Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.
It was a cold, wintry Kansas day. We were at my aunt’s house, sitting in front of a “fake” fireplace, where a bright beam of light illuminated a rotating log wrapped in aluminum foil—and a 20-inch black-and-white TV.
It was Super Bowl IV—the Kansas City Chiefs vs. the Minnesota Vikings. At that time, it was just a game. But it was still the game, although certainly not the spectacle it is today. Yet, I can still remember how we cheered on Kansas City—the “hometown” favorite, coached by Hank Stram—and watching Jan Stenerud, their kicker, who was one of the first to use the “exotic,” sideways soccer-style kick to blast the ball between the goalposts.
In later Super Bowls, it was the era of the Dallas Cowboys—“America’s Team,” the Pittsburgh Steelers with its “Steel Curtain,” and the Miami Dolphins. Pacing the sidelines were the greats—Tom Landry, Don Shula, and Chuck Noll. These future Hall of Famers were larger than life, and when we saw them on the screen, we could feel their intensity.
Then there were other coaches and teachers—the ones who truly touched our lives. From elementary school playgrounds to classrooms and high school gymnasiums, they knew how to motivate and inspire. Other than our parents, these were possibly the first people whose feedback really mattered to us—and whose influence shaped us for life.
I can still see their faces. There was a teacher and part-time soccer coach, Mr. Graber, and Mr. Dickey, who coached basketball. They provided the inspiration to believe—in others and ourselves.
When I was 12, I went to a basketball camp led by Coach Gene Keady—a legend in Kansas, who later went on to an acclaimed coaching career at Division 1 colleges, most notably Purdue where he was head coach for 25 years. Coach Keady was the first person to tell me I would be a leader one day.
Several months ago, I called Coach Keady, who is now in his 80s. Sadly, it was the first time I’d spoken to him in decades. “Coach, you won’t remember me, but you set the foundation that guided my life,” I said. Coach Keady’s response was simple: “That was exactly my purpose with the thousands of young people I had the privilege to coach—to change their life.”
To this day, I remember the feeling I had, knowing these coaches believed in me, before I even believed in myself. That’s what a coach does—and the impact of their words and actions lasts a lifetime.
“I want to play for you, Coach.”
On any playing field it’s hard to imagine more affirming words. It’s the ultimate compliment—an aspiration for all of us.
When most people think of leaders, they don’t think of a coach. Yet, that is exactly the radically human approach we need today—whether on the sidelines at the Super Bowl or on the front lines at a hospital.
Great coaches are not just somebody with a whistle, barking out orders. Doling out directives like a dictator just won’t cut it anymore. The radically human approach is built on greater self-awareness, humility, and empathy.
I spoke this week with Kevin Cashman, our global leader of CEO & Executive Development, about how leaders can become great coaches, especially in today’s environment. A renowned CEO coach, Kevin replied without hesitation: “It starts with empathy.”
However, you can’t show empathy unless you have empathy. Angel Martinez, a Korn Ferry board member, observed this week: “Empathy is not an act, it’s about fulfilling others’ needs.” We must meet people where they are—to understand what they’re facing, personally and professionally. That connection comes from our own life struggles and difficulties—and we all have them. I’ve never met anyone who went through life carefree. These experiences can either harden you or soften you—but they always teach you.
Empathy alone is not enough. Kevin emphasized that, to coach others, leaders also need courage. It’s not about having “no fear”—rather, it is to “know fear.” We need courage—particularly when that means choosing the “least worst” of difficult actions.
As our firm has seen in nearly 70 million executive assessments, the real sweet spot is a blend of the two—empathy and courage. “It’s one of the paradoxes of leadership,” Kevin told me. “Courage is the ‘strength in the I’ while empathy is the ‘connection in the we.’ If someone is only empathetic, they may lack the courage to make tough decisions. And if someone is only courageous, they may be disconnected and interested in only their own heroics. Leaders need both.”
Indeed, the only failure is failing to fail—even in relationships. Developing relationships with others—being human—compels us to be vulnerable and authentic. A leader’s word is only as good as the last promise kept.
Leadership is about transforming self-interest to shared interest. The starting point, however, is not the leader’s self-interest, but the self-interest of others. That requires the act of empathy.
“I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t like playing for him…” “He puts [people] in different positions … to succeed and maximizes their strengths…” “…Guts and aggressiveness and willingness to take the heat if the risks don’t pay off…”
Such accolades would be welcome by leaders in any organization—from the Fortune 50…to the 50-yard line. These quotes are actually about two particular people: Coach Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs and Coach Bruce Arians of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, both of whom our firm had the pleasure of working with and placing in their current positions. Later today, they will face off at Super Bowl LV.
There is something to learn from them, whether we lead teams of 5, 50, or 50,000. Here are some taglines about the coaches from players. It’s all about being a radically human leader. Here are our thoughts:
· “Trusted…right from the start.” We can never ask others to trust us—trust must be earned through our words and actions. When there is trust in what we say, there will be belief in what we do. As ironic as it seems, trust requires vulnerability. As Ken Blanchard, the management expert and co-author of The One Minute Manager, observed in a conversation we had a few years ago, “If you don’t know who you are—or what your strengths and weakness are—and you are unwilling to be vulnerable, you will never develop a trusting relationship.”
· “…Treat people like they’re people.” Strategy is 90% execution—and 90% of execution is people. You can’t put people in a box, expecting them to magically and instantaneously be what you want them to be. Instead, understand who they are, as much as what they do. Even as adults, we never really get out of the sixth grade—we all want to know that we belong, that we matter. Think teacher, not authoritarian; facilitator, not evaluator.
· “…A good job of connecting…” To lead is to make an emotional connection on a very real and human level—in every interaction. That starts with listening—engaging with others, honestly and candidly. Speak with more assurance than authority, in both tone and content. After all, the leader is the message.
· “You have fun…” Surprising? Not really. It’s the secret to sustainable success: when we’re happy, we’re motivated, and when we’re motivated, we’ll outperform. And it starts at the top, encouraging a sense of fun—and, just as important, celebration. Leadership is a journey that’s not only measured in months and miles, but also in milestones—celebrating each achievement along the way.
To lead is to coach. Win or lose, there is something far more lasting: the influence, impact, and inspiration of a great coach. Indeed, that’s the kind of coach to have in our corner.