Chief Executive Officer
Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.
It’s a coming-of-age experience most of us remember—getting picked up by our parents or another adult after the movies, a school dance, or a football game. We knew the drill: set the time and place—and be there on time. Inevitably, we’d hear the following words: “I said 9:30—not 9:45!”
Flash forward to today. We are tracking everything from Ubers to online orders to sandwiches that we expect to be ready in five minutes. This swipe right, swipe left world has conditioned us to instant gratification—and not just for our next takeout order.
The past year and a half has worn our patience thin. We’re getting increasingly restless—and, if we’re being honest, maybe even a little unreasonable with ourselves and the world around us. That’s just the way we’re wired.
We’re in perpetual uncertainty. As an executive of a healthcare system with nearly 40,000 employees shared with me the other day, “It’s almost as if the inevitable ‘not yet’ is clandestinely constraining us to more nimbly and skillfully traverse the ‘already’ with its uncertainties and frequent messiness. Then, nearly simultaneously, their lines blur and the once distinct edges become nearly indistinguishable.”
So, what can we do? In this push-pull world, the answers are often found in the paradoxes and opposites. It’s time for impatient patience. Or, in the words of Emperor Augustus, “Festina lente”—make haste slowly.
On the one hand, we must be impatient in response to the urgency of achieving what’s most important. On the other hand, we need to be patient to make sure we never move faster than the organization can handle. After all, patience is participatory.
It’s a constant balance. Perform and transform. Results and resilience. Ambiguity and exactness. Accountability and compassion. Quite candidly, it can be exhausting for people. The alternative, though, is to slide into mediocrity—and complacency is a killer.
To manage the maelstrom, we need to be in the moment to appreciate the momentum. It’s like those hash marks on the doorjamb. Over the years, I recorded the progress of my children as they topped three feet, four feet, five feet, and beyond. These markings are a reminder that growth—whether a child’s or an organization’s—never progresses at an even pace. Spurts are interspersed with modest gains. It’s a perspective that can only be appreciated over time—without losing sight of the horizon.
As Stu Crandell, global leader of our firm’s CEO and Executive Assessment practice, told me this week, “It’s understanding the past, present, and future—a holistic time horizon. We want to get to the destination as fast as possible, but we also know that sometimes we need to go slow—building buy-in across the team—so we can go fast.”
Here are some thoughts:
· Perfection is the enemy of good. It was day five of college for our youngest, Olivia. Our son, Jack, who graduated last year, sent a family group text asking his sister, “How’s it going?” It turned out to be a loaded question. “To be honest, I’m a little overwhelmed,” Olivia said, and then proceeded to explain everything she’s juggling. My first instinct was to jump in with my two cents, but instead I decided to let it breathe. “College is all about learning the difference between glass balls and rubber balls,” Jack told his sister, who immediately responded by tagging that advice with a heart. This is not only good advice for a college freshman, but also an analogy for these times. We all need to distinguish between what will break if we let it drop—and what will bounce to be dealt with another day. The mix is constantly changing, so we’ll never do it perfectly. But that’s just the point. As the saying goes, perfection is the enemy of good. As we become impatiently patient, we learn to balance the urgent and the important.
· Diagnosing the “patient.” Our firm has done more than 70 million assessments of executives. Here’s what we know when it comes to this elusive quality known as patience. First of all, the best leaders are often impatient—they can’t afford to be complacent. And most of them also have a need to achieve, which makes taking on challenges a particularly strong motivator. But patience also shows up in more subtle, nuanced ways—like having empathy for people and exhibiting composure during times of high stress and crises. It’s a tall order, but that’s the yin and yang of leadership.
· Patience—the two-way street. It’s not just leaders today who need to be impatiently patient. It’s everyone. “Everything is changing so fast—and the level of frustration is increasing because of the world around us. But patience doesn’t mean giving up,” Lauren Shin, vice chairman, of our Global Consumer and Board & CEO Services practices, told me this week. “Keeping pace takes both urgency and patience on the part of everyone—and at every level.” Just like change, the dual forces of patience and urgency can’t only cascade down from the top—they must bubble up from within.
· A case of whiplash. “The conference is downtown in September.” “Actually, the conference will be in November, online.” “Our office reopens on October 15!” “We’ve decided to postpone our office return indefinitely.” “Vaccines are not required.” “Please get vaccinated by September 27 or we will consider dismissals.” Welcome to whiplash leadership, and that’s where we all are today. It’s where timing sets pace, pushing meets pulling, impatience spurs patience, and tapping the brakes yields to stepping on the gas. Even when it feels like two steps forward, three steps back, five to the side, it’s progress. And we must all have the patience to celebrate it.
Every moment is an opportune time to pause. Indeed, we can appreciate what we have, what we’ve done, and what we’ve overcome—thanks to our impatient patience.