“Look at the relationship between increased stress levels and individual performance.
You may discover that at first the crisis produces heightened awareness with increased decision-making ability and performance.
But if stress is prolonged reaching a traumatic level feelings of helplessness and hopelessness may set in for some.
Then there can be a decline in both judgment and performance.”
As part of our “Authority Magazine” series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My backstory pertaining to leadership brings me back to the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy who died in 1963 at age 46 and Martin Luther King, Jr. who died in 1968 at age 39. The impact of the loss of these change-making leaders impacted my young life not only with sorrow but a sense of hopelessness with regard to the speed necessary for urgent change.
I felt I only learned what I already knew. That people who believed in humanity often died trying to carry out their values and ideals. The sixties were difficult times for a young person. JFK asked us not what our country could do for us but what we could do for our country while Dr. King had a dream. They stoked our feelings and then vanished out of our young lives. In their wake came new leaders, new efforts some quite gallant trying to render democracy for all. But the fear of the loss of great leaders never went away for my generation.
As an undergraduate I majored in political science. A decade later with two Masters’ degrees I was in training to be a psychoanalyst and proceeded to earn my Ph.D. followed by continued decades of training to give psychoanalytic psychotherapy to infants, children, adolescents, and adults.
The link between the political and the personal had become very evident to me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I suppose an amusing anecdote when I began my practice was when a prominent medical doctor called me to ask me to raise my fees. I was young with two small children, living in a modest house, in a somewhat rural countryside. Charging to help someone with a mental illness felt inherently wrong though I needed income as we all do. She warned me that while my credentials were outstanding if my fees were undervalued, people would undervalue me who they came to in desperation.
I took her advice by creating my own version of socialized medicine with a sliding scale of fees that I maintained throughout my career. Early in my career insurance paid liberally for psychotherapy. The insurance companies were thought to base this on the notion that outpatient treatment for mental health prevented hospitalization and thus saved the companies money. Then the profit motive, not good clinical practice, snowballed relentlessly.
We know how the insurance industry changed dramatically in the ensuing decades, so that today, not only is insurance difficult to obtain by many but those with insurance may not be aware that highly trained therapists have to battle these companies who dictate policy and even treatment without qualifications to do so.
This resulted in many highly trained older therapists to opt out of the insurance system and continue working the way I began with their own versions of socialized medicine.
Watch this video on healthcare and it will open your eyes while making you laugh. But actually, it’s no laughing matter.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Following my psychoanalytic training and my PhD, I studied with Dr. Jacob Arlow, a senior psychoanalyst who taught me how to listen to the unconscious. His remarkable memory and brilliance as a prolific scholarly writer, clinician, and teacher was generously shared with young clinicians like myself.
He was as demanding of me as I was of myself, and I highly valued his teachings and encouragement. His specific detailed praise was like a weekly present to me. When I began to write, he edited my first international psychoanalytic article. We spent an hour or so in his at-home study discussing my draft which he had already carefully read. Before I left I asked what I owed him. “Next time, next article, ask again,” he kindly replied. I knew then that what I owed him couldn’t be measured in dollars. I hoped he felt given to in other ways by me as well.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My vision for my practice was to help others understand how their minds were working so they could uncover their inner strengths to master their psychological conflicts.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
A psychoanalytic practice is a solo activity generally. I never had a staff so that all the work was confidential, read and heard by no one else. In that sense I was my team — highly organized, working many hours, but above all creating a situation where I could be trusted.
But joining small groups of other therapists to review cases confidentially kept me under review, so to speak. The above-mentioned scholar, Dr. Arlow, became part of my personal team with his close eye on my work.
