Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry.
Imagine you are about to embark on a journey—leading 10,000 people on a cross-country trip by foot—from New York City to Santa Monica, California.
As you stand in Battery Park, at the southernmost tip of Manhattan, gathered around you are people from dozens of countries—different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. And your job is to lead this diverse group.
You know that a solitary walker, putting in 10 hours a day, could cover those 2,800 miles in about 90 days. But your job, as the leader, is to make sure that everyone is included on the journey—never moving faster than the ability of the team to absorb.
Sound farfetched? Think again.
Whether you are the leader of 5 people or 50,000—or even if you only lead yourself—leadership is all about transporting people. After all, the first word in leadership is, literally, lead.
We are at the beginning of a long journey. People may not realize it, but that’s where we are. The last several months are unlike anything most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. The only certainty today is uncertainty – and this is going to be a long haul.
To undertake this journey, we must be multidimensional. That means being humble, acutely self-aware, insatiably curious, authentic, resilient, flexible, and courageous. Our research at Korn Ferry sees these traits as evidence of inclusive leadership—and today, it’s more important than ever.
Amid all this change, it takes inclusive leaders who purposefully appreciate and value each person’s unique differences. In fact, they see the rich mosaic of backgrounds, experiences, knowledge, and perspectives as a vast wealth to be tapped.
To be anything but an inclusive leader would be oxymoronic. True leadership is inherently inclusive: leading the many, while at the same time understanding the perspectives of all.
When an inclusive environment exists, people know it’s safe to be themselves and to speak their truth. They freely share observations and perspectives. When that happens, feedback “bubbles up” from within the organization, instead of merely “cascading down.”
That won’t happen though if a leader isn’t inclusive.
Not long ago, as we interviewed an executive, we asked him about his process for getting buy-in from his team when making decisions. We were looking for how he brought people together to listen for their feedback.
The executive didn’t even pause in giving his response. “It’s actually amazing. Every time we have a discussion, there’s complete alignment—100 percent buy-in.”
When we asked him to tell us more, he couldn’t wait to give an example. “Last week, during a Zoom meeting with my team, we had a particularly important decision to make. So, I went around to everyone and asked for a ‘thumbs up’ or a ‘thumbs down’ on my idea. Before they voted, I told them what I thought. For me, it was definitely a ‘thumbs up.’”
“And how did that work out?” we asked him.
“It was unanimous! I have to admit, one person’s hand wavered a little bit, but in the end, it was ‘thumbs up’ as well. It was just incredible, to see ten people on my screen and all completely aligned.”
Clearly, this is the opposite of inclusivity. When organizations are truly inclusive, combined perspectives become a strategic advantage. Based on what everyone sees, from every possible vantage point, organizations more clearly see the reality of today. Then, based on that reality, organizations become much better at anticipation—predicting what lies ahead.
Here are some thoughts:
It takes everyone. On that mythical journey from coast to coast, the leader must ponder the enormity of leading 10,000 people on such a trek—physically moving them from here to there. The leader must keep everyone motivated and aligned as they leave the familiar for the unknown, losing some people and gaining others on a journey that takes years. People will not follow blindly. They need to see the True North of an embodying purpose—the “why” of the journey. There could be any number of “whys”—to build a team, to challenge themselves, to support a cause, to make a difference. On every leadership journey, the specific “why” will be unique to each organization and its desired destination. What is universal to all is the importance that everyone understands that specific “why.” Where there is purpose, there is hope—even exceeding what anyone thought possible. But it takes everyone—encouraging, supporting, and journeying together.
The language of inclusion. The secret of success on the journey is fostering a culture of inclusion. To create that environment, we need to speak the language. Our research indicates inclusion is a behavior. Inclusion values and fully leverages different perspectives and backgrounds to drive results. Diversity is a fact. Differences make each person unique. Engagement is an emotion. The emotional connection leaders have with their team determines the discretionary energy. Leaders who are fluent in the language of inclusion become culturally agile. They fully embrace and leverage the vast diversity of today’s workforces. When this happens, empowerment becomes purposeful power.
Inclusion makes anticipation a team sport. When an organization is truly inclusive, everyone’s perspective and input matters. People know it’s safe to speak “their truth.” Conflict about what people perceive isn’t discouraged—that’s how collective genius is born. People are empowered to ask not just why, but also why not. When inclusion exists, anticipation can truly become a team sport as everyone at every level of the organization becomes a world-class observer. This requires more than just encouraging a behavior—it must be a cultural muscle that gets exercised. When inclusion and anticipation come together, there’s no question: everyone will reach the other side.
Inclusion fuels passion. When an inclusive leader seeks feedback from everyone, people feel seen and heard. These are powerful intrinsic motivators—tapping people’s deep-seated desire to know that they belong, make a difference, and are part of something bigger than themselves. Motivated by purpose and energized by passion, they are more likely to commit to the journey. And, when people are committed to each other, they transform self-interest into shared interest.
Finally, the destination is reached: the beach in Santa Monica. Waves rumble to the shore, and magnificent views abound, from the towering cliffs along the Pacific Coast Highway to Catalina Island in the distance.
As satisfying as the end goal is, it’s only one moment out of many. Indeed, every journey is an accumulation of many moments. The moments are what truly matter most—moments of journeying with others!
How inclusive are you? Here are some questions to help increase self-awareness.
We all need to be aware there is more work to be done going forward. In this spirit, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the 50th anniversary of Pride celebrations – and call attention to their significance to the global LGBTQ community and each one of us as well.