Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.
We never really get out of the sixth grade. Think about it—we’re all still motivated by the same desires that used to rule the playground: we want to be liked, to be accepted, to be picked for the team, to be popular.
And every Valentine’s Day, there were those little cards. Every sixth grader knew the fear of not getting one—or not getting one from someone they liked.
Now tell me, have things really changed? We all want to be seen—in every aspect of our lives, personal and professional. We hunger for affirmation. We want to know that we matter—we make a difference to others.
Love and leadership aren’t normally put together in the same sentence (for obvious reasons). But as radically human leaders, it begins with our hearts.
Face it: leaders need others—we all need others. We seek to establish a connection—with authenticity and empathy. That remains the most powerful way to change minds and win hearts.
Affirming others is more than the generic “good job” or even “I’m proud of you.” Affirmation is the heartfelt “I believe in you.” As a member of our board, who mentored me in my early days as a CEO, once told me: “I don’t just want you to be successful—I am going to ensure that you are successful.” In those words, he told me he was invested in me.
When people are told, “We couldn’t have done this without you,” the message delivered is, “You are loved.”
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with colleagues who readily expressed their genuine respect, appreciation, and love for others. I’ll never forget how one of our leaders, the late Bob McNabb, signed off every conversation with almost everyone he knew: “Love you, babe.” That was Bob!
Sam Marks, who at age 89 has worked for our firm and as a consultant for more than 40 years, often ends his conversations with "Love home." It’s his unique shorthand for good wishes to the person and their family or loved ones. Just the other day, during a conversation with Sam, I asked him about this tagline. “It’s endemic to my soul,” he replied.
Over the past year, as he’s gotten to know more people—their lives, their families—Sam has increased his use of his signature phrase by about 50 percent, he told me. “It feels more natural to say, ‘Love home,' instead of just ‘good-bye.’” And why wouldn’t he? When we are working, we bring our families, our partners, our loved ones with us. They are more a part of what we do and our success than ever before.
We know how good it is to be the giver—of uplifting words, thoughtful support, or a small token of appreciation. Being the recipient can also be a humbling, moving experience.
A few years ago, a colleague and I were traveling through a very remote airport when we passed a boot shop. In the window was a pair of cowboy boots—valentine red. “Those are the bomb,” I said, half joking. So, imagine my surprise on the plane when my colleague, brimming with a wide smile, brought out a box—yep, the cowboy boots. The next day, I decided to wear those boots. Not my usual business attire. But I wanted to show my friend and colleague how much I appreciated him.
These expressions are tangible connections, heart to heart. They endure.
On the wall of my home office is a beautiful, framed print—black brushstrokes against an off-white background—a treasured gift given to me a few years ago by colleagues in China. The translation, on a brass plaque at the bottom, reads: “The Courageous have no Fear – Confucius (551 B.C.)” It is an expression of an ideal, with many translations, and it reminds me that it’s not about having “no fear” but rather to “know fear.”
And at the root of courage—from the very origin of the word—is to “speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Indeed, that’s leading with heart. Here are some thoughts:
· An embarrassment of praise. Ken Kring, who leads our Global Education practice, told me this week about his late father, Ray Kring, a track and cross country coach with dozens of conference championships, a few California state titles, and an 82-4 dual meet record. But that wasn’t the extent of his legacy. He really took care of people—like the dozens of international students who, when they came to the U.S. for school, he took into his home. And when he retired in the mid-1990s, they all paid tribute to him—giving back the love and praise they had received abundantly from him. As Ken recalled, “He’d always find a way to say something positive about someone and in front of other people—embarrassing them with praise.”
· The heart rules. Vulnerability is a strength for radically human leaders to connect with others—authentically and with empathy. Sure, we need to use our brains—with ideas, strategies, and analytics that are increasingly the table stakes of leadership. And we need guts—better known as courage—especially to make sure that we’re aligned with our values. But the heart matters most. Our words and actions must signal to others that we really do care enough to notice—to see them for who they really are.
· Love, undefeated. For most people, it comes down to two motivators: for love or for money. Money can rent loyalty, but it can’t buy it. Love wins out every time. People want to be loved and they want to belong—and the most potent rewards address both of those desires. That can be done through a sincere congratulatory email, recognition on the next Zoom conference, or even a simple “thank you.” We can never say “I believe in you” too often.
I see you. I value you. You matter. You make a difference…. These powerful, affirming words mean one thing: You are loved. At a time when we need to lead with heart, what more is there to say?
I can’t go through Valentine’s Day without thinking of Mary Wilson, who died this past week, and the songs of the Supremes that I used to listen to all the time: Stop! In the Name of Love, You Can’t Hurry Love, You Keep Me Hanging On, and so many more. She was known as “the glue that kept the Supremes together.”
Let’s all take the challenge this week to lead with our hearts. It comes down to the measure that matters most: Will someone feel better after an interaction with us than they felt before?