Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.
While at the grocery store yesterday, I watched shoppers navigating the aisles, hoping to get everything on their Thanksgiving lists. Instantly, I was brought back to an earlier time, in the first days of the pandemic, and a much different scene in this store. Back then, shoppers were frantically combing half-empty aisles, trying to stock up amid growing anxiety and fears of scarcity.
On one particular day last March, my wife, Leslie, and I waited in the checkout line behind an elderly woman. I’ll never forget what she had in her cart: six cans of Progresso minestrone soup—and nothing else.
“I’m sorry,” the cashier said to her. “We have a limit. You can only get four.”
Overhearing the conversation, Leslie spoke up. “Don’t worry. I’ll buy the other two for her.”
Immediately, the man behind us said loudly, “Count me in for four more!”
Leslie pointed to the woman’s nearly empty shopping cart. “Are you sure that’s all you need? We can help.”
As a group of us made our way to the paper goods aisle, another shopper was just taking the last packages of toilet paper. When Leslie asked her if we could have one, the shopper declined, saying she needed the supplies for her family. Then Leslie pointed to the elderly woman standing at the end of the aisle. “It’s not for us. It’s for her.”
Immediately, the shopper reached into her cart. “Of course. Take both—I have enough at home.”
It was a profound moment for me this year, a powerful illustration that shared interest truly does defeat self-interest. I can still picture the face of the elderly woman—her worried expression erased by a smile for everyone who helped her. It was gratitude, pure and simple—and all because of some extra cans of soup and toilet paper.
Indeed, abundance is not measured in material things, but in the stories that define and guide us. At the center of these stories, we find our loved ones, friends, colleagues, and others who have touched and changed our lives.
One of these people for me was Bob McNabb, a dear friend and one of our firm’s leaders, who fought bravely against terminal cancer and passed away a few years ago. I’ll never forget our last conversation, which began with his usual greeting, “How are you doing, my friend?” His entire focus—remarkably, but characteristically—was on me, not him. Then he signed off as he did at the end of every conversation with almost everyone: “Love you, babe.” And I said, “I love you, Bob.” My memories of Bob inspire me. Thinking of his grace and dignity, his compassion and extraordinary love for and focus on others, with gratitude I strive to do the same.
As we reflect on this year like no other, when we’ve all ridden the rollercoaster known as the Emotion Curve, we are reminded of what truly matters most. Here is my gratitude list of what I’ve come to appreciate more deeply this year than ever:
· Empathy. This is the one word that has taken on more meaning this year than in any other. Empathy is all about meeting people where they are, in midst of their hopes and fears; to try to walk in their shoes. As we have learned this year, when people are overwhelmed, they respond to empathy—they feel seen, heard, and understood.
· Conversation. More real, more emotional, and often happening for the first time. Like one colleague who told me, “I wanted to share my story, which I have never shared with anyone in the corporate world before…” These are the kinds of conversations—about obstacles, adversity, perseverance, inclusiveness, and triumphs—that have moved me deeply.
· Listening. This year it became more important than ever to listen twice as much as we speak. I can remember, early in the pandemic, making 50 calls a day to clients and colleagues at all levels. This is also the year when “how are you?” has been raised to a whole new level: “How are you feeling, today?” This simple question sparks genuine connection among people who want to share their thoughts—with someone willing to listen.
· Vulnerability. Early in my CEO career, I would have described a great leader as someone with vision, a growth mindset, authenticity, confidence, charisma, courage… But vulnerability? That didn’t make it into my top 10. This year, vulnerability has become a real strength, helping us admit that finding tomorrow’s answers will take all of us—together.
· Authenticity. The more we open up and share, the more authentic we become and the more relatable we are to others. As we’ve found this year, being authentic is the only way to bridge the barriers—physical distance, emotional separation, social divides, and even those not-so-intimate Zoom calls. We must show who we truly are, what motivates us, and what we believe about the future.
· Selflessness. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the chronic shortage of toilet paper, it’s that self-preservation is the strongest of human instincts. With greater self-awareness, though, we can move from pure self-interest to shared interest. We need to look no further than the healthcare workers—selfless heroes who every day put their own health and wellbeing on the line for others.
· Passion. My favorite professor in college taught geology—writing obsessively on the blackboard until he practically consumed chalk. And whenever he said, “metamorphic rock,” white dust showered the first row of students. But he was passionate—with a real talent for bringing the past alive. That’s what we need today. When we’re passionate, we’re motivated; and when we’re motivated, we have the drive to move forward.
· Purpose. We all need a sense of purpose—why we do what we do. This comes from being connected to something bigger than ourselves—knowing that what we do really does matter. When we become purpose-driven, we generate more meaning—to motivate ourselves and each other.
· People. Where there is purpose, we also find other people. So it’s no surprise that, when I asked our leadership team what they were grateful for this year, every response I received mentioned others: “…the wonderful people I get to work with every day.” “…having great friends at work.” “…my team and the hard work they have put forth.” “…the entrepreneurial resilience of our people.” And so many more. Since the beginning of time, people have been the ultimate differentiator.
· Love. It is a timeless truth that resonates more deeply in challenging times. When we tell people, “We couldn’t have done it without you,” what we’re really saying is, “You are loved.” Intrinsic motivators are more important than ever. Love wins out every time.
Two of the most powerful words anyone can say are, “Thank you.” So easy to say, but so often overlooked. In this year like no other, we have a lot to be grateful for—starting with each other. To all our colleagues, clients, friends, and those we met along the way this year, I wish you an abundance of joy, love, and renewal. And to those of you in the US, a very Happy Thanksgiving. Indeed, for all of you, we are grateful.