Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.
Jason stood at the top of the key, visibly trembling with nervousness.
He had to make one three-point basketball shot. If the ball went in, practice was over. If not, we kept going.
When I coached youth basketball, I chose a different player every practice to make that last “game-winning” shot. On this particular night, I chose Jason—the youngest, smallest, and the least experienced of the players. In fact, Jason hadn’t made a basket all season.
He took his shot. The ball hit the back of the iron, went several feet straight up, and almost bounced in…. Instead, the whole team immediately groaned, and I heard more than a few of them say, “I just knew he’d miss it.”
Then I did something I had never done before—I gave Jason a second try. “Just picture the ball going through the net,” I said to him quietly. “You can do this.”
The gym erupted in cheers as the boys rushed over to Jason. That’s when I turned to the doorway. I’ll never forget the sight of Jason’s father, his eyes damp with emotion. He thanked me, again and again—but I stopped him. “No, that was all Jason.”
That was the day Jason started to believe … in himself. The real shift, though, was among the rest of the players who learned what’s possible when we all believe … in each other.
Quite simply, leadership success is measured in what others achieve. Easy to intellectualize, but elusive to actualize, leadership is one part strategy, two parts judgment, and three parts finesse. It’s sense—and sensibility.
It’s never about the leader, but it starts with the leader. I heard this clearly in an interview that Korn Ferry's Jed Hughes had with Coach Andy Reid, who recently led the Kansas City Chiefs to victory in Super Bowl LIV—the team’s first Super Bowl win in 50 years. It was uncanny—when recounting what led up to that tremendous accomplishment, Coach Reid never said the word “I.” “We’re asking them to work their tails off for a goal. The goal is to be the best…winning the Super Bowl. We strive for that every year.”
Trust. Honesty. Hard work. Understanding. Coach Reid sees these as non-negotiable. In a game in which, as he says, “the ball is not round, so there is some luck involved,” the one thing players must count on is each other. “We all have strengths and weaknesses in what we do…. Maybe my weaknesses you can take care of, and maybe I can help take care of yours.”
This is a playbook for every leader today—stronger together than apart—on or off any and every field.
Here are some thoughts:
- The Me-O-Meter: It’s a simple gauge that anyone can use to assess leadership. Listen to a leader speak. If “I,” “me,” and “my” are used far more than “we,” “us,” and “our,” then you have to wonder about that leader’s motivation. (Even more insightful is for leaders to listen to themselves and become aware of their Me-O-Meter.) The only exception is when leaders are making tough decisions and must willingly accept the consequences of those decisions. Enlightened leaders speak from “we” and do so almost exclusively, especially when talking about goals and accomplishments. To prove this point, we did a little analysis of Coach Reid’s interview. He said “we,” “us,” and “our” (or the equivalent, such as team and players) 50 times in 10 minutes—once every 12 seconds. He used “I” a fraction of the time—usually to give credit to others or to share a lesson learned earlier in his career. His example is a powerful one: leaders don’t accomplish anything by themselves. After all, it’s the players who win games.
- Inspiring others—with stories. Leadership is all about inspiring others to believe, and then enabling that belief to become reality. The first part—inspiring others to believe—is best done with stories. And, after all, who doesn’t enjoy a good story? As Peter Guber, the Academy Award–winning producer and co-owner of four professional sports teams, including the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Golden State Warriors, once told me, “Leadership is storytelling in a way that becomes memorable and actionable. Storytelling is as old as human beings. About 40,000 years ago, if we [hadn’t] worked together and used language, we wouldn’t have survived. So you can say leadership is a 40,000-year-old process.”
- Collective genius. It’s been said that the strength of a team is each individual member— and the strength of each individual member is the team. Given human nature, people have their own agenda and self-interest. Add to that personalities, pressure, stress, deadlines, and money…. To get beyond that, leaders need to buy into the concept of “collective genius.” What brings that group together is a sense of shared purpose—“we’re all in this together”—to accomplish a common, overarching goal. Research shows that over time, well-managed diverse teams significantly outperform well-managed homogenous teams. When teams move from diversity to inclusion—where differences are not just tolerated but celebrated—they show strength in innovation and strategic thinking and can leverage their differences to create collective genius.
- Putting EI into Play: To move people and elevate teams, leaders need to use their emotional intelligence (EI). Amid uncertainty and ambiguity, they need to “call audibles” early and often—demonstrating agility in the moment, just like the best quarterbacks do. So how do you learn emotional intelligence? A good place to start is by reading about it (Daniel Goleman has several books and writes frequently on the topic for the Korn Ferry Institute). Here are a few tips: Find EI Role Models—people who are good at reading others’ emotions and are in control of their own emotions and reactions.Observe that person in action. Ask for EI Feedback—Ask others for their feedback on how you’re doing. The best follow-up is right after a situation in which you showed (or should have displayed) EI. Set EI for the Team—There should be an EI norm for the team: this is how we work together, interact, respect each other’s views and emotions, and engage in discussions when opinions and views differ.
- The power of seeing. Everyone longs to be seen—to know they make a difference, they matter, their contribution is valued. It is one of the most powerful motivators. A classic example is a study conducted in 1924 at Western Electric’s Hawthorne plant in Chicago to study the influence of environment on worker productivity. A test group worked in an environment with certain changes, such as different amounts of lighting. A control group experienced no changes. Researchers came and observed both groups. The test group with the additional light and other changes to their environment did have increased productivity. But so did the control group. The reason? Someone was noticing them. The researchers were paying attention, which meant people felt seen. And in being seen, they performed better. It’s the secret to sustainable success: when people are happy, they’re motivated, and if they’re motivated, they’re going to outperform.
Most of us will never hoist a Super Bowl trophy or even hit three-point basketball shots. But we all have teams. Family. Friends. Colleagues. Community.
Today, more than ever, it’s time to drop the “I”—embracing “we-dership,” not self-entered “me-dership.” Others always stand on the shoulders of leaders to accomplish the goals of the organization. Indeed, it’s always about the team.
I’ll be on a webinar with John Donahoe, President and CEO of Nike, Inc., and Carol B. Tomé, CEO of UPS on Thursday, July 30. Click here for details and to register for “Leadership in Uncertainty: CEOs Share Their Stories,” moderated by our colleagues Dennis Baltzley, Global Head of Leadership Development and Mike Hyter, Chief Diversity Officer.