Listening to That Voice

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains why it’s often easy for leaders to ignore their conscience, and why they shouldn’t.

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

Every time I put the key in the ignition, I crossed my fingers. 

It was many years ago, and I was driving a real clunker. The engine sputtered, the radiator hissed, and the muffler was held in place by a wire I had to adjust every few days. From the rust on the roof to the bald tires, that car was an eyesore, but I didn’t have the money to fix it. So, whenever random lights flashed on the dashboard—change oil, check engine, and who knows what—I ignored them all and naively hoped for the best.

Then, late one night, as I pulled into the driveway of a gas station, smoke started pouring out from under the hood. I threw that car into reverse—and that’s when I saw the flames. Could anyplace be more dangerous for a car to spontaneously combust?

Fortunately, the fire department showed up. The last time I saw that car, it was covered in foam. To this day, I remember these words from one of the firefighters: “How on earth did this happen?”

Indeed, how does this happen for any of us?

The fact is, we’re all guilty of ignoring the signs at times. Maybe we put off making that doctor’s appointment or fixing that one thing at home. And there’s my personal nemesis, doing the taxes—and this year, it’s no different. We ignore that voice in our heads—and, instead, tell ourselves we can deal with it a little later.

And then there are the things that really make us uncomfortable. Given the foibles and frailties of our human nature, we’re more likely to avoid them for as long as possible.

I’ve got good news and bad news—which do you want to hear first?

No doubt we’ve all heard—and asked—that question. So, which do we choose?

Science tells us that, as paradoxical as it might sound, recipients actually prefer hearing the bad news first. (In fact, my response is often, “Well, how bad is it?”) The reason? Getting bad news out of the way reduces the wait and the worry—and puts more attention on the good news. 

For the deliverer of bad news, though, the opposite is usually true. They want to share the good news first and put off the discomfort for as long as possible. It’s a natural and understandable inclination.

Call it conscience or consciousness, we intuitively know those things we should be doing. Yet, too often as leaders we put off even the simplest and kindest of things… such as making the effort to show we care.

The unavoidable truth is we only have a finite number of moments to intentionally connect with others.

So, what do we do with the moment?

For some, the answer begins by looking inward. For others, the prescription is looking outward at those around us. Are we…  

Simply hearing—or really listening? The difference is comprehending—especially when we listen to what we don’t want to hear.

Reacting—or acting with intention? 

Critiquing—or constructing? 

Taking the time after every interaction to make sure someone feels better than they did before?

Through it all, we need others to tell us what the flashing lights mean—and why we can’t ignore them. 

A couple weeks ago I got into one of my children’s cars—and noticed a warning light on the dashboard. “How long has that been flashing?” I asked.

The response? “For several weeks, Dad.”

My first instinct was to say “Seriously?”—but I stopped myself.

How quickly I forgot that I, too, had once been that person.

Indeed, we’ve all been that person. That’s why we need to listen to that voice.