Making Inspiration Our Aspiration

Ultimately, leadership is about inspiring others to believe, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

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

I’ll never forget that first day of my first job out of college. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked through the door of the KPMG office in Los Angeles.

But I looked the part—three-piece suit, shiny wingtips—carrying that hard-sided brown leather briefcase. You know the one with that official sounding click-click of the two “gold” latches. Whenever I clicked them, they just reverberated, “I’m open for business.”

My briefcase, though, was mostly empty, except for a few unsharpened pencils.

I was all aspiration. Aspiration comes from within—and it’s usually focused on ourselves. Inspiration is the other side of it—and it’s all about others.

Aspiration and inspiration—inextricably linked, they are, quite literally, breathing in and breathing out. And just like breathing, we cannot give out what we have not first taken in.

I was reminded of this just the other day when an executive shared with me a deeply personal experience. Two years ago, the executive told me, her husband died from colon cancer. She was still struggling with the magnitude of the loss when the pandemic hit. “My life was shifted sideways, upside down and unrecognizable,” she confided. “I struggled, trying to come out of the fog of grief I had for over a year.”

Eventually, she found solace in the one activity she could do during the pandemic—cycling, which she had enjoyed with her husband. That led to a cycling trip in central Oregon and Crater Lake, which she’d wanted to see for 20 years. While there, one star-filled night, she found inspiration.

“I woke up at 1a.m. to see the Big Dipper right out over the lake. It was incredible—I could practically touch the stars. I stood there, by myself in the dark, talking to my husband about my life,” she told me.

In that moment, everything changed. She told me that although the life they’d shared had ended, their love, joy, laughter, and caring still live on. “I miss my husband more today than I did two years ago, but that night at Crater Lake left me a different person.”

We all have our aspirations—the next job, the next role, the title, the promotion, the money. Let’s be real—that’s how most people measure success. I would argue that “inspiring others” rarely makes the performance review, the KPI, or even the long list of accomplishments that we’re sure will get us from here to there.

But the biggest risk we face as leaders is going up the mountain and suddenly, halfway up, when we look behind there’s nobody there. Ultimately, leadership is about inspiring others to believe. But if we don’t believe it ourselves, why should anybody else?

Our aspiration should truly be the inspiration of others. After all, what else should leaders aspire to?

And yet, how often do we hear these words when others feel stuck and unmotivated? I’m just not inspired.

It makes you wonder—what’s missing? Does someone not tell good stories? Do they lack presence? Charisma? Personality? Or is the problem that your aspiration isn’t about igniting their inspiration?

Breathe in, breathe out—suddenly, so much more is possible. Here are some thoughts:

·  Where inspiration meets exasperation. His assessment was off the charts. This candidate, who I met a couple of years ago, had checked all the boxes in almost every leadership trait and skill—except for one: self-awareness. On his assessment graph, that quality sunk like a stone. I was curious, but one minute into our conversation, I knew exactly why. I started with small talk, but he wasn’t having it. He launched immediately into a long, one-sided conversation—a litany of everything he had done. For 36 minutes (yes, I timed it) he talked—at me, not to me. He must have used “I,” “me,” and “my” 200 times—that’s more than five “I’s” per minute. My teammy company, I run … Whoa! I thought to myself. What was he running—a herd of cattle? Seriously, what about everyone else? As I listened, I couldn’t ignore the nagging question in my head. As good as his left-brain, technical skills were, without the right brain how could he ever inspire anyone? At the end of his filibuster, he was parched—and I was exasperated.

·  Breathe in, breathe out. The moment we were born, we took our first breath. It was aspiration in its truest form—as any parent who has waited to hear their baby’s first cry will attest. After that, breathing for most of us becomes completely automatic and unconscious. But every breath is truly a moment for inspiration. Quite literally. Inspiration comes from the Latin inspirare, which stems from spirare, meaning “to breathe.” The word also shares a connection with “spirit” (from the Latin, spiritus, also derived from spirare). In every moment, we literally could be breathing in collective inspiration. Jean-Marc Laouchez, President of the Korn Ferry Institute, recently told me that he goes on 10-day silent retreats almost every year to get inspired—so he can be more, believe more, and hopefully aspire to inspire more. The most recent retreat had a particular impact. “It helped me connect with myself and clean up all the emotions I had aspirated during a year marked by the pandemic, isolation and loneliness from confinement,” Jean-Marc told me. “I went back to center—to gain better stability and wisdom. Then I could be present, listening and appreciating others for who they are.”

·  Easy to visualize, elusive to actualize. No one can proclaim themselves to be inspiring. Just saying it, won’t make it so. And as for being charismatic—like the guy selling knives at the county fair—that won’t cut it, either. The designation of being “inspirational” can only be given to us by others. As Paul Dinan, who leads our firm’s North American Consulting business for technology, told me this week: “Almost everyone who makes it to a senior leadership position will have largely realized their professional and financial aspirations. But for many, taking that final step to become a leader who can inspire others in a meaningful and sustainable way can prove elusive.” You think you’ve made it, but it’s in title and function only until you can truly actualize inspiring others. David Dotlich, Ph.D., a CEO and Board advisor and a senior leader in our Consulting business, explained why. “Leaders are very ‘head-oriented.’ They are trained to be rational and strategic,” David told me this week. “But these are the times that test us. Leaders need to tap into their heart for emotion and their gut for courage. That’s where inspiration lives and breathes.”

It’s never just about the title, the role, or anything else we aspire to. First, last, and always—leadership is all about inspiring others to believe and enabling that belief to become reality. Indeed, this is the emotional, even spiritual, part of leadership—making inspiration our aspiration.