Our Bid for Leadership

Leaders can learn a great deal from watching professional auctioneers, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

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

“We have 150, do I hear 200? Now 225… 250. Do I hear 300? Going once, going twice … sold!”

Katie Gabriel painted a vivid picture for me—equal parts passion and purpose—of a part-time professional benefit auctioneer who helps charities raise money at live auctions. For Katie, auctioneering is the family business—her father and four brothers; she even met her husband at auction school.

“So, what’s the secret?” I asked her.

Katie didn’t hesitate—letting loose that riff of the auctioneer’s chant. It was music to my ears—bringing me back to earlier times, of going to auctions in Kansas where I grew up and being absolutely captivated by that cadence.

She added, “My mission as the auctioneer is to help create that excitement and make it fun. When people are passionate about an organization, they’ll step up to support it.”

Conducting the controlled chaos of a live auction just may be agility at its finest: reading the room in real time, observing people’s body language, pivoting in the moment—all while orchestrating a successful outcome.

Ironically, perhaps, here we find the language of leadership—and auctioneering is our unexpected metaphor. Think about it: painting the vision, directing from the stage, inspiring and welcoming others to participate, setting the right pace, and aligning everyone.

Sound familiar?

Our firm’s research, drawing on assessments of hundreds of thousands of leaders in more than 2,000 organizations around the world, has identified six overall leadership styles. Frankly, most leaders use only one or two. But the best leaders, like the auctioneer who has complete awareness and adjusts in the moment, know how to toggle among all six styles:

Directive—gaining immediate compliance. There are times when leadership needs to be more directive. But make no mistake, directive is not dictatorial. It’s all about being deliberate. The secret of success for directive leadership is found in when and how long.

Participative—building commitment and generating new ideasWhen the switch flips away from being directive, leadership often returns to a participative style. This is where creativity and innovation flourish—allowing the next best ideas to bubble up from within.

Visionary—providing long-term direction and context. Vision is best thought of as painting the picture of what is to be accomplished. In other words, this is what the organization will look like as its purpose is realized. And a compelling vision can unlock discretionary energy—that currency of commitment that can be withheld or spent freely.

Pacesetting—getting it all done. In today’s push-pull world, the answers are often found in paradoxes and opposites—like impatiently patient. On the one hand, we must be impatient when responding to the urgency of what’s most important. But, on the other, we need the patience to ensure we never move at a pace faster than what the organization can handle.

Affiliative—creating trust and harmony. We know from our research that affiliation—establishing and maintaining relationships—is one of the most important motivators of human behavior. Despite all the technological advancements of the past 50 years, it still comes down to people (even with ChatGPT). We want, need, and thrive from human connection.

Coaching—supporting long-term development. We found them in classrooms and gymnasiums, music rooms and marching bands. Later in life, we met coaches who guided, nurtured, and challenged us to think differently. As leaders, this is our job now—coaching others to be more than.

These six styles are the leadership levers to be pulled at the right time. Because here’s the thing: up to 70% of an organization’s climate can be determined simply by leadership style.

Granted, we might not have a podium and a gavel, or an audience of people jumping out of their seats and waving paddles in the air. But we all have the ability—whether we lead a team of five or 50 or 5,000 or 50,000—to positively impact the people around us.

So, while we’ll probably never become fluent in the auctioneer’s tongue-twisting banter—it’s still our job to establish the vision, communicate the mission, and elevate everyone around us. Indeed, that’s our bid for leadership.