Leadership U

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains why leaders need to be able to toggle among multiple leadership styles. 

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Take Control: The Career You Want, Where You Want.

Imagine walking on campus as a freshman in early 2020, only to be sent home—then having to learn new ways to study, to live, to work, to relate to others….

The last four years—the equivalent length of a university education—have brought about more change than we have seen in our lifetime. Add to that a spectrum of emotions—isolation, fear, vulnerability, resilience, sadness, happiness, and hope.

It’s a parallel to the parable of the pandemic.

“So, now—what’s the graduate program?”

Great question. I was asked it just the other day by an executive of a Fortune 50 company after I offered this university analogy in a fireside discussion with the CEO and the company’s top leaders.

And I’ve been thinking about that question ever since.

To answer it, we first need to pause and reflect.

Fortunately, we know the levers to pull. Our firm’s research, drawing on assessments of hundreds of thousands of leaders in more than 2,000 organizations around the world, has identified six overall leadership styles.

Frankly, most leaders use only one or two. Today, that’s a luxury none of us can afford—especially since up to 70% of an organization’s climate can be determined simply by leadership style.

We need to pause and learn how and when to toggle among them—frequently, with agility, and in real time. When we reflect, reset, and renew—we become the leaders our teams need… and these times require.

That’s our graduate program—our Leadership U.

Directivegaining immediate compliance. It’s being deliberate, knowing when and for how long.

Participative—building commitment and generating new ideas. This is where creativity and innovation flourish.

Visionary—providing long-term direction and context. Paint the picture of what is to be accomplished—the transformation of an organization as its purpose is realized.

Pacesetting—getting it all done. It’s impatience when responding to the urgency of what’s most important, but never moving faster than an organization can handle.

Affiliative—creating trust and harmony. Establishing and maintaining relationships is one of the most important motivators of human behavior.

Coaching—supporting long-term development. We found them in classrooms and gymnasiums. Later, coaches guided and challenged us to think differently. Today, this is our job as leaders.

This list sounds simple—and it is. But it’s far from simplistic. It’s one thing to know the differences—quite another to appreciate the distinctions.

Ironically, this recalls another lesson—in a classroom long ago and far away.

Dogs vs. cats. Astronomy vs. astrology. Spider-Man vs. Captain America. It was 11th grade English class, and as soon as the teacher began writing topics on the blackboard, I knew what was coming. The dreaded compare-and-contrast essay.

I’d divided a piece of paper in half and started writing; similarities on one side, differences on the other. Astronomy and astrology are both about planets—or is one about stars? Spider-Man and Captain America—wait, aren’t they both Avengers?

I had so many cross-outs and arrows, the only thing I could be sure of was my name at the top of the paper.

Truthfully, I could have done that assignment every week from freshman year to senior year and never made much progress. The reason? I approached it as a linear math problem—not a learning experience.

Only by pausing and reflecting can we find deeper connections and uncover broader meaning. Timeless and timelier than ever, it’s all about our learning agility. Or, as I like to call it, knowing what to do when we don’t know what to do.

Because here’s the thing. A leader can’t wake up one day and declare, “I’m going to be visionary today,” then go to bed that night saying, “And tomorrow, participative!”

We actually have to think about it—day to day, week to week—by being introspective and self-reflective. As circumstances change, so should we. We’re now the teacher and the student.

Just as in life, we may get the diploma, but we never really graduate from Leadership U.