More Than Just a Sigh of Relief

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains why, as the pandemic subsides, some are experiencing an unexpected emotion: joy.

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

It was the summer of 1980 and, as a college student, I could not have imagined two more different musical experiences.

In July, I’d scraped together the money to hear Queen at The Forum. Then, in August, a friend was given tickets to hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Hollywood Bowl, and I was dragged along. Sitting there, staring at the program, two thoughts went through my mind: What was I doing here, and how long was this going to last?

When the Philharmonic launched into the Ninth Symphony’s first movement, I naively stifled a groan—it sounded like a musical anesthetic. Then, before I was even aware, a repeating melody hooked me. By the fourth and final movement—Beethoven’s famous “Ode to Joy”—that soaring, triumphant music shook the Hollywood Bowl to its foundation. Individually, people were moved, but the collective uplift that swept through that amphitheater was palpable.

I remember that shared experience to this day, and it can be described only by one word—joy.

Believe it or not, that’s where we are now.

After a year like no other—and despite tragic losses suffered by so many—we are emerging out of the Emotion Curve. Over the past 12 months, we have endured the downward slide through disbelief, anger, and withdrawal. And, despite fatigue and being overwhelmed at times, we have come up the other side—through acceptance, optimism, and meaning. Now, we’re hopefully poised for the relief and release known as joy.

How far we’ve come. This Thursday, we’ll mark the one-year anniversary of the pandemic being declared. I can distinctly remember hearing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s dire predictions on that day: no immunity, no treatment, and 60-70% of her country’s population likely to be infected. For me, that was the day this became all too real.

For two months, I had worried over our colleagues in Asia who endured the early days of Covid-19. Then came our colleagues in Europe, as the epicenter moved westward. In the U.S., we waited, knowing we were next.

April’s days were dark. We kept each other going with assurances that “everything will be OK”—a message I found scrawled in childish handwriting on the sidewalk while out for a long walk. We wanted to believe it—we had to believe it. What other choice did we have?

First wave, second wave … then who knew anymore—we stopped counting. By year-end, we couldn’t wait to shed 2020 and move on to 2021—except the new year didn’t feel all that “new.”

Now, the vaccines—along with the compilation of all that we learned—have changed that. We are hopefully moving beyond the self-interest of merely surviving to embrace the shared interest of thriving—together. Collective culture is about the many, not just the few. The radically human experience of empathy, authenticity, and connection must transcend the individual—and cascade throughout the organization. But it must start with the individual and, as importantly, with each of us as leaders.

In our conversation this week, Paul Lambert, an organizational consultant in our London office, compared today’s experiences of people coming together to his father’s memories of childhood in World War II. “My dad talks about the community experienced by people during the attacks on the south coast of England because people needed help to get through rationing and loss,” he told me.

Paul witnessed that same spirit during the pandemic, when it was hoped that a few thousand people would volunteer to help with community support and Health Service vaccine trials—and 20 times that number answered the call. Paul’s wife, Juliette, became part of a community care network: making phone calls, picking up prescriptions, and delivering food to people. Out of fear and uncertainty arose common purpose and a sense of community.

Today, a deep, abiding feeling is beginning to sweep communities and organizations everywhere. It is far more than hopeful—it is joyful, deep and collectively felt. As Paul told me, “Joy is different from happiness. It comes from a sense of purpose, deep within—the laughter in the middle of the chaos.”

Here are some thoughts:

·  The joy … of belonging. Fitting in is superficial—like slipping into a room unnoticed. The power of belonging is bigger. In a virtual session I had this past week with Tom Crowley Jr., Chairman and CEO of Crowley, along with leaders at his multi-billion-dollar global marine logistics company, we discussed the power of belonging—inclusive and participative. Belonging taps into our deepest, fundamental needs—of wanting to connect to something bigger than ourselves. We want to be loved, to know that what we do matters. We want to be seen and heard. Creating a sense of community and unity is more important than ever. As I discussed with the Crowley team, so much has been asked of people over the past year—often doing more with less. Now, there are new mountains to climb, and we need to articulate just how much every person matters—because what the organization wants is not motivation enough. It’s all about what individuals need. And most of all, they need to belong.

·  The joy … of empowerment. When the pandemic hit, leaders of organizations everywhere had no choice but to trust and empower employees who were on their front lines—those closest to customers, suppliers, and partners. Everyone rose to the challenge, gaining autonomy and empowerment. As we put the pandemic behind us, that independence cannot be lost. “Moving forward, organizations need to find a way to perpetuate and maintain that sense of empowerment among the people who have been the lifeblood of the company,” Jean-Marc Laouchez, president of our Korn Ferry Institute, told me this week. “That trust cannot be lost simply because managers believe they need to lead.” After all, leadership is never telling others what to do—it’s guiding them on what to think about. People need to believe to achieve.

·  Our shared joy. When Beethoven wrote his Ninth Symphony, between 1822 and 1824, he had lost his hearing—but not his passion. Inspired by the ideals of his age—of enlightenment and unity—Beethoven set Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” to music. He became the first major composer to create a choral symphony combining instruments and voices. It was a shared experience that needed to be created, heard, seen, and felt. Today, it is regarded as Beethoven’s greatest work. Over the centuries, it has become a tribute of hope and unity. It has marked Olympic Games and the fall of the Berlin Wall and was adopted as the anthem of the European Union. Now, as we commemorate our shared journey and celebrate the joy of this moment, we need to ask ourselves: What is our “Ode to Joy?”

It is more than happiness, more than contentment. It often emerges as seasons of great sadness, despair, and adversity draw to a close. It is an appreciation of all that has been endured, a recognition of the healing that is needed, and a celebration of all that remains. Indeed, it is joy—a feeling that is best shared and experienced with others. After all, the joy of life is the recognition of joy in the moment.