Our Auld Lang Syne

As the year comes to a close, Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison highlights what we should remember, good and bad, from 2020.

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

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind ...
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

2021 can’t get here fast enough.

Who hasn’t thought, heard, or felt this sentiment these days as we bid good riddance to the year that changed everything? How we work, how we interact with others, even how we wash our hands… Just name it, the pandemic changed it.

And now, the trick of the calendar known as New Year’s has raised our hopes and expectations for 2021. Just the other day, I spoke with someone who told me with great relief, “All this will be solved in 2021.” Without the vaccines, of course, the mood would be completely different.

Although the impact of the pandemic has been far worse on many people, none of us will go out this year the same way we came in. That’s our Auld Lang Syne we need to sing to honor others and all we have gone through together. When the ball drops, when the bells ring, we need to remember and celebrate how we got here: humility, empathy, resilience.

New Year’s has always had a special vibe. There is so much wrapped up in it—everything from resolutions to introspection and self-improvement to loneliness. How many times did we feel bad because we weren’t at this party or that event?

When I was growing up in Kansas, we would gather around our black-and-white TV to watch Guy Lombardo—“Mr. New Year’s Eve”—playing at the Waldorf Astoria “on fashionable Park Avenue” in New York City. When we heard that distinctive big band sound, we were transported right out of our living room into the midst of all that glamour. It felt a million miles away—an ideal, not reality.

This past year has been the opposite: frighteningly surreal—like that nightmare of trying to run away from something, but you’re caught in cement and your legs just can’t move fast enough. The real race, of course, has been vaccine vs. virus, and it appears we will finally win in 2021. But without 2020 and all its challenges, we would not be on the cusp of one of the world’s most momentous achievements in recent memory.

The human spirit is undefeated, and that’s what we remember and celebrate.

When I was young, my hometown of McPherson, Kansas, buried a time capsule filled with photographs, memorabilia, and historical records—what everyone thought people of the future should know about our community. What if we were to make a time capsule of 2020, with tangible reminders for ourselves and future generations? We would probably include the obvious things: masks, hand sanitizer, social distance signs, pictures of empty stadiums. Most important of all, though, would be photos and mementos of loved ones—truly timeless. (A couple of years ago, when my family and I had to evacuate our home in just minutes because of approaching wildfires, all we took were family photos. Everything else was replaceable—these treasures were not.)

But what of the intangibles for our 2020 time capsule? How can we preserve the lessons learned? Kindness and compassion. Empathy and connection. Resilience. If only we could distill these qualities and put them in a bottle, to preserve them—never to be forgotten. But the only way to carry them with us on the journey ahead is to keep remembering. Here are some thoughts:

·  2020ne: Someone sent me an email the other day with this logo at the bottom. Looking at it, I saw more than the symbol of the Tokyo Olympics. It got me thinking: If you lined up three choices—2020, 2020ne, and 2021—and asked people to choose the reality they prefer, there would be no contest. People want to move forward. We’re all thinking about recapturing parts of our lives, from traveling to see loved ones to hugging a friend. We will get there. Our human nature is wired to pursue positive outcomes. As we look to the future, we envision what’s possible—especially after a year that has seemed so impossible.

·  Redemption and rebirth. Over the past nine months, I have been blessed and honored to receive countless stories from people—colleagues, clients, friends, and new acquaintances. I have been touched by and learned from every one of them. Just this past week, an executive shared with me a deeply tragic story that chilled me from the first words: “My father died in a car accident when I was 19. I was driving.” As a young driver, she swerved to miss a squirrel crossing the road, lost control, and overturned the vehicle. “It was hard not to own culpability… Forgiving myself and learning to trust myself and the world around me while learning to live without my father have been the greatest challenges of my life. I could not quantify what I would give for another minute of time with him…” Anyone who has endured tragedies and losses would give anything to change those circumstances—but, of course, we cannot. As this executive told me, “I (eventually) chose not to succumb to the cruelty of the experience, but to live the life I like to think my father would have been proud of.” Turning tragedy into triumph to honor others—this we cannot forget in this holiday season.

·  A cup of kindness: At this time of remembrance and gratitude we extend a special thanks to everyone, near and far. We hold them all in our hearts—clients and colleagues, family and friends—and especially the front-line heroes. Those who reached out and connected with others… gave of themselves… looked honestly in the mirror and decided to change… opened their hearts to share… opened their ears to listen… humbled themselves to learn… understood that change is long overdue—and embraced that change starts with each of us… In short, all those who made the world a better place in 2020 through acts of kindness, large and small. The smile, the wave, the greeting from someone walking their dog. As we faced a common existential threat together, the innate goodness in all of us has surfaced through simple acts that unite us in a greater sense of our shared humanity. As I reflected on these small kindnesses, Eric Church’s song “Three Year Old” came to mind: “Sometimes, all you need is a hand to hold, couple arms to kill the cold…I learned that from a three year old.” Now, as we move through what we hope is the final stage of this Ironman event known as the pandemic, we have to ask ourselves: Can we keep these connections alive?

May you all have a wonderful holiday season, with an abundance of health and happiness. Here’s to old acquaintance, never forgot, and for the new acquaintance we’ll make in the New Year. Together, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.