Leading Through Crisis: A Story of Compassion with Gus Giacoman (MBA ‘11)

Gus Giacoman
NYU Stern's Leadership Accelerator series, Leading Through Crisis, examines how Stern alumni are approaching leadership during the Covid-19 crisis, and how they exemplify the Accelerator's core values: agility, innovative mindset, continuous learning, action-oriented, inclusivity, and self-awareness. 

In this story, Gus Giacoman (MBA ‘11), partner, Strategy&, part of the PwC network, shares how lessons in caring from the military have shaped how he has led during the Covid-19 crisis. He also highlights the importance of being prepared and acting deliberately.

According to Nate Pettit, associate professor of management & organizations and director of the Leadership Accelerator, “People need to feel something to change. Emotions are the motivating force behind change. When followed by logic and analysis, they provide reason and direction.”

Read Gus’ story below.

My reaction to the crisis has been informed by a story I have told before. I was in an Army infantry unit packed with tough combat veterans, but our sergeant major was the toughest. Built like a slab of concrete, he had completed multiple deployments with the elite 75th Ranger Regiment. As officers, my colleagues and I technically outranked him. But if he had told us to jump, we would not have hesitated to ask how high—and how soft we should land. When he first came to our battalion, he gathered all the officers together for a leadership development session. Then he played a video of the classic children’s story The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. The Giving Tree describes an enduring relationship of unconditional and self-sacrificing love between a tree and a little boy. In the silence after the video ended, he uttered a simple command before dismissing us: “Be the Giving Tree for your soldiers.” And this is how I have approached this crisis as a business leader. 

My role as a leader is to create a culture that fosters fundamental care and trust and empowers people to take action. Caring also means recognizing that the emotional fatigue of Covid-19 will be felt far more significantly than the physical fatigue. To help people overcome this challenge, leaders need to understand how people think, feel, and behave. This understanding, alone, helps reduce emotional fatigue. But it is not enough—leaders must reinforce the importance of their team’s contributions and replace the negative emotions teams feel with positive ones. At PwC, CEO Tim Ryan provides a great example of understanding, caring, and creating positive emotions. When the crisis began he immediately shared that layoffs would be a last resort and that our balance sheet is strong. Further, he emphasized that our mental health and the health of our families is the priority. 

In addition to caring, the military also reinforced the importance of being prepared and acting deliberately. At PwC, we have learned from past global health and economic crises how to best serve clients. We think about crisis response in three stages: Mobilize, Stabilize, and Strategize. The Mobilize stage, where many companies are now, is about understanding what needs to happen, who needs to be involved, and how people can be properly equipped. Stabilize focuses on assembling a team to address operations and things like the supply chain. Strategize asks how companies can best position themselves for growth and recovery and how they can get employees excited about the future. It allows companies to identify opportunities for transformation. 

This will be over one day. I believe people will emerge stronger and more flexible, having overcome challenges they had never encountered, let alone imagined. 

More in the Leading Through Crisis series:
About the Leadership Accelerator
Through Stern’s Leadership Accelerator, students gain the behavioral skills and mindset to embrace and drive change in an ever-evolving business world. Through challenging, high-engagement experiences, students repeatedly put themselves outside their comfort zone—to take risks and fail and to learn from these experiences through skillful reflection.