Chief Executive Officer
Our Directive Moment
Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of The Five Graces of Life and Leadership.
“I want to work from Tahiti.”
This hadn’t been the opening line I expected when I sat down six months ago to talk with the daughter of a friend, who had asked for my advice as she entered the workforce.
I had thought we would be discussing what industries or companies might be a good fit. Instead, she began mentioning places around the world—with the assumption that she could work anywhere, and the opportunities would follow. “Madrid would be another option. Or Cozumel. What do you think?”
As mind-boggling as this conversation was then, it’s even more perplexing today. Yes, the workscape has changed forever, including how and where we work. But it just seems the pendulum is swinging once again right before our eyes.
While the winds are starting to shift—and quickly—we are all striving to reconcile so many dichotomies: Up market and down market. Ego and everyone. Performance and purpose. Ecosystems and enterprises.
But this shift also reveals an uncomfortable truth: Today, we need to lead by design, not default.
So, what’s the affect we’re trying to effect? Those two pesky words that always tripped me up in grammar school have taken on even bigger meaning today. They were top of mind when I woke up recently with a new resolve. “It’s day one,” I told myself, even though I’ve been CEO for more than 15 years. That attitude gave me context and perspective for the change I hoped to see in others—starting with the person I saw in the mirror that morning.
It was a realization—now is the time to be a bit more directive.
We all need to be prescient, knowing exactly when and how to toggle between participative leadership—and directive leadership. And there’s research to support this: our Korn Ferry Institute’s study of nearly 27,000 managers across 48 countries and 32 sectors. As the study reveals, during the first wave of the pandemic, there was an increase in directive leadership—in simple terms, being more hands on. As the months progressed, this quickly morphed to radically human leadership.
Today calls for shifting our lens from 30,000 feet to ground level—and having awareness of all the airspace in between.
Make no mistake, directive is not dictatorial, it’s all about being deliberate. The secret of success for directive leadership is found in the when and the how long. Because here’s the thing, the art is knowing when to let go—returning to participative leadership because that’s where creativity and innovation flourish.
We should always think shepherd: often behind, mostly beside—and, as the environment today dictates, sometimes in front. Here’s how:
Context, clarity, collaboration. During times of rapid change, it’s easy to identify numerous initiatives. The challenge is choosing only the impactful few—and executing relentlessly. That’s why leaders must “paint the bright lines”—the left and right guiderails. Leaders set the course and the destination, and articulate the “intent”—the mission and purpose. In every organization, employees make countless decisions every day. In challenging times, decision-making amplifies—in numbers and magnitude. No context and clarity? Brace for chaos—with no collaboration.
Listening—not just hearing. It’s a common complaint: “You aren’t listening to me.” One person speaks and the other person mumbles the occasional, “Yeah … uh-huh.” Or someone pretends to listen, then goes off and does the exact opposite. As we’ve seen countless times over the past few years, there is a world of difference between simply hearing and really listening—particularly to what we don’t want to hear.
Owning the outcome. In business, a lack of accountability can make people seem indecisive, especially when the stakes are high. The problem is not that people are afraid of making decisions—they’re actually afraid of the consequences of those decisions. Making tough calls is never easy. Harder still is owning the outcome. But that is what accountability is all about. With honesty and humility, we each must say, “Whatever the outcome, I own it.”
Yes, there is a time and a place to be directive. But if we have learned anything over the past few years, it’s the importance of always being authentic, showing empathy, and demonstrating grace. This is what helps us build consensus, provide context and clarity, establish boundaries, listen and own the outcome, and empower collaboration.
Indeed, this is our directive for all moments.