How Leadership Has Changed in the Pandemic

kerry sulkowicz

Dr. Kerry Sulkowicz is the founder of the Boswell Group

Psychiatrist Dr. Kerry Sulkowicz on leading during a crisis and the future of the workplace

How can leaders support their employees as the pandemic wears on? Whether we’re working from home or on the front lines, our leaders need to emphasize trust, foster personal connections, and stay flexible, according to Dr. Kerry Sulkowitcz, a psychiatrist and founder of the Boswell Group. For Molner’s Table, John sat down with Dr. Sulkowicz, who advises some of the most well-known CEOs and corporate boards. “There’s a need for leaders to be much more tuned into the external working environment,” Dr. Sulkowicz told Molner. Together, Molner and Dr. Sulkowicz discuss leading during adversity and what the future of the workplace might look like. 

John Molner: Many of us have been in this distributed work environment for about a year now, how has the pandemic impacted leadership?

Kerry Sulkowicz: That’s one of my favorite questions. I’ve been talking about that for the past year. It’s affected leadership in profound ways and has created, in my view, what are really some of the defining moments in a leader’s career. Because in addition to the usual challenges that leaders have to deal with every day, leaders have had to deal with the overlay of the pandemic, of working virtually, of the political uprising around systemic racism, and more. So the level of complexity for leaders is exponentially greater than ever before.

How do you think the role of the CEO has changed?

It’s changed in a matter of degree because the role, on some level, is still the same. What is different is the level of scrutiny that CEOs are under has never been greater. There’s a need for CEOs to be much more tuned into the external environment, particularly the political and social realms. I think some of them are frankly finding that difficult. Some of them are navigating it very well while others are feeling paralyzed by that level of scrutiny and are afraid to do the right thing.

What are three ways that employers and leaders can continue to reassure and motivate their employees during this difficult time?

1. Personal Connection: The need for personal connection with people on the CEO’s team and much deeper in the organization is profound. Many of us are working virtually and are deprived of some of the usual human interactions that are the basis for shared knowledge in the workplace. So there’s a need to touch base regularly and check-in to see how employees are doing.

2. Trust: Leaders need to default to a position of trust. A minority of leaders feel like employees who are working from home are just getting away with things and not working as hard or being as productive. I think that’s wrong. For the most part, people are trying to be productive while juggling the demands of being a good parent, emotional challenges, or, if they’re younger, sharing a space or working in smaller living quarters. Leaders need to have empathy for that and they need to assume that employees are really trying to do their best under challenging circumstances. If leaders are trusting of that, they will create a virtuous cycle and get the best out of their workers.

3. Be flexible: Leaders need to be flexible and open to learning from this experience as ever before. For instance, for me personally, I think if you had asked me how much of my work could be conducted virtually a year ago, I would’ve said maybe 10% because it’s very personal work. I was wrong by 90%. I think leaders need to not try to get back to the pre-pandemic normal as fast as possible. They need to see this as an opportunity to learn from the experience and be incredibly flexible about a more hybrid approach to work. 

Are you seeing an increase in burnout among leaders and workers? 

Absolutely. And like I said, leaders aren’t immune. There’s a lot of burnout. People are just tired. When leaders tell me how well their team has risen to the occasion under these adverse circumstances, my reaction to that is usually to agree.

However, there are some leaders who make what I think is an interesting attribution error. They say that teams have done so well because of the existence of these platforms like Zoom. And I think that is not correct. We’d be in trouble without them, but those are enablers of rising to the occasion. They’re not the cause. The cause is more in the psychological realm and there are two factors. One is the well-known phenomenon of bonding in adversity. It’s very real and it’s a force for good. But adversity that has gone on for a year and still going is exhausting. And that’s one of the things that can contribute to burnout. The other reason why teams have done well is the fact that people are tapping into longstanding, deep relationships — many of which were formed long before the pandemic began. And when you tap into something long enough, it runs the risk of running dry unless you do something deliberate to replenish it.

What does the future of work look like? And what can we expect to see as things slowly start to go back to normal? 

Everybody’s trying to figure that out… I do think that there will be much more of a mixture of in-person and virtual work. One of the things that is interesting during this pandemic as people think about the future of work is that  some people feel ashamed or guilty talking about having had a so-called “good pandemic.” People feel guilty because there’s so much suffering around them, but they themselves have reaped the benefits of not having to commute an hour and a half a day, spending more time with their kids or their spouses, being more efficient at work.

We need to be able to talk about the good alongside the bad. They’re both valid experiences. And as we do that, I think things will settle out into some kind of new normal. It will be very much an iterative process. It’s not like we’re going to all of a sudden arrive at the new normal. I think there will be phases of this transition back to some kind of new equilibrium eventually — but we’re a long way from that.

Kerry J. Sulkowicz, MD, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, serves as a trusted advisor to CEO’s, boards, families, and investors on leadership, team dynamics and culture. He is Founder and Managing Principal of Boswell Group LLC, a consultancy based in New York. Kerry is also President-Elect of the American Psychoanalytic Association.