Your Inner Superhero

Gary Burnison on purpose lessons people can get from surviving everything from a personal tragedy to the "Miracle on the Hudson" crash.

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

At the intersection of what we do and why we do it we find other people. In our stories of challenges, overcoming the odds, and facing our fears we discover it’s not about us.

Seated in 8F aboard Flight 1549, from New York to Charlotte, N.C., Korn Ferry’s Gerry McNamara had no idea how his life would change. Two minutes after takeoff came a series of loud bangs and flames shooting from the engines—then silence and the odor of fuel.

The only communication from the cockpit was, “Brace for impact!” and the flight attendants began chanting, “Brace! Brace! Brace!” For four harrowing minutes, after striking a flock of geese and losing both engines, the plane descended rapidly.

Gerry described for me this surreal moment as people faced their greatest fear—everyone was going to die. He saw some passengers crying; others were heard praying. Some were frantically sending text messages—a final chance to say, “I love you.”

His thoughts on his family, Gerry tightened his seatbelt to the max, so if the plane broke up on impact, at least his body would remain intact.

The aircraft hit the Hudson River, a violent landing at 140 miles per hour that sent water over the windows. Panic gripped the passengers, and people climbed over seats to get to the exit doors. “It was pure instinct of self-preservation taking over until fears were brought under control,” Gerry told me.

A former U.S. Marine Captain, Gerry sprang into action. He became part of a “squad” of seven out on an airplane wing who stuck together to help others—including rescuing someone who had fallen into the icy waters. Miraculously, everyone survived.

When Gerry, who heads our Global Technology Officers practice, described again for me this week the “Miracle on the Hudson,” the near-death of an emergency landing did not bring out the most emotion for him. Instead, he choked up when he related his homecoming the next day: “Relatives, friends, neighbors kept streaming by. I felt the depth of how much these people mean to me, and how much I mean to them. I’m asked all the time, ‘Did your life pass in front of you?’ It’s true—it did. And all I saw were the people I care so deeply about.”

Growing up, my son, Jack, was never comfortable flying. Whenever we flew, the first thing Jack did was pull the laminated safety card from the seat pocket and study it carefully. A few years ago, when our family was on a flight that made a mid-air evasive maneuver to avoid a head-on collision, Jack’s nervousness grew.

Then something unexpected happened. While home for several months during the pandemic and continuing his studies at West Point, Jack got his pilot’s license. He’s certified in fixed wing and also learning to fly a helicopter.

Jack didn’t go through the countless hours of training, preparation, and practice just to become a better military officer. He also faced what was once a fear.

Indeed, in everything we do, our attitude is truly our altitude. Here are some thoughts:

  • It’s a meaningful life. After going through all we have thus far this year—and with so much more ahead of us—it can’t be just about ourselves. It must be about others. That’s also the secret to staying motivated, which is all the more important during this time when different work needs to get done and work needs to get done differently. Korn Ferry conducted a comprehensive survey of what people found most meaningful in their lives. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, few people listed career as their top purpose. Even fewer focused on their own basic needs. Most chose benevolence (doing good for others), family, and living a meaningful life according to their principles. It’s an enduring truth about being human: we want to know that we matter to others—that we make a difference and people feel better just by knowing us.
  • Live—and serve. As we look for meaning, we often find it as we process the events of our lives—especially the challenges. Kevin Cashman, Korn Ferry’s Global Leader of CEO & Executive Development, told me a deeply personal story that, with his permission, I share here. Just four months ago, Kevin was alone in his home while his family was stranded in Colombia because of the pandemic. He went upstairs to read and fell into a deep sleep. Sometime in the night, he stumbled out of his room and fell over the banister—a fall of about 15 feet that seriously injured his skull, neck, back, ribs, and more. Hours later, he awakened from an unconscious state to an echoing awareness that had only one deafening tone in it: “LIVE!” That primal impulse compelled Kevin to dial 9-1-1. Twelve hours later, he woke up in a hospital. Now, as he is getting closer to a recovery and return, Kevin reflects on his painful, yet transformative experience: “To me this was meaning and purpose on its most primal, foundational level—live and serve. The true measure of our lives is how much we can rise above our challenging circumstances while contributing all we can to enrich others.”
  • The fork in the road. “I want to tell you a unique story…” That opening line from an email sent to me recently certainly got my attention. Chad Slinkard, a Walmart associate, described how he had loved baseball as a boy but was accidentally hit twice in the head by a baseball bat in two incidents, leaving him with severe brain trauma. At age 16, Chad was informed by doctors that the brain damage and experimental medications he took to control seizures would probably cause liver damage and shorten his life. Chad turned to a wise man he looked up to who told him: “You have two choices in your life…think about no one but yourself until you take your last breath on this earth, or you can make a difference to others with your time, talent, and treasures.” That changed everything, and Chad decided not to think about his own life and future, but “the future of others.” Today, Chad is 62 years old and living with no seizures or other health issues. “The doctors are totally bewildered, but I am not,” Chad told me. Living a life of meaning and purpose has made all the difference.
  • It starts with a question. As we pause and reflect, we may want to ask ourselves a few simple questions: Where do I find the most meaning? What does leadership mean to me? How do I serve others? Why should others risk their careers to follow me? How many times do I say “thank you” each day?

This week we celebrated Labor Day, which in the United States is a day to honor those who have worked for what we all enjoy. In the midst of a year that has been unlike any other in our lifetime, this observance takes on special meaning and significance.

It is a moment to pause and appreciate what we have, what we’ve done—and what we’ve overcome.