Never Alone

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains why leaders need to empower workers, not just manage them.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of The Five Graces of Life and Leadership.

Lost in unfamiliar territory—it’s a stranger’s guidance. Young and in a new school—it’s that welcoming friend. Sick and scared—a compassionate healthcare worker. Stressed and overwhelmed—the colleague who reaches out.

And when we feel as if we cannot not take one more step forward, it’s the person who reaches for our hand.

We each know these moments and how alone they can make us feel. But all it takes is for one person to show up—and show us the way.

Nineteen years ago, a 13-year-old girl stood at the center of the court, microphone in hand. In the hushed stadium, with the spotlight on her, the young soloist was surrounded by more than 20,000 people. But when the words to the National Anthem completely escaped her, she suddenly was alone.

Then, from out of nowhere, Portland Trail Blazers Coach Maurice Cheeks stepped up to reassure the singer, Natalie Gilbert. He put a hand on her shoulder, whispered the words of the song, and then soon they were singing together. As her trepidation turned to triumph, Natalie’s voice soared. The crowd joined in—and it ended with thunderous applause. Years later, Coach Cheeks recalled, “I just looked, and I knew she was struggling.” He had to help her.

This stunning moment strikes me as an uncanny parallel to today’s new world. In this virtual-everything environment, we know what it feels like to be surrounded by everyone—but feel as if there is no one. All it takes is one person to step up with encouragement and empowerment. After all, leadership is all about inspiring others to believe—and turning that belief into reality.

And that’s exactly what we need to do—and be—for others today. Amid so much uncertainty and anxiety swirling around us, people sometimes fear drowning in the moment. And today, things can feel particularly tenuous and transient, as the connective tissue between employees and employers becomes ever thinner.

Just when we think things are getting better, the improvement we’re hoping for seems to slip away. As Lynn Foster, a member of our Consulting team, told me this week, “As I’m talking to organizations, I’m hearing the same sentiment everywhere: We thought we had turned a corner, but we’re not there yet. We’re still hopeful, but it feels like we’re still in a clinical trial that no one signed up for.”

At the start of pandemic, when everyone hoped for a quick end, my gut told me it would be at least 18 to 24 months, followed by a few years of transition. It wouldn’t be a sprint or even a marathon. It was an Ironman Triathlon—and hitting mile marker 21 is a lot harder than mile marker 2.

Sobering yes, but that’s the reality of the whirlwind of change and unpredictability that we find ourselves in. As the late Warren Bennis, the well-respected leadership guru who advised CEOs and US presidents alike, once told me, “It really starts with how you view reality.”

Even amid disappointment, though, these are the very moments when even one person’s actions can turn fear into confidence, ambivalence into motivation, despair into joy. This is not about heroic rescues. Rather, it can be as simple as the squeeze of an arm, a listening ear, a message of encouragement, and the words, “I’ve got your back.” These tender mercies are true grace—elusive yet needed more than ever.

Through our words and actions, we become both hope and a model for others. We forge relationships that become investments that earn interest over time. Here are some thoughts:

· From out of the depths. I will never forget the first time I got caught in an ocean riptide. I was young, and my first instinct was to swim to shore, as fast and as hard as I could. But I never got anywhere; instead, I sank, lower and lower. My individual efforts failed—and the more I tried to do for myself, the worse it got. Suddenly, from out of the depths, an older teenager popped up beside me. He grabbed my shoulder and yelled, “You need to swim the other way!” By the time I finally reached the beach I was so exhausted I fell to my knees, completely spent—and deeply grateful for that other swimmer who was the unexpected help when I needed it the most.

· Permission to fail? Like the actor who forgets a line or a singer who flubs a lyric, we all fear making mistakes that make us feel vulnerable. As counterintuitive as it may seem, giving people permission to fail actually empowers them. When they know that someone has their back, they’ll take the kinds of risks that result in innovation. That’s why permission to fail is so important these days. When there is freedom to act without fear, people will feel empowered—and believe to achieve.

· Resent … or reset? It all depends on how we see things. Since the start of the pandemic, people have been hoping for an endpoint—a specific moment in time when the switch flips and we can declare, “It’s over.” Not surprisingly, those hopes tend to intensify with the start of every new year—as if a change in the calendar could also mark a finish line being crossed. Unfortunately, that’s a setup for disappointment and resentment because life isn’t following our wishful plan. It’s time for a reset! We need to recalibrate our expectations by focusing on the reality of today—with appreciation for just how far we’ve come and just how much more capable we’ve become. Then, we can elevate our sights to the horizon ahead of us, with a perspective to weather the duration of this journey.

· Distrust erodes—but trust restores. So what does it take to convey assurance and instill confidence? It starts with trust. Think about it: distrust erodes everything it touches. But trust restores everything it encounters. To trust another person, there needs to be a two-way contract of sorts, based on promise and follow-through. Trustworthiness is the other side of the coin—to become worthy of others’ trust. After all, for people to accept our help, we cannot merely declare ourselves trustworthy. Words alone won’t suffice. Far more important are our actions—and how others experience them.

This push and pull, yin and yang world can isolate us at times—but that should not insulate us from the needs of others. Indeed, the grace that we give, the help that turns to hope, and encouragement that empowers assure us that we’re never alone.