Joe Caruso Of Caruso Leadership: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine
14 min readFeb 2, 2022

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After years of dealing with cancer, doctors told me that it was gone and never coming back. I decided to finally find out what I was capable of. As I recently wrote in my daily “Cup of Joe” email newsletters (available at wwww.carusoleadership.com), my hope was that my capabilities would grow to exceed my expanding reach. That’s when I not only decided to keep my promise of being committed to learning, but I also wanted to live my life to the best of my ability by helping others do the same.

As a part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Caruso.

Joe Caruso is an expert on the individual mind, the collective mind of an organization and how meaning drives our behavior and determines outcomes in all aspects of life. As an author, business advisor and speaker, Joe brings his lifetime of expertise to help organizations and leaders change the way they see themselves — and in turn, the way they think about markets, products and services. Joe has learned this change in thinking drives new behavior and allows organizations to sharpen focus and reach greater levels of success.

Joe’s efforts culminated in a best-selling book and PBS special, both called The Power of Losing Control. In it, he encourages readers to “remember that the only control you really have is over yourself,” and provides techniques and strategies to stop wasting valuable time and energy on what we can’t control. He also produced an audio book, The Principles of Authentic Power.

Joe is an in-demand keynote speaker worldwide, a syndicated columnist and a sought-after business advisor. His expansive list of corporate clients includes: America Express, American Heart Association, Wells Fargo, Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), Hyatt, Domino’s, Westin Hotels & Resorts, Marriott International, the U.S. Navy and dozens more. Joe advises CEOs, military leaders and leadership teams on the essence of change for success, ultimately driving success for his clients. He is the only non-multi-national CEO to be invited to address the admirals and generals at the National Defense University, the nation’s premier joint professional military education institution. Joe was named one of the 50 Most Influential Minds in Personal Development by Nightingale-Conant, the leader in spoken-word publications.

Having grown up near Detroit with his parents and three brothers, Joe currently resides on an island between Michigan and Canada with his wife, Carol, who is an artist. He loves to travel and enjoys culinary arts and fine wine. For more information, please visit www.carusoleadership.com.

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?

I was diagnosed with an incurable cancer at 17 years old. During my chemo treatments, I promised myself to learn as much as I could about the human experience and our minds. For however much time I had to live, I committed to studying five hours per day, five days per week.. After experimental chemo and four major surgeries, I ended up being one of the first young men to be cured of metastasized testicular cancer. I decided to keep my promise. Today, I am the author of a best-selling book “The Power of Losing Control” in six languages, I plan to release a new book, “The Quintessential Leader” and I had the privilege to have been part of a PBS television special. I have served as a personal advisor to leaders of the US Navy, CEO’s, billionaires, and even one of the past Presidents of YPO. I have been fortunate enough to travel the world sharing my experiences and my thoughts with leaders in the hopes of leaving this world a better place than I found it. Now, I am honored to be interviewed by Authority Magazine. Life is good.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

OK. Oh boy! Here it goes…During a leadership retreat I was facilitating, I took a brief trip to the restroom and forgot to turn off my lavalier microphone. Everyone had a pretty good laugh. (Thankfully, it hasn’t happened since!)

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Three lessons really resonated with me…Attention to details is extremely important, never lose the ability to laugh at yourself and most people are kind and empathic.

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?

I’d have to say, my Father, Mickey. Here are a few of his gems that left a lasting impression on me.

“Joe, never feel sorry for yourself. There is always someone worse off than yourself. Never get cocky. There will always be someone who can do circles around you.”

“If you want something in life, you have to be undeniable. Make sure there is no doubt that you deserve it.”

“You can’t ever make up for a day of missed practice.” (He was a trumpet player.)

“Remember, Caruso is not just your last name. It’s the last name of your proud Sicilian grandparents, who then gave it to me and my 11 brothers and sisters. Then your Mom and I gave it to you. Take care of it.”

“Everyone can teach you something if you’re paying attention.”

When I was down because I had learned that a girl in school didn’t like me much, he had this empathic piece of advice. “Not everyone in your life is going to like you. Get used to it.”

“If you ever get married, marry your best friend.” (I did.)

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?

After years of dealing with cancer, doctors told me that it was gone and never coming back. I decided to finally find out what I was capable of. As I recently wrote in my daily “Cup of Joe” email newsletters (available at wwww.carusoleadership.com), my hope was that my capabilities would grow to exceed my expanding reach. That’s when I not only decided to keep my promise of being committed to learning, but I also wanted to live my life to the best of my ability by helping others do the same. Years later, I added three words. “And enjoy it!” To this day, this is the same foundation built upon Caruso Leadership. If I was undeniable and unique, my compensation should reflect that value.

