaders, between leaders and from leaders to their employees, really all around.

Because these conditions of fear that I was talking about at the outset, they affect all of us in so many ways, including bringing out not always the best behavior and that includes in our bosses. Understand that your boss is fearful and struggling with this too. Please don’t take that as an excuse. But I think the time for some empathy all around, a greater degree of empathy that can be mustered is warranted right now.


Thank you for that. I’ll ask two more and then we’ll move on to our next speaker. I’m getting questions about specific examples of manifesting empathy and moral leadership. I know when we talked you had a couple of really good ones. What are you seeing that you really are saying yourself with that’s a really good way to show up in this moment?

Kerry Sulkowicz:

One of my clients runs a hospitality company. I won’t name the company, but it’s a very large hospitality company. As you can imagine, the company, their properties around the world are essentially shut down. It’s a big company. They are fortunate, unlike a lot of smaller companies that don’t have significant cash reserves to be able to continue to pay people. The CEO got on a video, he sent around a brief video communication about six or seven minutes long to all their employees worldwide. This is actually since been released publicly, although it was intended for the employees.

He got up there and he teared up a few times as he was speaking. He said that they were going to try to keep people employed for a month and that people’s jobs right now were essentially to stay home and to contribute to the public good by social distancing and self-imposed quarantine in some cases. He was being honest, he was trying to be generous. He wasn’t doing an immediate round of layoffs, although the implication was clear that might be coming. He also, I think showed his own vulnerability, which I think is part of the process of empathy.

I think he was struggling too and he’s been camping out in one of the properties, reluctant to go home for fear of infecting his kids. That’s one. A simpler one that’s more of more one-to-one is reaching out one-on-one to, if you’re working in a smaller organization where this is possible, I’d certainly recommend this in addition to the larger scale communication to kind of all hands. To reach out one-to-one. Just send them a brief note. Just checking in, how are you doing? How are you holding up? How’s your daughter with asthma doing? You must be concerned about that. Just a show of care and of being able to get outside yourself.


I think that’s actually a great note to end on. Thank you. Really practical and immediately applicable. Thank you Kerry so much. I hope you and your loved ones continue to stay healthy and well. Thank you again for joining us.

Published March 30, 2020

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