Answering the Call

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison on how leaders not only need to be courageous but also encouraging. 

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of The Five Graces of Life and Leadership.

We didn’t have any doubts, even for a second, that this is what we would do—people from all religions and no religion, from the right and the left. It was a universal gesture of love.”

With those words spoken in his quiet voice, Krzysztof Nowakowski, who heads our business in Poland, shared with me recently his own story behind the story. On one side, millions of Ukrainians fleeing across the border—and on the other, countless ordinary people welcoming them, just like Krzysztof and so many others.

As we sat down together, Krzysztof recounted the heart-wrenching stories of frightened and traumatized refugees and their calls for help from the streets. The woman and her three sons who fled as soon as the war broke out. The students five days on the road, who had come directly from the front lines. A mother, her two children, a son 11 and a daughter 10, and their dog—who stayed with Krzysztof’s family, not just for a day or two, but for three months.

Time and again, they took people in—and showed courage and compassion. “Now, we have a new family,” he told me, his voice breaking—and my eyes glistening.

Krzysztof repeatedly emphasized that these stories were never about him, but emblematic of the human spirit in all of us. “People want to be good—they want to be their beautiful selves,” he observed. “They just need a reason at times.”

As leaders, we all must be that reason.

  • Courage from Others. As human beings, we are all social creatures. There’s a scientific reason for what we do and how we react, as our firm’s behavioral experts tell us. When something unsettling happens, the first reaction is naturally to look around at others for affirmation of how we should feel. After all, it’s easy to be vulnerable when we’re on our own. Yet, all it takes is seeing one person with a brave face—and we, too, find our courage.
  • Courage in Community. Family. Friends. Colleagues. Citizens. In today’s world, leadership is all about establishing community and connectivity so everyone can be part of something bigger than themselves. To have the grace to create this kind of leadership, we need greater self-awareness and genuine connection to others. After all, to lead is to make an emotional connection on a very real and human level in every interaction. These connections are forged by giving (and receiving) a helping hand.
  • Courage to Answer the Call. While none of us may ever know what it is like to open our doors to people fleeing for their lives, we need to make sure we don’t lose sight of, hope for, or faith in anyone. It’s our calling. Think shepherd: occasionally in front, sometimes behind, but mostly beside.

From heeding the call, to finding our courage, and forging our community … we know the calibration of the leadership journey. The progression starts with the individual contributor—an action-oriented follower who carries out the tasks to be done. Then through various stages of advancement, we learn how to instruct, collaborate, and manage. Along the way, the lens widens—less focus on ourselves and far more on others. Ultimately, we become leaders, completing the shift from me to we.

After all, leadership is all about empowering and inspiring others. Our biggest priority is elevating people so that they can do more—and achieve more. It is the essence of radically human leadership—authentic, empathetic, and needed now more than ever.

It’s our job as leaders to shine the light, encouraging and even embodying these heroic moments, both big and small. This is where inspiration meets aspiration—enlarging our worlds to see beyond our own needs and changing our prism to what we can do for others.

Are we answering the call?