Our Road Less Traveled

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains how great leaders determine whether the rough road or the shortcut is the best option for their organizations. 

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

One after the other, 30 or so runners streamed by—feet flying, arms and legs synchronized. Looking through my office window on an early evening not long ago, I noticed a high school track team out for a cross-country practice.

A short while later, as I pulled out of the parking lot in my car, I saw the same group of runners. Only this time, a few of them peeled off from the pack and headed in a different direction.

With a combination of curiosity and amusement, I watched as those runners snuck off with looks over their shoulders, slowed to a shuffle—and jumped over a fence.

They were done. Clearly, I had just witnessed the shortcut on the route—and on the workout.

No judgment here. In my own high school days, when the basketball coach would send us out for a brutally long run after practice, a friend would sometimes come by with a car—then drop us off near the school.

It’s part of being young—a time when we often test boundaries, take shortcuts, and learn both the rules and the consequences. From those formative experiences come lessons that last a lifetime—and even help forge our leadership.

Each and every day, we all face the divergence of two roads—one easy, one hard. And the signpost at that intersection? Character.

It’s been said that our character is defined by what we do and how we behave when no one else is watching. Said another way, character is the connection between stated intent and follow-through—with no daylight between what we say and what we do.

Our character informs our choices and determines our actions. And it’s our actions that drive our efforts and our results.

Because here’s the thing, it can be tempting at times to stay in the stream and play it safe—doing just enough, but not too much. Then there are times to be the outlier—with the hustle and the hunger to rise above the rest.

So then, this begs the question: Can we shortcut efforts without shortchanging outcomes? And, in the process, how do we keep from shorting ourselves on the benefits of our experiences?

Admittedly, there is a balance here—and it’s more art than science.

Paradoxically perhaps, there will be times when the shortcut may be the right choice. But it’s not about recklessly cutting corners—it’s about intentionally breaking norms.

It’s a willingness to leave the past behind—especially when the tried-and-true isn’t so true anymore. There’s even a word for it—what our firm calls opportunism (and we actually assess for it).

Let’s face it—leadership, like life, is rarely a linear event. There are lessons to be learned in every direction.

And some of the most profound are found only by taking the long road home.

Early on in my career I was told to be known for something—and be indispensable to someone. In every job, my objective was not to be a know-it-all, but rather a learn-it-all. This advice not only changed my attitude, but also my career trajectory.

This calls to mind a story an executive shared with me about her early days as an engineer in a factory. Her boss, who had worked in that plant for more than 40 years, warned her of the challenge of earning the respect of the workers on the floor. His advice: know everyone’s name—not simply what they do, but rather who they are.

No shortcut here. She worked the line every day for an hour, asking questions and receiving good-natured teasing as she tightened bolts and put pamphlets in boxes. Out of all that effort, she learned the names and stories of every person on the production line and forged true relationships.

So, when we reach the fork in the road, which one do we take? The answer is—it depends. But when in doubt, we always follow our character.

Indeed, that’s where we find our road less traveled.