Be the Light

Leaders, especially this year, need to celebrate and connect, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.

“It’s beginning to look a lot unlike Christmas…”

This year, we might be tempted to change the lyrics of this nearly 70-year-old holiday classic to fit the mood of the times. But not so fast.

Sure, this year the holidays do look and feel different—smaller for one, minus the parties and traveling for another. But there are certain times of the year that are steeped in tradition—this is one of those times. While we can deeply honor tradition, we must also pivot forward, with meaning that is both timeless and timelier than ever:

It’s about being the light for others—
and letting others be the light for us.

Holiday cards were a big tradition when I was growing up. My mom would set up a couple of folding tables in the living room where she wrote and addressed more than 500 cards by hand. Not just a few lines—full-blown notes!

In those days, everyone’s mailbox was full of cards. They were displayed everywhere—bookshelves, in the slats of louver doors, and taped to the woodwork around doorways. For our family, it was all about that refrigerator door where we displayed the most cherished cards. So barren all year and then suddenly—little by little—filled with life, color, pictures, the annual update letters from family and friends, and invitations to holiday gatherings. The refrigerator transformed into the light of our home during the holidays. We couldn’t walk past it without opening a card, re-reading greetings, rekindling fond memories, and feeling sparks of love and connection.

When our company was smaller, I tried to continue this tradition. Starting in the middle of October, I carried around a tote bag full of cards that I wrote out to hundreds of colleagues. Whenever I had a spare moment, I wrote out a few.

If ever there was a year to go old school with a box of cards, some handwritten notes, and a sheet of stamps, this is it. But it doesn’t take hundreds of cards, and there’s no need to be the Hemingway of holiday greetings. A few cards with a simple, sincere message can make all the difference in another person’s life.

Unfortunately, what we all need the most—is probably what we’ll do the least.

Yet, now more than ever, we need to create that refrigerator door for ourselves and others by sharing authentic expressions of our love and connection. But probably not simply on the bottom of an email.

Like the one I received the other day: “Have a wonderful holiday season.” As I read it through the lens of 2020, I reflected on what that means this year. And so, I asked family, friends, and colleagues how they felt about wishing someone “happy holidays.” Not surprisingly, their answers were all over the map:

I don’t know if it feels right to say that.
I actually do want people to be happy.
Does someone really mean it—or are they just saying it?
At least ‘holidays’ is a more appropriate word than assuming everyone celebrates the same way.
Maybe it’s the Midwest in me, but I really mean it this year.
We bought a tree and decorated early. We are so ready for this.
Are you kidding me? You can’t say that to people without knowing what’s going on in their lives.

These candid replies remind me that we can’t assume anything, especially what people are feeling right now. The Emotion Curve swings to higher highs and lower lows at this time of year.

We used to look forward to presents—and now we yearn for others to be present. This year, personal losses run deep. Our colleague Doug Charles, President of our Americas region, told me this week that his family will be celebrating their first holiday without Doug’s father. “For many in my family, having one less present to give makes it difficult to get excited,” Doug confided. And yet, as he told me, “It’s also the first Christmas with my granddaughter.”

In my own life, I have experienced both ends of the spectrum. I remember one long-ago Christmas Eve, eating by myself at a diner. Then, many years later, we brought our newborn son, Jack, home from the hospital at Christmas. Having known the bitter, we can truly savor the sweet. It’s like that lyric in a George Strait song, “There’s always lost in the found, and darkness in the I-saw-the-light.”

That’s the calling card of 2020, the ups and downs of a very different holiday season. Even in the mist, we can be the light—and find illumination. Here are some thoughts:

·  Three gifts of the season. This year, when our holidays feel completely upended, we can still reap the blessings of three key gifts. The first is connectivity—authentic and heart-to-heart, even if we cannot physically be with others. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the importance of feeling connected to others—with gratitude. Gratitude doesn’t belong to any one culture, tradition, or philosophy—it runs through them all. Second, adaptability, which helps us look beyond what used to be normal and accept that this is normal! Third, receptivity, knowing that our hearts must be open to receive, as well as to give. 

·  Looking back, wishing forward. During a town hall last week with thousands of global colleagues, I was asked two questions that prompted me to look back on 2020—and ahead to 2021. First, I was asked to pick one word that, to me, describes this year and our firm. Without hesitation I said, “Resiliency.” I’m sure that many people feel the same way. At a time when we’ve faced so many challenges, personal and professional, we have no doubt surprised ourselves with how resilient we can be. Second, I was asked to imagine it was this time, next year. What should we hope for? I paused and searched, then offered a non-CEO answer, but one that was in my heart: “I hope that we’re all happy—truly. That would be the best outcome of all.” Hope is the ultimate light in the darkness, with the deep-seated belief that tomorrow will, indeed, be better than today.

·  Old traditions, new again. The holidays used to be simpler, rooted in traditions. At some point, though, we let these things get away from us. I can remember, years ago, being at Disneyland during the holidays. It was a cold day (by California standards), and while my children enjoyed the rides, I searched on my phone for last-minute deals to someplace warmer. As I look back, to be honest, I’m embarrassed. Why wasn’t it enough just to be in that moment, together as a family? This holiday season, amid spiking numbers and lockdowns, wouldn’t all of us give anything to be able to gather with our entire family to appreciate these precious, fleeting moments?

Whatever we celebrate, however we celebrate, let us remember why we celebrate. When we connect our hearts with others, we spark hope, we kindle joy, we become the light. And when we pick up a pen to write a holiday card, if we don’t know what to say, three words will do: I love you. Indeed, that should be our hallmark for 2020.