Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn Ferry.

Leadership is inspiring others to believe and enabling that belief to become reality. To do so, you have to make sure your message is authentic and, as importantly, the audience is listening.

Allow to me to share a tale of two shoppers on my weekend trip to the grocery store.

Yesterday morning, as my wife, Leslie, and I entered the store, we saw someone speaking with the manager and gesturing frantically. As we got closer, we heard the woman say, “What are you going to do about all these people getting so close to me!”

The manager tried to reason with her—pointing out sanitizing wipes for her shopping cart, explaining how the store was deep cleaned every night. None of it made any difference to her—anymore than it would if I had talked to this shopper about COVID-19 command centers, supply chains, or company liquidity. All of it would have fallen on deaf ears because none of it answered what mattered most to her. She was frightened, and her fear was all she could understand.

Leading means meeting people where they are. It is the only way to convert self-interest to shared interest.

Here are some practical tips:

  • Paint the Bright Lines: In the normal course of business, thousands of employees make hundreds of decisions every day. In a crisis like this, decision-making amplifies—in numbers and magnitude. Leaders must “paint the bright lines”—the left and right guiderails for actions of others throughout the organization. The leader sets the course and the destination, articulating the “commander’s intent”—the mission, the purpose, and guardrails. Then others must take it from there.
  • Let Other Leaders Lead: Command-and-control is not the answer in a crisis. A centralized response, yes; but at the end of the day, the decisions and actions must be made by leaders on the “front lines.” They’re the ones who know best in the context of the people, the community, the culture, and the severity of the situation they face. Think about it: can any business leader in the U.S. tell any leader in Italy or Spain what to do for their employees right now—how best to keep them safe and healthy? Empowerment happens when leaders are willing to relinquish control. Give direction, set the boundaries, offer support, then get out of the way.
  • Make the Message Real: When leaders talk, is anyone really listening? The best way to ensure the audience is tuned in is to emotionalize and personalize communication—who we are, what we believe, what we value, and what matters most. The leader, as the steward of the organization’s narrative, must ensure that authentic, relatable themes are woven into the messages they communicate.
  • It’s All about the People: No leader wants to charge up the mountain, then discover halfway up that no one is following. Creating followership requires an emotional connection on a very real and human level in every interaction—and especially in a crisis. To do that, leaders must commit to meeting others where they are. What matters most is not what the leader achieves, but how people are empowered to act.
  • The Power of Believing: The leader’s job is not only to show others the opening in the sky, but also enable them to punch through it. Even amid great uncertainty, leaders need to paint a picture of the future—of what’s possible and how they can make that happen. If leaders wait only for others to believe in them, they will probably wait a very long time. Instead, leaders need to believe in others. When they do, they’ll be amazed by the results.

Now let’s go back to the grocery store. That same day, we were in the checkout line behind an elderly woman with six cans of Progresso minestrone soup in her cart—and nothing else.

“I’m sorry,” the cashier said. “We have a limit. You can only get four.”

Overhearing the conversation, my wife, 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.

“Could we have one of those?” Leslie asked.

“I’m sorry,” the shopper said. “I need this for my family.”

“It’s not for us.” Leslie pointed to the elderly woman standing at the end of the aisle. “It’s for her.”

Immediately, the shopper reached into her cart. “Of course. Take both—I have enough at home.”

Stories like this are being played out all over the world—shared interest defeating self-interest.

As we come together, we recognize that knowledge is what we know; wisdom is acknowledging what we don’t know. The bridge between the known and the unknown is not the leader’s intellect—it is the collective genius of others.

Over the centuries, humans have conquered so many things through science and innovation. In that same spirit, it’s inspiring today to read about biopharmaceutical companies racing to develop vaccines and treatments. If humans can invent a car that can drive itself, people must have hope and confidence in others. It’s good for all of us to remember—rockets didn’t take us to the moon; the dreamers and the engineers did. The internet didn’t create a globally networked economy; it was the innovators and creators. Since the beginning of time, people have been the ultimate differentiator.
Mission first, people always.

Sign Up for our 'This Week in Leadership' email