Believe to Achieve

Why it’s critical in these times for leaders to train others to lead, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

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

Come gather ’round people

Wherever you roam …

       - Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’

For organizations today, the times they are a-changin’ — and to make it ashore, we need to keep believin’.

Many years ago, a ship out in the middle of the ocean was rocked by a fierce storm. Everyone had to abandon ship. After countless days in a small life raft, the captain finally stood on the beach of a deserted island, surrounded by 10 other wet, cold, and scared people.

Instinctively, the captain reassured the others that they would be rescued. In the meantime, the priorities were shelter, fire, and food. People worked together in small groups—and they began to believe.

The captain climbed a hill above the beach to search the horizon for signs of a rescue. Instead, the captain saw at least 10 more life rafts being carried toward the island by the tide. “We’re going to have company,” the captain called out to the others. “Soon, there will be 100 or so people on this beach—and they need our help.”

“Lucky for them, you’re here to take charge,” someone called out from the group, and many others nodded.

“No,” said the captain. “That’s not going to work. There will be too many for one person to lead directly. I need each of you to meet one life raft and help those people for the next few days until we get rescued.”

The group didn’t look happy. “How will we do that?” they asked.

“The same way I did,” the captain said. “It’s not that difficult—reassure them about their future, help them understand what needs to be done now, and be clear about their accountability within their capabilities.”

“So, what will you be doing?” another person asked.

The captain explained: “It’s my job to help each of you become the leader that your team needs.”

The captain’s fable, which was shared with me this past week by Peter O’Neill, a colleague in Europe, reminds us that there may be many life rafts approaching this year— filled with people who are in search of hope, help, and heroes—and we each must rise up and bring them ashore.

And, just as in the fable, we need the ABCs of leadership: AccountabilityBelief, and Capability.

  • Accountability. The accountability we wish to see in others starts with each of us. In other words, we must first be accountable to ourselves for our own behaviors. Believe it, say it, mean it, act it!
  • Belief. When we believe we can make a difference—that change is possible—then our actions will follow. But if we don’t believe, we won’t achieve.
  • Capability. This is a broad brush: listening, connecting, inspiring, giving and getting honest feedback, expanding networks, exploring with others, and constantly looking for opportunities to learn. It’s all about allowing belief and accountability to shine through actions.

The tide is changing—and the life rafts are coming in. They’re filled with colleagues and clients; they’re carrying family and friends. We will all be accountable for who we are—and how we show up: as partners, parents, neighbors, and citizens. Indeed, we must believe.