In that way, I was my own leader, but talked frequently with peer colleagues.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I can’t say I ever considered giving up. I am someone who perseveres. My motivation was based on a kind of humble empathic calling that has never left me.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of an effective and trustworthy leader during challenging times is to listen attentively to those who follow. How can you lead others if you don’t understand them? Effective leaders must become the vortex of their followers’ hungers and hopes.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
A leader inspires by reaching into the personal working goals and aspirations felt deeply by their workers, keeping in sight the mission of the company, organization, or group. Gaining trust in this way, others are motivated to listen carefully to the ideas of their leader who supports their workers as colleagues with valuable input. Then you have an engaged team working together in collaboration with their valued leader.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Difficult news during tumultuous times requires carefully future minded organized strategies that keep people at all levels of work in mind. It often means downsizing, cutting staff hours, cutting jobs that are redundant, and in order to decrease the risk of losing valued staff, sometimes even discussing lowering wages for a designated time period or some combination of these critical decisions. Lowering wages for the same work done before of course has a long history that led to unionizing to prevent threatening mistreatment. Unless there is a unified strategy by those who choose to remain in the company with a valued leader who also takes a cut, a substantial one, this is clearly a precarious if not, illegal, strategy.
Once again, if the leader understands those working for her or him in an effort to preserve a safe environment for them, the staff should not be blind sighted by such news, but gradually prepared and included in discussions of anticipated changes.
A company with customers has not been within my working life as a leader. I cannot think of patients as customers, though perhaps others might. Although I’m aware that some therapists discharge patients before coming to a joint agreement about discontinuing therapy, it has never been my experience.
Leaders in a wide range of companies whom I have treated as patients struggle with these questions.
Those with the greatest difficulty in presenting and carrying out changes collaboratively are usually the authoritarian, self-centered, bosses who thrive on hierarchical imbalances to give them a sense of power that often cloaks a sense of deep often unearthed inferiority.
This occurs in all kinds of venues from manufacturing companies to hospitals. It is difficult for employees to work for such unempathic business owners or directors. During economic downturns workers who are not respected for their hard work and often long hours feel helpless and unheard. It is difficult to protest the impact on families of a boss’s shifting and even erratic policies.
To my way of thinking, this is not only an ineffective leader who breeds mistrust but not a leader at all. The results may become massive inequities such as gender inequity, various forms of discrimination against some groups of employees, and in time, if there are contract violations and illegalities the result is a failed enterprise. People who use inequities and even ridicule of others to sustain their own sense of viability as potential leaders cannot sustain leadership; they sabotage themselves; they lose valued workers; their businesses fail.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Making cogent plans in the face of an unpredictable future is the mark of a good, just, effective leader who will maintain loyal workers and followers during stressful times.
Such an effective leader will take pleasure in empowering others to voice their expectations of the future, not impose a vision but be open to new ideas, policies, mission statements, and equal opportunity participation in planning and decision making.
Shared visions for an unpredictable future can lead to creative open-ended planning, novel modes of operating, consulting with a coalition of change-makers, and for example, using new technologies to optimize positive changes during periods of unrest within a company or organization.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Maintaining an understanding of the interplay of personalities in a business, corporation, organization, or not-for-profit setting can help a leader persevere in seeking influence makers from within and without. By this I mean that a true leader doesn’t make decisions in isolation but has a high regard for group dynamics within a single company as well as the interplay of group dynamics among similar interest companies that may be supporting each other or be severely competitive.
If a leader keeps a range of personalities in mind, he or she will be exceptionally knowledgeable not only about policy shifts but also in the way they are implemented and interpreted. A leader who is capable and secure in reopening a decision for example after seeing the negative unanticipated impact on a range of individuals and groups in an organization, will allow reservations and oppositional views to be part of the conversation.
In briefer terms, a number one principle guiding a company during turbulent times is the capacity for a leader to engage and even invite opposition to strategic plans — before — they are enacted and implemented.
Such a leader is keenly aware of the personalities surrounding him or her and by respecting these differences in times of crisis will factor them into the shifting decision-making process.
An example of when this does not occur might be when power is distributed unequally and contrary opinions are not welcomed due to a personality of a leader who fears his or her power will be undermined by open conversation. Then opposition to a plan surfaces only after a plan has failed perhaps disastrously, even with loss of life.
Excessive deference to such an authority can shut down the free dissemination of information and points of view that could have forecasted the plan’s failure. Personalities of insecure subordinates who fear humiliating dominating aggressive personalities withhold their insights preventing the full disclosure of information necessary for wise and complex decision-making.
In any circle of decision makers all participants have personalities. And the personality types described above will exist to varying degrees, especially in a hierarchical organization.
