Our State of Grace

People are turning to leaders for help, hope, and direction, all of which take grace, writes Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

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

We didn't start the fire
It was always burning, since the world’s been turning
We didn't start the fire
No, we didn’t light it, but we tried to fight it

     - Billy Joel

Protests and violence. Struggles, storms, and shutdowns. Droughts and wildfires. Delta Variant on the rise. Cuba to Jakarta, Haiti to South Africa. Germany and the UK—Brazil and India. Locked up, pent up, people wanting change.

As the world tilts on its axis, people are turning to leaders for help and hope, direction and decision. After all, leadership is inspiring others to believe and enabling that belief to become reality. And that takes grace.

Over the past week, I’ve had a dozen conversations about grace. In each one, it struck me that—like truth, art, or love—grace is often hard to define. But we know it when we see it.

Grace is a feeling.

It moves us forward—elevating above any circumstance—and always along the high road. It is what makes us inherently human—the better self that shines a light for others.

Grace is the gift of goodwill.

Unearned and unmerited, grace is present within each of us. It’s as old as human history—present in all major cultures and religions. In Greek mythology, the three daughters of Zeus were known as the three Graces: Aglaea, Euphrosyne, and Thalia. Their names—translated as brightness, joyfulness, and bloom (among others)—were the gifts they gave to humanity. For us, the gift is the goodwill of a human nature that is predisposed to helping others. We have joy when others are fulfilled.

Grace is an action.

The image that comes to mind may be a dancer’s poise, an athlete’s fluid motion. But true grace emerges through pressure and sometimes under fire. It is that voice of humility that continually whispers, “It’s not about you.”

It calls us to accountability, responsibility, and action. After all, the accountability we want to see in others starts with each of us.

Grace is perspective.

This is not the first pandemic or crisis, nor will it be the last. This, too, will pass. “When crisis strikes, our natural tendency is to think of cause and effect—to try to understand what happened rationally,” David Dotlich, PhD, a CEO and Board advisor and a senior leader in our Consulting business, told me this week. “But there are other forces at work—and this is where grace comes in. It is the goodness in all of us that comes out in times of pain and suffering.”

Grace is the balance when emotions run high.

It is tested at the extremes when we find it so hard to be graceful—in exuberance when we need to check our ego and in pessimism when we need to overcome fear.

I recall a dear friend who fought a long, brave fight against terminal cancer until he passed away. During his illness, we had hundreds of conversations—and so often his focus, extraordinarily, was on others and not himself. Over the years, I’ve reflected on my friend’s dignity and compassion—his extraordinary love for others. Despite his own pain and suffering, he showed only grace.

Grace is a virtue.

It is evident the moment someone walks into a room. They are calm and confident, to the point of elegance. It’s not only their assuring words that others need to hear, but also their cadence of how and when to deliver them. And even when the answer must be “no,” grace conveys positivity that makes it feel like “yes.”

In our conversation this week, Cathi Rittelmann, a leader on our Consulting team who focuses on leadership development and diversity, equity & inclusion, told me that grace is increasingly in the conversation. “Just the other day, a senior leader at a client said to me, ‘We need to give each other more grace.’ It’s mindfulness, it’s self-care, it’s focusing on others—it’s all the things we didn’t really talk about in the workplace before.”

What truly makes a difference is how we operate, the imprint we leave, and how we make others feel. Here are some thoughts:

·  Where grit meets grace. When the going gets tough, and the way forward is shrouded in uncertainty, grit can push us through. It’s the tenacious drive that makes us resilient against all odds. But grit, alone, cannot do the job—especially when leading others. Grit reports to grace—the real sovereign. In the face of failure, grace assures us that we will not only be OK, but also actually get better. And, amid success, grace guards us against self-importance. No matter what happens the only question is: Do we have the grit to be graceful?

·  A sign of grace. So how do we know we have it? In our work with Daniel Goleman and in nearly 70 million executive assessments conducted by our firm, we’ve found that emotional intelligence (EI) is very much an assessment of grace. EI is the ability to identify, understand, and discern our own emotions; to read and understand the emotions of others; and to effectively navigate the interconnection. It’s composed of empathy, adaptability, and self-awareness—all of which add up to gracefulness. As Kevin Cashman, our global co-leader of CEO & Enterprise Leader Development, told me this week, “EI starts with awareness of ourselves—both our light and our shadow side. But the real power of EI is when our self-awareness serves and connects with the deepest needs and aspirations of others. We more clearly know ourselves and how we can add value to others.” And each time we exemplify EI, we are more likely to gracefully inspire it in others.  

·  Hope and a prayer. I’ll never forget that dinner, even though it happened 20 years ago. The occasion was a board member’s retirement. As we gathered, a friend of mine walked to the head of the table and reached for a glass—his every movement radiating class. His words flowed with no script, as he quoted from memory an Irish blessing: “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face …” Although these words were well known, we were all mesmerized, and as I looked around the table no one moved. They weren’t sure whether to bow their heads in prayer, raise a glass to toast, or stand and applaud. It can only be described as a master class in grace, not just because of the words but how they were delivered—straight from the heart.

An earthquake shakes the ground. A tornado rattles nerves. A pandemic tests resolve. In every crisis, people look to others—who panicked, who had it together. And every time, they will train their eyes on the one person who exudes confidence that “everything will be OK.” This is grace—feeling, gift, action, perspective, balance, and virtue combined. Indeed, we must all ask ourselves: Are we the one they turn to?