The Fall Whisper

As the season changes, Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison looks at how leadership has recently evolved. 

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

My favorite college professor taught geology, with a true passion for taking ancient rock formations and bringing them to life. Obsessively scrawling notes and diagrams on the blackboard, he practically consumed chalk—covering his clothes, hands, face, and mouth. And every time he said the words “metamorphic rock” or “tectonic shifts,” a sea of white dust showered the first row of students.

He erased the board over and over to put down more notes. No matter how much he enthusiastically wiped the surface, though, his old writing still showed through. The eraser simply couldn’t keep up with the chalk and all the remnants left in its wake.

Leaders continually face this same challenge: how to erase what’s holding us back and embrace what moves us ahead. It’s particularly timely as fall whispers in a season of change.

I can remember those feelings when I was a kid, growing up in the Midwest. Cooler temperatures and falling leaves triggered a whole set of routines, as if awakening to a new day. Replacing screen doors with storm doors. Switching from summer tires to winter tires. All that preparation had a purpose.

So too, in this season of change—we reflect on our rites of leadership passage.

To explore how and where, our Korn Ferry Institute recently took a comprehensive look at how leadership has evolved over the past two years, based on assessments of tens of thousands of senior executives at hundreds of companies. The study reveals some significant shifts in leadership traits and competencies needed to navigate the next year—at the forefront, dealing with ambiguity and that underrated behavior known as curiosity.

Absorbing those insights, we see how leadership, like life, is cyclical. Here are some thoughts:

Curiosity. When thinking about what makes a great leader today, probably the first thing on most people’s minds would be growth, strategy, and vision. But curiosity? And yet our firm’s pandemic leadership study spotlights how curiosity was the biggest mover of all leadership traits. Today, it’s all about looking at the world with an open mind amid nonstop ambiguity. Leaders must constantly be on the lookout for mega trends as they emerge, so we can align our organizations to the opportunities (and risks) they present. Curiosity is learning—and learning is the No. 1 predictor of success.

Context. Context is best friends with curiosity. It’s not just a matter of will and skill. It’s a decision and a discipline. We take what we’ve observed and learned and use it to reframe reality and visualize our future. Tapping Google Earth unveils the bigger picture. We focus on being focused—not on what we cannot control, but on what we can.

OthersIt’s one of the most consistent questions I get these days: “How can I connect with my team?” Start with recognition—really looking at people and seeing the whole person. Or, as Ken Blanchard, with whom I’ve had fond discussions about leadership, likes to say, “It’s catching people doing things right.” Where there’s recognition, there’s trust—and it runs in both directions.

Self-awareness. The world is changing—are we? All of us are born with certain traits. Optimistic or pessimistic. Curious or cautious. Outgoing or shy. With time and experience, we can adjust and compensate. But when the going gets tough, do we revert to our blind spots or accentuate our strengths? The answer is humility and self-awareness, which precede the definitive steps toward personal and professional growth. You cannot improve an organization unless you improve yourself.

A different cycle, a different climate. A period to remember what endures and erase what is no longer relevant. A time to look in the mirror. Indeed, that is the whisper of fall.