Consider an individual with compulsive traits who is overconcerned with hierarchical relationships and consequently is overly preoccupied with the reactions of the primary decision maker. This individual will become consumed with anxiety about upsetting a vulnerable leader and may as a result of this magnified anxiety subordinate his or her expert knowledge and even creative recommendations because of problems dealing with authority. Such an individual may conceal adverse information for fear of a superior’s rage. Nobody benefits.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- An individual in a leadership role who thinks of himself or herself first, cannot concentrate on the problems being confronted. Absorbed by his or her own natural symptoms during a stressful time they may become self-destructive to themselves and to their followers. Unintended consequences result from such a narrow self-view.
- An individual who actively seeks out crisis situations as a means of dispensing anxieties is symptomatic of a highly reactive individual who impulsively feels risk taking is needed to expend and release pressures of inner turmoil. This person will not take in all the vital information but act too quickly without it. Of course, anxiety will not be reduced, and this mental strategy will backfire, but the reactive individual doesn’t tend to learn from experience because they will focus on reducing their anxiety once again in a misinformed way during the next crisis.
- A leader needs to take into account in a personal way that long hours and persisting pressures are exhausting and debilitating. Such a person will know that he or she needs outside review of potential decisions due to this impact of trauma during crises. Individuals who hide this fact from themselves can lead their followers to disastrous consequences.
- For some a kind of euphoric high is felt under undue stress. The person feels unduly powerful and uncommonly masterful but is living in an illusive inner world. This person overestimates and aggrandizes their knowledge rather than seeking others to consult with who can expand the knowledge base needed for astute decision-making in a crisis.
Although your question refers to businesses, I think it’s also vital to discuss the largest entity that some describe as a business — the business of a nation. To this end, I will briefly discuss the narcissistic political leader. Narcissistic identification of a leader with his nation often makes it impossible for that leader to step aside or join with others wholeheartedly in decision-making. Reactions to citizens who no longer affirm the self-overidealization of a leader, may lead the leader to vengeful and dangerous impulses unleased by a wound so deep that their self-worth is wrought with internal pain. To cast off this pain, they may target their opposition with violence. Many severely malignant narcissistic leaders in world history have come to this fate. The price is far too high.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
It may seem unusual to respond to this question with the following: An unwavering belief in what you value and hope to do to sustain your values must direct your work, not the profit motive. Something more complex, more rewarding, more significant to society must be prioritized.
If such beliefs direct your work then as a leader you may be more likely to have the emotional stability to take on the challenge of sustaining financial stability over the long haul that recognizes the needs of humanity during turbulent times.
I am not an economist. However, I have treated wealthy leaders who have not had an inner belief system to guide them. Their inordinate wealth has collapsed. The deficit of an inner voice of conscience to guide them often led to the blatant disregard for the financial needs of those who worked for them but not with them — a disregard for humanity.
Excluding the needs and participation in decisions of all those in your organization can lead to inordinate financial gains for a few followed by the collapse of the very financial structure built for those few as a means of procuring profit and increasing wealth.
The belief in only securing the financial well-being of the few at the expense of the larger community is a cause not a result of turbulent economic times in my limited experience treating wealthy successful people who became desperate after suffering the loss of the financial status quo that built their self-esteem. Their self-esteem was fragile because it depended on external not internal resources for the emotional resilience needed for coping with difficult and fluctuating economic downturns.
Reversing that trend as challenging as it may be is required to foster long term growth of a financially and mentally healthy society — in my humble view.
A corollary of my experience witnessing people without a clear inner belief system about humanity also often results in disregard for the needs of the impact on children in families of the workers at all levels. Furthermore, the consequences of their adult decision to keep power in the hands of the few slips into the misguided beliefs of the next generation they gave birth to that they neglected to protect.
They erred on the wrong side of democratic political institutions by disregarding the nurturance of those they wished to have as their following just as they erred as parents disregarding the safe nurturance of their children in a democratic family based on devoting themselves to understanding the minds and hearts of the very young.
Doing what is best for the larger economy in public and private sectors must include what is best for the growth of our children’s capacity to develop trust in adults whose duty it is to give them all safety and security.
