Our Timeless Truth

Business may be cyclical, but leadership should not be, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison, who advises leaders to stick to unwavering principles.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of The Five Graces of Life and Leadership.

The circle of life—like the cycle of business—will always change. But leadership endures.

I can remember like it was yesterday, though more than 20 years have passed. My son, Jack, was five years old and had to undergo surgery. In that sterile, white pre-op room, the gravity of it hit when the nurse put the needle in Jack’s arm. His eyes wide, Jack turned to me and asked, “Daddy, will everything be OK?” Startled by the sheer fear I felt inside, I forced confidence into my voice. “Yes,” I told him. “It’s going to be OK.”

Flash forward several years—our roles reversed. This time, I was in the hospital bed, having herniated a disc in my back for the third time. Just before I went into surgery, Jack squeezed my arm and said those same words to me: “Dad, everything is going to be OK.”

For me, these stories have become a parable of the parallel between life and leadership. It’s a timeless truth and a message of hope—consistent from one cycle to the next, one generation to the other. For today’s leaders, it’s even more relevant.

On the heels of a once-in-a-lifetime cataclysm, it just feels like something else is always coming up—economic, health, geopolitical, social…. But as leaders, we must be all-in, all the time—and all about the care of customers and the feeding of employees. We shouldn’t ditch our better selves and give into the survivalist side of our human nature just because the economic arrows are pointing in a different direction. In both downturns and times of growth, leadership must always be attuned to the voice of grace that whispers, “It’s not about you.”

I was reminded of this truth after reading an article this past week that really got my attention. Written by a reporter I’ve spoken to in the past, the article described some leaders reverting to tougher talk, blunt demands, and less flexibility amid increasing anxiety about the economy.

Intellectually, we know business does move in cycles and leaders need to respond with decisive action—sometimes grabbing the yoke. In fact, in meetings with global colleagues and clients over the past few months, I’ve been saying that the seat belt sign may come on.

But leadership is most definitely not cyclical. Its unwavering principles persist through both the fertile times of summer and the fallowness of winter. And in all times and every season, it’s about reassuring others that, in any environment, the path is always up and to the right.

It’s a simple leadership framework, where mindset meets the moment—and all calibrated around what to do and how to do it.

Purpose is the anchor. It is the overarching “why” that casts a long shadow, changing me to we.

Strategy is the roadmap. It sets the course and the velocity—never moving faster than people can absorb. It distinguishes between the urgent and the important.

People make all the difference. Despite the technological innovations of the past century, people are what make organizations great. And it’s the leader’s job to make people feel better after every interaction than they did before.

It’s not power—it’s empower. Enable and equip others, then get out of their way.

Reward and celebrate achievements—always. We can never say “thank you” and “good job” often enough.

Anticipate a future grounded in today’s reality. The more clearly we see the here and now, the better we’ll project what is around the next bend. We create a vision of the future that others cannot yet see.

Navigate in the moment. Course-correct in real time. Sometimes a decision is a good decision—until it’s no longer a good decision. It takes a mindset shift, elevating from the technical left brain to the people-centered right brain.

Communicate to connect and inspire. This is where leadership lives and breathes. We are not speaking for ourselves; we represent others.

Listen, learn, and then lead. And in that order.

We know what great leadership looks like. Based on nearly 70 million assessments of executives, our firm has identified what distinguishes the best-in-class who are among the top 20 percent: setting vision and strategy, driving growth, displaying financial acumen, and handling crises.

But there’s an intangible, radically human side that cannot be overlooked. From one cycle to the next, expansion to contraction, leadership is always about others. It’s helping them believe and enabling that belief to become reality. Indeed, that’s our uncompromising, timeless truth.