Never Walk Alone

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison highlights how conversations at work about wellbeing have changed… and why that’s a good thing.

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

“Even after 13 years, it is a tough month.”

A colleague confided to me just the other day what he has been going through, triggered by the anniversary of his grandmother’s death. It’s a poignant memory of the woman who had raised him—because, as he explained, “both my parents struggled with addiction and mental health issues.”

But instead of hunkering down during a traumatic month, as he has for more than a decade, this time he walked a different path. By moving from isolation to inclusion, he willingly shared with friends, family, and colleagues the full array of his emotions.

This is a message for all of us—we never have to walk alone. It’s especially timely now—October 10th is World Mental Health Day.

Our conversations around wellbeing and mental illness are changing. Personally, I’ve been humbled and honored to receive an outpouring of so many heartfelt stories that have been shared with me in response to my recent message. With incredible candor one person after another opened up, describing “an increasing feeling of isolation” … being “surrounded by addiction for most of my adult life” … having “fear of how they may judge me.”

Yet, rising above they also celebrate “opening the door and asking for help”“finding the courage to share”“love, compassion, and patience”“unconditional caring.”

Connective and cathartic, each is a testimony to the true meaning of health and hope.

“It turned my world upside down…”

An executive shared with me the details of his mother’s sudden death when he was 17. Yet, out of that survival mode came the deep desire to prove himself by joining the US Navy and becoming an Air Search and Rescue swimmer. In rescuing others, he saved himself—and today he has finally broken through “to live my best life.”

From the workplace to our personal lives—increasingly blended together—every day is a chance for renewal. And every story shared is another opportunity to open our minds, lead with our hearts, and seek to understand.

Albert Einstein famously wrote on his chalkboard a favorite quote that he had taken to heart: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

As we look at these words through the lens of health, wellness, and awareness, it’s important to recognize that just because we may not personally experience something, it is happening to others around us. It’s real—and it counts. And the people and their stories are present in every workplace and environment.

This calls to mind an observation shared with me by another colleague this week—further punctuating the point: “What is unseen has just as much value as what is seen.”

“As a leader who explicitly needs help from those around me, I am better able to see the potential of people on my team… and be a witness to their caring spirits.”

Those words were expressed by yet another colleague, who is dealing with a disability, as he captured his “many conflicted feelings and thoughts.” He shared with me his struggles, acceptance, and ultimately finding meaning, as he reconciles what he used to do—and what he is able to do now.

Through it all, he’s found a silver lining—becoming a much more connected, self-aware, and vulnerable leader. This speaks to the very essence of leadership: making a connection with others to transport people from here to there—both emotionally and literally.

After all, leadership is not a role—it’s a calling.

As human beings, not human doings, we are all easily biased toward what we see and can easily discard what we don’t see. Making a connection with others, however, means observing and feeling both—the seen and the unseen. So, how can we all travel further down this path?

Being a bit more vulnerable and a lot more authentic. Asking, listening, learning, and acting—with and on behalf of others. And always with humility and inclusivity.

That brings me full circle—to a memory of my own grandmother. I can still picture myself as a child on a cold, damp day. I was standing with one foot on either side of a floor register, trying to get warm as the furnace blew hot air into that chilled room. But the real source of light and warmth was my grandmother as she sang her favorite song.

“Walk on, with hope in your heart … You’ll Never Walk Alone.”