Economic decisions can have long term psychological consequences. Economic and emotional life will always be full of surprises. An inner belief system that is clear about what is of primary importance to each individual and family is paramount.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Clarify your values upon which to base economic decisions. For example, uncertainty fosters fear in a small business owner. For example, a restaurant owner who prides oneself on a vegetarian appetite may under the anticipation of loss of customers in a downturn of the economy broaden their purpose to include the meat-eating sector. This is a mistake. They are losing what their loyal customers value, their patrons trust is undermined, and the meat-eaters don’t balance out losses.
- Be inclusive in decision-making. Invite participation at all levels of your business in contributing ideas for economic goals. For example, during an economic downturn, the lowest paid wage earners fear for their jobs. Pay attention to their values and ideas and you will not only increase their participation giving you underestimated wisdom, but their enthusiasm for being recognized will increase productivity.
- Look for leadership within sectors of your business. They are waiting to be found. Focus on them, enjoy them, and invite them to be central to formulating economic ideas at the top. If your organization is large, they will know the popular needs and wisdom of their sectors or departments. A global company reaches many diverse populations of well-educated technical workers. During economic uncertainty leaders at the top likely don’t even know who they are. Travel to different states or countries to personally meet these people, listen to their innovative ideas. Validate this personnel and include their ideas in the larger purview of the company’s mission and productivity will increase.
- Discover the grassroots of your business. Who are you serving? Who are your followers? Why do they follow your product and leadership? Most likely because they believe in something you are selling. Discover what they believe and increase your productivity by zeroing in on the belief system that is shared. Getting to know the beliefs of your followers will lead you to understand why they have become long term followers. They believe in something you say. Capitalize on that belief with your products and in turbulent times, you will be in contact with your loyal followers who depend on you to carry forth their values.
At a political level, remember Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. It was a dream that captured the hearts of his followers. There were many civil rights leaders who had clear visions and expectations for the future but if they didn’t have the language to reach into the wishes, feelings, and hopes of their constituents so they weren’t heard as powerfully.
Dr. King was heard and is remembered. Why? Because You, the People, shared his dream at an emotional level and felt deeply his genuine authenticity and care. He reached you at a personal individual level.
He knew politics was personal.
Here is a current illustration of how the Washington Post advertised their new editorial leader. Note my italics where they reach out to you, the needs of their readers by highlighting beliefs and values they expect you to share and offer hope that you will be involved with them in the pursuit of meaning. These are all ways to hook and involve you at an emotional level:
“Sally ushers in an important new era of leadership…A world class journalist…committed to delivering the trusted, fact-based inclusive news coverage…fierce commitment to bringing you, the reader, closer to the story, allowing you to take something meaningful away from it…an inspiring leader who embodies…values of diversity and inclusion…”
If you believe in Sally’s values, you will want to read the Washington Post.
- Look at the relationship between increased stress levels and individual performance. You may discover that at first the crisis produces heightened awareness with increased decision-making ability and performance. But if stress is prolonged reaching a traumatic level feelings of helplessness and hopelessness may set in for some. Then there can be a decline in both judgment and performance.
Furthermore, for others, corticosteroids or adrenal hormones are discharged at that point misleading people into being drawn to a feeling of being at the height of their powers while their objectivity is diminished.
For example, an executive who is a workaholic not sharing responsibilities is overloaded during turbulent times. He or she may deny the emotional impact on him or her because of being so accustomed to working solo.
As the productivity of the company is falling, this executive works harder, longer hours, isolating oneself in exhaustion to try and retain their economic standing. As this person is falling apart, but denying that can happen to him or her, the executive loses more and more contact with those who work for him or her and consequently loses the ideas of a plurality that could revive the company.
This is a personality problem of a leader that is drowning his workers in his internal conflict which is superimposed on external strife. He or she ignores those who are able to share the stress and swim to the surface. These swimmers have sustained more energy than the chief exec. Learn from them. Share the stress. Face the reality of the flaws in your personality.
Become alert to how excellent persistent strivings that have persevered in the past may be failing you under extreme stress. Reflect on how your personal qualities are not adapting to change. You need to allow yourself to take in a new notion: You need others.
