That ‘Something’ We Can Do

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison shows how, in these difficult times, displaying empathy can help turn words into actions.

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

The world feels like it has fallen off its axis—everything seems beyond our control. Yet Sunday, paradoxically, was the Equinox—the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. It marks the rare, perfect equilibrium—dark and light in exact balance.

But it doesn’t feel like it right now. Our reality runs contrary to this season we usually associate with renewal.

Anxieties darken the skies. Imbalance is everywhere we look—at the forefront, the war in Ukraine and a geopolitical crisis that redefines the world.

Loss of life, destruction—the heartbreak on everyone’s mind. We tell ourselves that we’d like to do something. But we don’t have the answers, and hope feels like a luxury when many people are suffering.

As Dr. David Dotlich, a Korn Ferry colleague, and I discussed this week, when we look within ourselves we find the seeds of change that we long for—and want to see in the world.

“If we say we don’t like war, are we living peacefully? Are we expressing peace in all our interactions with others?” David observed. “Asking these questions is how we can move beyond ‘What can we do,’ to find that something we can do.”

Empathy can become the catalyst that turns “we’re all in this together” from only words to a feeling and then to an action. When we desire peace, we act with peace. When we value truth, we uphold it. When we feel compassion, we show it.

It’s during these times that we start down a path. It often begins with “cognitive empathy,” of merely trying to walk in someone else’s shoes. It progresses to sympathy, that “emotional empathy” when we try to feel what another person is experiencing. At last, we reach “empathetic care,” an action that manifests as care and genuine concern for others.

Admittedly, the problems are so much bigger than any of us, but not bigger than all of us. And it does start with each of us.

Indeed, as an old Irish proverb that an executive shared with me this week so poignantly states, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.”