Everything Will Be OK'

In his weekly message, Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison says today’s times call for leaders to tap into their "right-brain" social skills to reassure employees.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry.

Earlier this week, as I took my dog for a walk, I came upon a stretch of pavement that literally stopped me in my tracks. Scrawled in chalk were the words. “Everything will be OK.”

Immediately, that child’s handwriting yanked me back to years before.

My son, Jack, then five years old, was in a sterile, white pre-op room at a hospital to undergo surgery. We had all been calm the night before. But after getting up at the crack of dawn, the gravity of it hit when the nurse came in to put a needle in Jack’s arm.

His eyes wide, Jack turned to me and asked, “Daddy, will everything be OK?”

Every parent, throughout time, has surely been asked this question, but for me it was the first time. Startled by the sheer fear I felt inside, I forced confidence into my voice. “Yes,” I told him. “It’s going to be OK.”

Today, whether we admit it or not, this instinctual question covertly underlies conversations everywhere. Hope camouflages fear.

In bull markets, people look to the leader for validation. In bear markets, they look to the leader for reassurance. Leaders are drawing on their analytical skills (their “left brain”) to devise strategies—the what and the how of doing business in a new normal. More than ever in these times, though, the social leadership skills of the right-brain (inspiring and motivating) are what give others hope.

Here are some thoughts:

  • Listen to educate your intuition. In a crisis, leaders can’t manage from a spreadsheet. It’s all about “walking around.” Personally, I’m making 50 calls a day to clients and colleagues at all levels—listening twice as much as speaking, not just to hear but to comprehend. Today, hierarchy should be invisible as leaders tap into organizational curiosity to get a “taste and feel” of what is happening in the moment. Leaders are taking a total inventory across their organizations as they listen for what people are thinking, feeling, fearing, and experiencing. Only with a total picture, accurately perceiving today, can leaders accurately project tomorrow—what the world will look like in the next 12, 18, or 24 months.
  • Have the end in mind. Hope ultimately comes from envisioning the end point—not only finding the biological solution to the pandemic but also anticipating what tomorrow’s business models will look like. Our colleagues in China have been sharing stories of their lives slowly returning to normal. As a colleague in our Shanghai office wrote to me recently, “I am very good now, mentally and physically, and so is the Shanghai office. The whole city and country are recovering gradually from the epidemic, and I hope the States will conquer it, too.” This is not to deny the reality of today—rather, it provides hope for tomorrow. That’s why I have always seen leadership as a journey: transporting people emotionally and sometimes literally from one place to another. With hope, they believe that they can indeed reach the destination..
  • Don’t mentally shelter in place. Sheltering in place physically is absolutely necessary when required. But the worst thing that can happen is to become frozen. Having grown up in Kansas, I can remember hot summer days with cloudless skies. Then, suddenly, the temperature would drop, and ominous clouds would build on the horizon. The first time the tornado siren goes off and you head to the basement, you’re scared. After a few times, you’re calmer because you know what to do. It’s the same in times like these. We know there will be an end to this crisis. But it won’t be “one and done”—it will come in waves, impacting everything from supply chains to air travel to sporting events. That’s why we can’t become paralyzed in the moment. Movement is life, and everyone needs to take action as they envision the end and what the new normal will look like.
  • Connect the dots in between. Leadership is connecting the dots. More than ever today, it’s the leader’s job to connect the dots in a way to make a picture emerge of what the organization will look like post-crisis—and how it will transform itself to get there. Strategy happens in real time, nimbly adapting decision-making to changing conditions, without losing sight of the ultimate goals. Leaders must also connect the dots between strategy and purpose to keep the organization on course. Otherwise, it’s wasted energy, and every decision looks like a “good decision”—until it’s not.
  • Hope is resilience. The Black Plague of the Middle Ages, the London Plague of the 1600s, the Spanish Flu of 1918 to 1920 … just to name a few. The cost in human lives was catastrophic. Yet history also teaches us that humans have faced previous catastrophes with far less science and technology than we have today. Our hope today is not just in science, it’s also in the resilience of the human spirit.
  • The courageous have no fear.” On the wall of my home office is a beautiful framed print—black brushstrokes against an off-white background—a gift given to me a few years ago by colleagues in China. The translation, on a brass plaque at the bottom, reads: “The Courageous have no Fear – Confucius (551 B.C.)” It is part of a longer quote: “The humane do not worry; the wise are not perplexed; the courageous have no fear.” It is an expression of an ideal—an extraordinarily high bar. I view the words not only as solace but also as encouragement of what each of us can be.

In challenging times, it’s the leader’s job to see what others cannot. By their words and actions, leaders paint a picture of what others cannot yet envision.

Like the brushstrokes on canvas—or the innocence of a child’s drawing on pavement—these messages give hope and instill courage. Indeed, everything will be OK.