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?

I tell a story about paratroopers in the newly released expanded audio version of “The Power of Losing Control” that has a three word punchline: Accept, Adjust and Advance. Whether you’re giving a keynote speech in a room full of thousands of people then the fire alarm goes off or being interrogated in an office with two guards armed with automatic weapons by a Minister of Finance of a less than honorable West African regime have been realities for me. Accept them as such. Though this current reality may be less than ideal, it probably can be optimized to some capacity. Know your role in that process. Once you stop fretting, panicking or knee-jerk reacting, you are better positioned for the second notion. Adjust. Learn to ask yourself this great question my brilliant psychoanalyst friend asked me once when I accidentally misdialed him. “What else could this mean?” You see, as I write in my upcoming book, “The Quintessential Leader,” how we define our problem determines all of the answers our minds can’t possibly fathom. This same thought also applies to ourselves — either as an individual mind or the collective mind of a company. Think of Kodak not being able to process (pun intended) the fact that film is obsolete. In over a dozen years, 13 CEO’s couldn’t figure out how they could stay a part of a viable company while being true to their founder and their blueprint identity. Finally, once you’ve accepted this reality is dynamic, meaning -ever changing-,you will have adjusted to defining the new reality. You can also find power in your reality while having no control over it, and you can advance. Advance with the plan formation and deliver a solid execution.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

There is nothing wrong with giving up on an idea if it doesn’t work. Getting past a failed idea is an important component to possess. Carl Jung once said, “People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people.” On the other hand, it’s important in life that one retains the internal belief, as famed Psychoanalyst, Author and a dear friend told me before he died as we wrote his last book together, “A healthy mind is that of a doer doing.” During one of our conversations, I added the notion that the healthiest of minds is a doer doing with the promise of a sense of achievement or completion. I was told by the top medical specialists at the University of Michigan when I was 17 years old I would die of cancer and there was nothing they nor I could do about it. Unfortunately at that time, they were right. They wanted me to join an experimental protocol where they explained it could kill me before the cancer got the chance to, but I could be one step closer to finding a cure. My choice to partake wasn’t founded in my will to live. I had already accepted my fate. My choice was based on the fact that I only saw one responsible choice. Live my life and help others. Look, in many ways, life is an incurable disease with one way out. Like a good book, there are many chapters, some happy, some suspenseful and some sad. However, while some books have sequels, all books have one ending. I’ve had a glimpse of seeing what a premature ending to life could look like. I want to finish this book and I plan to have the ending write itself much like my author friends do with their writing processes.

In my upcoming book, I talk about a conversation I had with one of the few boxers who knocked down Muhammed Ali. I asked Ernie Shavers, “Ali said that you hit him so hard that his family back in Africa felt it. He always was known for talking. So, I will deduce that when he got up and the fight resumed he said something to you. What did he say?”

Ernie said, “I’ll never forget it. Ali looked me in the eye and said, “Not tonight!”

You see, Ali knew if Ernie could land one more of those punches he could beat Ali. Ali couldn’t deny that, so he didn’t. He just reframed, or recontextualized it. Even in a brutal hand to hand combat, the mind plays a large role. Leaders need to know this fact.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

It’s quite simple. Firstly, know your role. For example, I’ve learned that on the few occasions when my wife is telling me about something that is bothering her from her day, I have to figure out the context of my role in the moment. Is it to solve her problem? Is it to provide a positive spin on it? Is it to be a great listener and be empathic?

In any event, deal with the fear first. I remember when one of my CEO’s and her leaders (many of whom were my friends) were in a live gunfire situation at an airport, she called me and was understandably quite panicked. I was on vacation and I turned the TV on to see what she was experiencing. It was being covered live on every news station. While she hid under a seat at a gate, I told her to take three deep breaths and focus on my voice. I said you are responsible right now for yourself and those employees most of whom she didn’t know where they had scattered to. As everyone just dropped their luggage and ran at the sound of the shots, I asked how much battery she had left on her phone. I told her to act beyond her feelings and to duck and cover. Secondly, I asked her, once she found better cover, to create a group text and ask everyone to report where they are and if they were okay. Some had actually gone down a jetway and were walking barefoot on the property. I felt her role in that moment was to try her best to return to a state of normalcy, so she could gain her bearings and leave the airport as soon as things settled down. Later, I contacted her assistant and asked for her to arrange food and hotel accommodations, buy phone chargers and get a bus to pick them up from the incident. Once things settled down and everyone was accounted for and on the bus, I asked my wife to check on everyone. I suggested everyone should call their families when they were safely ensconced in their hotel rooms. I wanted to make sure they could all process together what they all individually felt and went through.

