Seeing Stars

The times are challenging, but many leaders might be spending too much time directing their workers and not enough time inspiring them, argues Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

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

It was a crystal-clear night, with nothing to obscure our view. Every tiny dot of brilliance shone brightly.

My family and I went stargazing a few years ago in a remote location. Looking through a telescope, we were awestruck by the countless stars and swirls of the Milky Way. In that moment, we connected to something bigger than ourselves.

I was brought back to that experience this week when a colleague shared a favorite expression: “Tell someone that there are 300 billion stars in the universe, and they will believe you. Tell them a bench has wet paint on it and they have to touch it to be sure.”

So, the question is, what are we looking for?

If we’re honest with ourselves, over the past few months we have probably spent a lot more time “touching the paint.” In our firm’s language of leadership styles, we call that directive—being deliberate and gaining immediate compliance.

The focus has been on concerns in the moment—and in this global economic transition there’s no shortage of them. Significant shifts in global trade lanes and persistent inflationary pressures. The post-pandemic reset, an ongoing war… and the most anticipated downturn ever.

The reaction? Creating immediate cause and effect. Today, companies are adjusting their organizational and workforce strategies to the current realities. Often, that comes down to consolidating, streamlining, and spending less. But you can only shrink packaging so far.

After all, leadership is all about inspiring others to believe and enabling that belief to become reality. So how do we make that happen?

Consider a kingdom, far, far away… Devastated by drought, the crops failed, and the ground hardened and cracked. And so, the king ordered his advisors to hire the best digging crew in all the land. They arrived with picks and shovels and began digging—six feet, eight feet, ten feet. Finally, they put down their tools. All this digging was absurd! Besides, it was hot, and they had nothing to drink.

The king was furious. He had directed them in what to do. His wisest adviser, however, suggested the king give the digging crew a tour of the kingdom—past fields that had turned to brown stubble, children sitting in the dust, cows chewing dry straw instead of green grass.

“Now imagine,” the king said, “bringing life back to this kingdom.”

The crew dug day and night until they struck water. When the king came to see the well, he asked the workers what had inspired them.

Their response: “We now see that what we do makes a difference.”

We call that visionary leadership, which is best thought of as painting a picture of tomorrow—one that captures a larger purpose and resonates emotionally.

And being visionary and holding steadfast to belief is hard—not just in times of streamlining and uncertainty, but all the time.

As Stu Crandell, global leader of our firm’s CEO and Executive Assessment practice, told me this week, “It’s probably one of the most consistent development needs identified when we do executive assessments.”

But make no mistake—vision is a team sport. After all, great leadership isn’t simply about telling people what to do, it’s inspiring them with what to think about.

It’s so easy these days to become entrenched in our environment, letting the moment direct our leadership style. But we can’t lose sight of a bigger vision. It’s time to look up, look out, look forward—as we elevate the horizon. We can, indeed, see and touch the stars.