Leadership in Crisis: A Focus on the Future Is a Way of Giving Hope

December 02, 2020
BBH Partner Kathryn George speaks with Dr. Kerry Sulkowicz about the emotional challenges that leaders face when their organization is in crisis.

Over the last eight months, as organizations and their leaders have grappled with the impact of the coronavirus, much has been written about effective leadership in crisis. In a well-attended webinar in April, we spoke to Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D., about what qualities were the most important for a leader to be effective in uncertain and challenging times. Dr. Sulkowicz is the founder and managing principal of the Boswell Group, which advises boards of directors, CEOs and other executives on the psychology of leadership and helps them address their anxieties, interpersonal relationships and company culture.

Recently, we had the opportunity to follow up with Dr. Sulkowicz to talk specifically about the emotional challenges that leaders face when their organization is in crisis. Drawing on his work advising leaders over the past 25 years, and especially during the pandemic, as well as his experience as president-elect of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Dr. Sulkowicz reflected on the dimensions of crisis and their effect on leaders’ ability to maintain followership, adapt organizational strategy and tactics, and respond to the practical and emotional needs of the group, all the while trying to stay true to the organization’s mission and values.

Kathryn George: How do you define a crisis?

Kerry Sulkowicz: Great question. I think a crisis is a complex, urgent problem that has an ambiguous set of challenges and solutions and which often threatens basic assumptions and the integrity of the organization or society as a whole. With organizations pivoting to a nearly 100% remote workforce, disruptions in supply chains and uncertainty over the future, 2020 has most definitely been a year of crisis for many leaders. The fractious political environment, social unrest and environmental disasters are also part of the challenge. It is during a crisis that an organization’s fault lines emerge, and the true character of a leader is revealed. How leaders respond to this crisis may be their defining moment.

KG: So, how do you think leaders have dealt with this crisis?

KS: First let’s start with some definitions of leadership. The simplest – and maybe my favorite – is the capacity to inspire followership. At first blush, this sounds circular, but it makes two key points: that leaders aren’t leaders without followers, who in a sense authorize them to be leaders, and that leadership inherently involves emotion, because inspiration is more about an emotional response rather than just a purely rational one. Good leaders also need to define reality for their followers, meaning they must be firmly rooted in the reality of their organizations rather than indulging in a lot of wishful thinking, while also giving hope, especially when the reality is rather depressing. The behavior and values of leaders also have an enormous impact on the culture of their organizations, for better or for worse. And finally, there’s a moral dimension to leadership. It’s not just about getting people to follow you, but it’s doing so with a moral core that informs everything they do.

Most of the leaders that I’ve had the privilege of advising through this period of overlapping crises have dealt with it quite well, and some are now feeling rather hopeful about the future, even though it won’t be a simple return to the past. But some of the leaders I work with are also exhausted. It can be emotionally depleting to be at the center of a storm for such a protracted time, and leaders need to take care of themselves to be able to effectively lead others.

KG: What role does anxiety play in how a leader responds?

KS: The impact of persistent, high levels of anxiety on leaders (and on all of us) is complicated. If we’re not managing our own anxiety well, it can interfere with our ability to think clearly, to perceive reality accurately and, in turn, to make sound decisions. Anxiety also tends to focus the mind on the immediate and the very short term – things like, what you are going to eat today and how you are going to deal with today’s crisis at work – and to crowd out thinking about the future. In a crisis, we are often choosing between a set of bad options. Making decisions about how to reduce costs or which workers to lay off or furlough is not easy and can cause anxiety.

KG: In the face of anxiety then, what should a leader do?

KS: While it is understandable and normal that leaders need to attend to the here and now, they need to make sure that they’re also thinking longer term, not only because they need to be planning for the future and finding opportunities in it, but also because an orientation toward the future is a way of giving hope. Leaders need to be aware that, even though teams have generally risen to the occasion quite well during this crisis, there’s a risk of depleting reservoirs of trust and goodwill that have been developed for a long time before the pandemic, unless we find ways to maintain and nurture the social bonds inside organizations. We’re not doing as well as we are because of technology, which is simply an important enabler, but because of longstanding human relationships, and I worry that this is a particular problem that leaders need to focus on with younger people or those who are new to organizations. Leaders should double down on culture now. Finally, I think leaders need some of what Keats famously described as “negative capability” – “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The best leaders are able to tolerate high degrees of uncertainty and ambiguity, and not always feel the need to go into action mode, but instead to step back from time to time and think and reflect.

It can be emotionally depleting to be at the center of a storm for such a protracted time, and leaders need to take care of themselves to be able to effectively lead others.

KG: Do you think there are any silver linings in this particular crisis?

KS: Yes, I think there are a number of positive themes, or silver linings, that will outlive COVID-19. One obvious one is a greater appreciation for remote work and the realization that we can do a lot more of it than we might have previously assumed was possible – and even be more productive than before. I would expect there will be less nonessential business travel, which means more quality time at home with families and a lowered carbon footprint. I think this crisis has raised awareness of the importance of mental health in the workplace and destigmatized talking about it, which is a good thing. Perhaps more companies will be increasingly mission-driven, or at least they will be more scrutinized for this. I think there may even be more individual and societal soul-searching about values and purpose, a kind of re-evaluation about what really matters. These issues are important for all of us, but may be particularly meaningful to the younger generations as they enter the workforce.

KG: I agree and can promise you I will never go back to my crazy pre-COVID travel schedule! Thank you so much for your thoughts, Kerry.

Interview conducted and article written by BBH Partner Kathryn George.

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