Rolf Pfeiffer's picture Submitted by Rolf Pfeiffer May 7, 2020 - 4:03pm


It was Audrey Burke-McCarthy who shared this insight with us during the weekly huddle which has been connecting the fellows and affiliates of the Harvard-based Institute of Coaching (IOC) from around the globe during these uncertain and challenging times.

These are led by industry leaders such as Carol Kaufmann, Margaret Moore and Jeff Hull in order to share personal reflections and develop our understanding of the current situation.

As business coaches we are, of course, in the unique position of seeing up-close the challenges facing a wide range of leaders, as well as their very different responses to that. Below is a short excerpt from one of the calls that was hosted by Carol Kaufmann where the fellows were candidly discussing the role of coaches and leadership during our times of Covid-19.


From the beginning of the quarantine, we have been observing how people and, more specifically, leaders are approaching the situation. Each leader is focusing on different issues. Some choose to focus on the results, the bottom line, the facts first. While there are others who understand that the raw reality can’t be addressed properly without considering the emotional impact. They create safety - to the extent currently possible - if only the safety to speak up, as they will listen, even if they don’t have all the answers.
We all have some resource of resilience, and for some, these are adequate for the first response; though for others they are already low. Our role as coaches is, inadvertently, to help equip business leaders with the resilience required, depending upon each individual, and the knowledge required to flex that around what is needed when and where – on the assumption that we are all superlatively resourceful ourselves.  

The question is, therefore, are we as coaches able to nurture our inner strength first in order to serve others? And are the leaders we coach able to do the same with their teams. It is important to note that we are in this together with the leaders we are expected to support, and here we have an opportunity to communicate the significance of coaching and coaches in leading with uncertainty.

We find that walking alongside our clients, being present, being empathic, listening, can help them increase their understanding of the situation, can increase their self-awareness, can help to give meaning to the situation. It can help calm things down for a moment, cut through the noise, reduce the inflow of information to create an understanding of “what is” – as a basis for the next steps.

Everyone agrees that this current crisis is unprecedented. Some of us - leaders and coaches similarly - do reasonably well because we have been through severe crisis before: revolutions, terrorist attacks, wars. While not everyone has the capacity such as Queen Elizabeth II to reach back to her personal memories as a young girl during WWII, putting into perspective what is currently happening (only her 4th speech of this nature in 68 years on the British throne).

We see how people step up and rise to the occasion, regardless of whether they formally hold leadership responsibilities or not; and we see those in leadership roles fail miserably, hunker down, or run away.

Those in Europe may remember the Costa Concordia disaster. As a cruise liner ran aground, many passengers stepped up to the occasion doing what was needed to save lives, because they had courage and just did what was the right thing to do; while the captain of the ship literally ran away.

Personal maturity, courage, a sense of responsibility and resourcefulness seem to be among the things that make the difference, no matter whether you formally hold a role as “leader” or not.

We must also consider context and culture when determining the appropriate response. Whether a country or an organization have a more egalitarian or a more maternalistic or paternalistic culture has an impact on expectations, call to actions and citizen satisfaction.

Similarly, we also know that some cultures are more individualistic while others are more community oriented. Again, we can expect an impact on responses and what is accepted to be decent. The virus hits us all, but the impact of that depends on our culture, history and habits. Although some practices that we see may be more effective than others; some cultures find it easier to respond to the urgency now.
Here’s what the IOC fellows representing various voices from around the globe shared in a nutshell about what they’ve been noticing in their clients as the crisis has begun to emerge.

Wendi Wasik (USA) emphasizes the fact that a new scope of leadership is required today.
“One of my clients, an executive director, suddenly had to step up and hold the space for his employees who are terrified, losing their health, possibly their families. The conversation turned in a direction that he had never experienced, he never had to create this kind of space.”

Carol Kaufmann (USA) says “This speaks to Leadership under crisis in a fascinating way” and adds:
“Leaders have to increase the scope of what they can offer. If a leader has not grappled deeply with these kinds of issues it is hard to suddenly grow needed resources from nothing. The more they understand their crucible experiences and core purpose the better they are equipped to handle this kind of ordeal. And I am amazed to see how many global CEOs rise to the occasion and provide both the emotional perspective and the focus on steering their companies through these rough waters. We are seeing amazing degrees of resilience.”

Rolf Pfeiffer (Germany) has experienced CEOs reacting in very different ways from each other.   
“Most leaders face similar pressures, and they are being looked at not just by shareholders, but by the whole range of stakeholders. Yet they make very different decisions. Some go as far as to say “we will not let anyone go because of Covid in 2020”. What enables them to make these bold decisions when their peers just lay off thousands of employees? Or take the UK – they asked for 250,000 volunteers for the NHS (the National Health Service), and 750,000 stepped up. But let’s also not forget this question: What could we have done beforehand to not be so dependent on these volunteers, these heroes, in the first place?”

