Our Metamorphosis

As organizations emerge out of the pandemic, leadership must evolve, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

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

Metamorphosis—it’s not a choice, it’s a reality.

This goes way beyond merely rebirth or cyclical regeneration like the Brood X cicadas that recently left their subterranean world after 17 years to spend a few noisy weeks above ground. Trillions of them emerge en masse to ensure that enough survive to procreate, instead of becoming nature’s high-protein snack.

But even after 17 years, a cicada is still a cicada—unchanged. Not so with the butterfly that undergoes one of the most dramatic metamorphoses in nature. It begins life crawling and ends up soaring.

I witnessed this a few years ago, during a time of pure powerlessness against a wave of devastation that had come out of nowhere and mushroomed into a life-threatening risk. Wildfires in California were destroying millions of acres and countless homes and cost many lives. One fire was perilously close to where I live, impacting thousands of people. Many houses in our neighborhood burned to the ground, though several (including ours) were spared by a shift in the wind.

But that was not the end of the story.

Heavy rains followed the wildfires. Slowly, life returned. Nature, ever resilient, greened the canyons and flowers began to bloom where, not long before, there had been only charred earth. Then one day, as I drove to the beach, millions of butterflies filled the air. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing at first—it didn’t seem real. I slowed the car and watched as they sailed over the windshield, never striking it.

It was a sea of butterflies, the ultimate symbol of metamorphosis.

Just like those butterflies, we are bursting out of our cocoons of the pandemic and spreading our wings. Although many people around the globe still suffer losses, we have reached an inflexion point. Given all we’ve experienced, we’re transmuting loss into learning. The new world belongs to the most agile—and, as we move forward, a new way of leading is required.

Based on nearly 70 million executive assessments conducted by our firm, we know what great leadership looks like. Best-in-class leaders have strengths in key areas such as driving growth, strategic thinking, and managing in a crisis. These are classic leadership capabilities—as important today as they were a century ago and probably will be for all time.

But even these strengths are not enough. Leadership is never stagnant. It continuously responds to circumstances, challenges, opportunities, and socioeconomic conditions that influence how we lead. And today, what’s required is an approach that puts a premium on self-awareness, humility, empathy, vulnerability, and learning.

“Leadership absolutely does evolve,” Stu Crandell, global leader of our firm’s CEO and Executive Assessment practice, told me this week. “The change in leadership that we’re seeing now was already underway, but it’s been massively accelerated by the pandemic and calls for social change.”

Gone are the days of vertical leadership that focuses on driving results up the chain. Today, we need more horizontal leadership that’s all about leading across the enterprise. It takes a strong sense of purpose, awareness of how we impact others, courage to go beyond our comfort zones and challenge old ways of thinking, an inclusive mindset, and the willingness to embrace ambiguity and paradox.

It’s truly an evolution—becoming new and more relevant. Here are some thoughts:

·  Graduate and elevate. All at once, with cheers and shouts, every hat sailed into the air. My eyes were on my son, Jack, in his dress white uniform of a West Point graduate, but his eyes were on the sky. (An AP photographer captured the moment; in the first photo, Jack is the one in the middle.) At that graduation two weeks ago, I watched as Jack and his classmates literally leaped into the air—as if eagerly launching themselves into what comes next. This scene is playing out, in one form or another, as students everywhere—at middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities—graduate at a time like no other. They’re taking the next step in a world that’s forever changed by the pandemic. “The term that comes to mind is another name for graduation—commencement. It truly is a beginning,” Ken Kring, the co-managing director of our firm’s Global Education practice, said in our conversation this week. “It’s a moment where the past meets the present meets the future.” This time is a milestone for us as well—our own graduation. We’re not simply transitioning out of the isolation of the pandemic. We’re taking with us valuable experiences and lessons learned that will forever shape us, our perspective, our leadership, and how we work and interact with others.

·  The evolution solution. Our firm recently assessed an internal, high potential CEO candidate at a client—an executive who ran a business unit. But he did so mostly as a vertical leader, with a top-down approach. After the assessment, the executive was told that, given his current strengths, he could become a good COO. But to be a CEO of the entire enterprise, he needed to learn how to lead horizontally, connecting people as well as parts of the business. After a moment of reflection, the executive said, “I’m in.” And that’s how a true metamorphosis begins.

·  Transformation celebration. Sometimes a metamorphosis is apparent; other times, it’s more subtle. But we see the full scope of that change when we acknowledge how far we all have come and just how capable we’ve become. A year ago, celebrations were cancelled, but celebrating was not. We found other ways, from drive-by birthday parties to graduations by Zoom. As we discovered in those days, we needed to acknowledge every small step along the way. And it’s even more important for us now in this moment of transition and growth. As Elise Schroeter, who joined our firm recently as global head of Organization and Talent Strategy, told me this week, “We’re all graduating—from one thing to the next. But we don’t have to go it alone. Just like when we were in college, we’re part of a group—a team.” If ever there was a time for leaders to show just how much they’ve changed and evolved, this is it. We all need to be more intentional as we step back and celebrate others—and their own evolution.

Times have changed and so have we. Out of devastation has come a renaissance of hope and transformation. We are leaving the old world and leading in the new. Indeed, this is our metamorphosis.