Even in a crisis and personal fears coming to light, a leader has to know their role in every moment they are presented with.

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?

It is important to know what motivates the other. In psychoanalysis, there are seven motivational systems. Especially during The Great Resignation, a leader should know three key things about each of their direct reports.

  1. Why do you work?
  2. Why do you work here?
  3. What do you like the most about your job? Most leaders don’t know these things about their teams. Before I proposed to my wife, I asked what her idea was of a perfect week. She explained and listed a few things, but the one that stood out was throwing dinner parties once a week.

I made sure to keep the list she mentioned to me even when we got married. I referred to the list in my mind periodically. Within a year, I noticed that the dinner parties began to seem more like a burden to her rather than a pleasure, so I asked her what changed. She said, “Well, I don’t really want to cook, I just like the setting of the table and the planning.”

Up until the pandemic hit, we continued to throw great dinner parties. She is renowned for her style, and I have become a pretty good cook. Lesson? I had to ask about her motivation over something she was passionate about. This is called, “The why behind the what.”

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to teams and customers?

Always approach with honesty and always give clear context to the situation. A leader needs to be what I call, “The Great Contextualizer.” In my upcoming book, I write specifically about this. When you deliver triggering bad news, contextualize it in a way that they can find power in it, even though they have no control over it.

How can a leader make plans when the future seems so unpredictable?

I once had the honor of speaking to all of the lawyers involved in the US Navy. Prior to my speech, the Secretary of the Navy had a brilliant message he shared amongst everyone. I am going to paraphrase from memory his speech: Our job is not to avoid risk. It is to assess risk. Mitigate risk and take action. In life, markets and businesses are unpredictable and therefore it tends to be risky. In order to avoid them, either miss out, be left out or both. Engage with the proper amount of diligence and caution.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

These are great and complex questions, and I was asked to be concise in my answers. Communicate often, be consistent and supportive, maintain trust, hope and faith. Turbulent times erode these capacities, so a leader’s role is to view this as an opportunity and edify them.

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?

1) Letting fear lead thought and action. In 604 BC Lao Tzu said, “Respond, rather than react.”

2) Recognize false assumptions. Focus on an honest and complete assessment.

3) Truly know and understand that this too shall pass. Even if the hard times last, it will allow you to create a new normal and the accompanying cacophony will dissipate.

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?

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, which is Covid-19. The world has encountered pandemics and plagues before, but now we are able to see in real time the way this affects our society. Shakespeare wrote some of his greatest stories during the plagues he experienced in his time. Use your time wisely, so you can get to what you want. Learn to see that every problem has opportunity in it. One of my favorite quotes from the great Wayne Gretzky, “Skate to where the puck is going.”

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.

  1. Keep everyone’s focus and attention. We do this by being great contextualizers. What does this mean and what can we do?
  2. Don’t deny them their fears, rather edify their hope, faith and sense of purpose.
  3. Give yourself alone time daily to assess, understand and manage yourself better. Everyday you wake up one day older and hopefully one day wiser. Learning more about the opportunity it can bring versus the desire to bury into yourself is the key to growth.
  4. Find home and visit it regularly. In this regard, home is a sense of self. What is it that you need to or are compelled to do that keeps you grounded while you strive? As I traveled and helped people succeed, it was cooking, listening to music, reading and writing. We all have centering and grounding rituals that bring us joy. It is not another, no matter how romantic you choose to be about the idea.
  5. Lead by example in every way. Always know that if you have been identified as a leader, you are always on display to exemplify. People notice your good performances and your bad. Try not to be a hypocrite. Share your struggles with those whom you trust. Be honest with others.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

— “Be fully and empathically in the moment. Bring all you are to all you do. It will be all you need.” Life is a combination of honest and candid self-reflection, a commitment to learning with true humility, a commitment to achievement, and an understanding that sometimes others can be shifting context and understanding. No matter how busy, preoccupied or self-absorbed you are in the moment, always be fully and empathically present in the presence of the other(s).

How can our readers further follow your work?

www.carusoleadership.com. Free Cup of Joe’s just for signing up which are deep, simple, and hopefully compelling little gems to consider every day. Members get to watch, “Conversations with Joe,” which are great candid interviews of leaders in different industries.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

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Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market