For Douglas Choo (USA) at this point it is helpful to explore with our coaching clients what is expected of them.
“We can and must help leaders to cut out the noise, so that we can explore what is expected of them. Then help create clarity of intention, acknowledge fears, see core values, so that they clearly see what is available to them to deal with the crisis. It is recomforting to see that there are these beacons, e.g. Queen Elizabeth II, who can give words to fears, and can balance the collective vs paternalistic/maternalistic elements of a response – and give hope.”

Graham Barkus (Hongkong): “Keep an open mind and stay curious as to how any leader would naturally take action about this crisis”
“We can support our clients building their resources. The more resourceful someone is, the easier it will be to trust them to do what is needed. And being resourceful will also help to deal with potential conflicts of interest that can always come up when thinking of frontline personnel in a crisis, e.g. healthcare staff.”

Jan Muhlfeit (Czech Republic): “Self-awareness if the key”
“Helping our clients to increase their self-awareness is key. The more you understand who you are, the more you can achieve. This helps to turn fear into its meaning – and when doing something meaningful, fear goes away. Meaning brings people together, and that community in itself is very helpful. It is important to have structure. Some concentration camp survivors recalled how created a structure, a routine helped them survive the most difficult moments imaginable.”

Moray McLaren (Spain): “Lessons from the last financial crisis are enabling leaders to cope with Covid-19.”
“As a group we have talked about handling fear. Working globally, I can see how that means different things to different people and will affect our resilience and ability to act clearly. We all have different reference points. Living in Madrid, I can see how older generations are reflecting back to their memories of civil war and dictatorship. Many of my clients across Africa, Asia and Latin America are inevitably taking a longer term perspective following the ongoing cycle of disruption and economic ups and down.”

Fernando Morais (Brazil): “Experiences of vulnerability are helpful in self-development.”
“I’m not fearful for myself in this current situation. My self-awareness helps me to deal with the situation. As a young man, I was forced out of the land where I had been born, with 20 kilograms of personal belongings – period. I know very well what it means to be vulnerable. And that allows me to care for others – not everyone might be able to do that.”

Işık Taçoğlu (USA): “Every leader’s response will be to respect his or her individual maturity and personal values.”
“I see how personal values shape our behavior.  In times like this we have less time to prepare, our values are shown more easily. For leaders and physicians, this is leadership maturity. Where are people in their stage of leadership? Hopefully, when this is over, medical schools can consider including leadership maturity frameworks in their first year training and that MD’s can acquire the empathy which we see now is the number one requirement in a health crisis.  And, as difficult as it might seem, we have to respect professionals now saying “I can’t do this”. At the same time, we should be ready to be positively surprised to see people we expect the least to step up.”

Suzanne Gough (Dubai): “Styles of Leadership need to take context and circumstances into account.”
“In Dubai, we have lots of different communities and cultures and very different leadership styles, from hierarchical to very independent and transformational. So we need different ways to deal with fear, different ways to reassure and support people. And we have to be mindful of very different circumstances that people live in – this looks different in a house with a nice garden compared to be locked down in a small inner-city apartment.”

Jim Lopata (USA): “What is the soil you are in. People thrive in different types of soil.”
“Different people thrive in different conditions, a cactus cannot make it in the rain forest. It is reassuring to see that people take their personal responsibility and are being seen for that and applauded. People step up and just do what is needed, without asking questions. That’s crucial.”


Our current global health crisis is a massive challenge to currently existing assumptions, and some of these were much rather implicit. It is safe to accept that no individual discipline of science can provide all the answers that we need. Leaders will have to ensure that there is a consensus on what it would cost to achieve urgent objectives.

In other words, the priority should be given to put those questions on the table.

  1. How can we balance the need to protect healthcare systems versus the damage of locking lockdown an economy?
  2. What level of reduction in individual liberties as guaranteed by national constitutions in permissible in exchange for access to instruments that help to quickly cut chains of infection?
  3. How ready are we to discuss those questions that were considered taboo topics 6 months ago – think of triage in hospitals, when patients with severe conditions outnumber available ventilators.

Carol Kaufmann, Founder of IOC, closes the huddle by saying: “The challenges of leading in extended crisis are legion. We have seen that some leaders rise to the occasion, others don’t. There are many ways we can be of service to our clients. We’ve all been given a challenge. We’ve all been given a chance. I hope that you use this time when you feel most alone into an opportunity for yourselves and for those who you lead. This global health crisis is transitioning all of us beyond what everyone had dared to expect.”

Special thank you to Rolf Pfeiffer, Işık Taçoğlu and Moray McLaren for their contributions to this article!

All the views represented here belong to individual fellows as indicated and have no relationship with Institute of Coaching or Harvard University. This fellow think tank was hosted by Carol Kaufmann, Founder of IOC. Hopefully sharing our conversations at this time will assist others to help the leaders in their life.