Our Sense of Selflessness

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains why 2024 should be a year for leaders to think more about the advancement of others.

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

It took less than a minute—and it just may have saved a life.

At a celebratory dinner not long ago, someone at our table started to choke. Before anyone else realized what was happening, the wife of our guest of honor jumped out of her chair and rushed over. With what seemed like superhuman strength, she performed the Heimlich maneuver.

After we had all gathered ourselves, she explained the story behind this story. As a kid, she’d almost choked to death. Having endured that harrowing experience, she instinctively knew what to do … even when no one else knew what to do. She’d vowed to use her personal experience for the direct benefit of another.

Flash forward to our firm’s year-end town hall calls. I was asked what the headline should be for 2024. Without hesitation, I responded: Selflessness.

For me, 2020 was all about resilience. In 2021, empathy came to the forefront. 2022, it was hope. 2023, our shared humanity.

So, how will we live and lead in this new year?

At times, it may be too easy to focus all our attention on what’s wrong in what’s right, rather than what’s right in what’s wrong. We live in a world in which differences appear to overshadow commonalities. Given our human nature, we may tend to criticize the systems rather than asking how we can each be the solution.

What if, as we begin 2024, we think more about the progression of others around us? Their well-being, advancement, growth….  

It's selfless—but also symbiotic. As others flourish, so will we.

We know what the opposite looks like. I can recall the scene from a few years ago—of all places along the Pacific Coast Highway. Several cars had stopped in the median. Rolling slowly past, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There was a skunk, a plastic soda cup stuck on its head.

Scampering around frantically, the skunk shook its head in a futile attempt to free itself. People looked on, unwilling to step in—mindful of what the skunk would send out.

Looking back, that scene strikes me as emblematic of what happens when people wander around alone, not knowing which end is up—and which way is forward.

Leadership is measured in the success of others. Easy to intellectualize, but elusive to actualize, leadership is one part strategy, two parts judgment, three parts finesse—and four parts enabling others to achieve.

Perhaps our resolution for the new year could be committing to the concept of We-dership, in which there is more We, Us, and Our—and less I, me, and my.

Look up, look out, look forward. May 2024 bring out our better selves that shine a light for—and on—others.