While I am an entrepreneur running my own psychotherapy practice and publishing books, my focus has not only been on treating adult patients who are leaders but on cultivating leadership in families. A family in a sense is a small humane business with values and goals. The leadership should be in the hands of the adult parents who learn how to attentively listen to their children respectfully with open minds. A few caveats will be helpful.
- Children who at a young age become leaders in the family because of parental neglect or illness may physically be capable of parenting for example, younger siblings, even running a household by keeping it clean and preparing meals. These precocious children will pay for the emotional toll this takes on them. It will show up in later life, often in depression and high anxiety. In a family, parents delightfully encourage leadership of children with their peers, but should not be expected to be surrogate adult-like leaders in the family.
- Self-absorbed often narcissistic or even sociopathic parents fail to understand child development because they are focused on their adult needs. They expect their children to shine for them, not for themselves as individuals. These parents lack empathy and undermine the growth of the identity and individualism of their children who suffer deep consequences.
For example, a narcissistic teenager raised by highly self-absorbed and self-centered parents didn’t learn how to have regard for others. The upshot was his disturbed personality formation. His unusual brilliance was acclaimed by his parents because it made them feel like they had a remarkable child making them remarkable. They failed to empathize with him as a separate person and he in turn, failed to learn to share and empathize with his peers. When he came to me he said bluntly, “I don’t know who I am.” He had the clear potential for being a leader in any avenue he chose because of his high level of education and brilliance. But this young man couldn’t lead if he couldn’t relate to others and was overly preoccupied with his own status in society as his parents were before him.
Only with treatment focused on developing his values, his capacity for self-reflection, and his eventual ability to become an empathic human being did he begin to flourish. I am confident this youngster will be a leader beyond high school and college now that his narcissism is understood by him because of his youthful willingness to look inside of himself. His suffering pushed him to become a patient in treatment available to be guided to increase his self-awareness.
Older political leaders with a narcissistic personality disorder often, in contrast, do not heed the signal of their suffering because it is humiliating to experience weakness. They do not seek treatment. Their policies are too self-centered. Their body of workers are ignored. Their businesses fail and they blame others until and only until they are able to look at themselves.
The impact of the personalities of leaders is essential to be aware of in oneself and others. The political is personal and emotional. Economics are personal and emotional.
The psychology of leaders must be recognized for productivity to be revived in turbulent times.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Somerset Maugham is one of my favorite novel writers because he makes himself as a narrator into a character who talks directly to you as the reader. His most well-known novel is In Human Bondage that first came out in 1915 but still has a present and long following. In his last book, The Summing Up, he makes a bit of a lengthy but cogent remark I will quote that seems to fit with a theme of this interview that I have focused on: the personalities of those in leadership.
“It is not only vanity that has prevented those who have tried to reveal themselves to the world from telling the whole truth; it is … their disappointment with themselves, their surprise that they can do things that seem to them so abnormal, make them place too great an emphasis on occurrences that are more common than they suppose.”
I quote Maugham who uses the word vanity where I have used the word narcissism. His word is milder than mine. But his reference to disappointment in oneself, surprise at one’s ordinariness that is held in common with others, can be self-defeating for a leader who overestimates his power and worth. Turbulent times will accentuate this failing of seeing oneself as part of not above humanity.
In my work treating economic leaders, I have found it challenging to bring out humility latent in such insecure leaders who cloak their sense of inferiority with power that fails in turbulent and traumatic times. Even in times of crisis such leaders protest, “But I am amazing. Why are others no longer following me?”
Their supreme error is failing to look within themselves and only looking to blame others. With intense psychotherapy an excessive vulnerability to humiliation is revealed. Such a person becomes aware of their commonality with others in reality. This is a new insight because of their long-held need to believe in their superiority over other human beings. With the development of trust in a therapist this can be modified.
However, this takes time and crises won’t wait. We must judiciously choose our leaders in politics and our employers in our daily work lives upon whom we depend on for income. Be aware of their personalities. Executives in a global economy need to look within themselves not only outward to the world or even upward to outer space or downward to what’s living under the seas. It is very difficult to look within oneself.
But when they realize that if they look into the vast beyond, they will only find themselves, willingness to change occurs. The task of the many is to hold the powerful to account.