Chief Executive Officer
Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.
When I was a kid, Sunday afternoon drives were a big deal—starting the moment somebody jangled the car keys and said, “Let’s go for a ride.”
I can remember sitting in the back seat of our old car—the windows rolled down, the radio up, and the breeze in our faces. We didn’t live in a big town—it took less than 10 minutes to drive from one end to the other. Once we crossed the city line, though, there was nothing but central Kansas farm fields and open road. We could just go—for miles and miles—and just for the pure pleasure of it.
These days, we all long for that sensation. After a year of isolation and sometimes insulation, our coiled-up energy feels like an electrical charge in the air. We all want to be going somewhere—anywhere.
Just like a carefree Sunday drive, being in motion can be enough for some people. And we know that the path of progress is often less like a straight line and more like a labyrinth. Not everyone has an exact destination in mind—and that’s okay. It’s like Alice in Wonderland, asking the Cheshire Cat for directions, but not really caring about where she gets to. And so, as the Cheshire Cat observes, “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
But for others, there needs to be a destination with a sense of purpose. That duality can coexist because that’s the reality of where people are right now.
Our worlds are opening up, thanks to the vaccines. It seems like nearly every phone call and every conversation starts with who’s been vaccinated and who’s going to get it next. It’s the new “how’s the weather” conversation, but it does more than merely break the ice.
I had this discussion a few days ago with Ilene Gochman, a member of our consulting team who holds a Ph.D. in social psychology. She told me that she and her husband had both received their second shots and now—finally—can visit her elderly parents in Florida for the first time since Thanksgiving 2019. It’s a hopeful story that’s repeated, in various forms, all day, every day.
Ilene also had perspective on why sharing these stories is so important. “It helps move us out of the total darkness of the unknown. And, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it aligns with spring—the promise of a new season.”
With each vaccination, one more person safely makes it over the wall. More pathways begin to open, allowing people and organizations, once again, to be on the move.
The essence of any leadership journey is transporting people from one place to another—inspiring them to believe in what we can achieve. An analogy I’ve used to illustrate this is to imagine leading thousands of people from diverse backgrounds, countries, experiences, and perspectives on a cross-country trip—New York to Los Angeles—by foot.
Not everyone is in the same place. Some people are bringing burdens from last year—losses, weariness, loneliness. At times, however, it may seem like heresy to ask them to take one more step, to do one … more … thing. Others, though, long to sprint ahead—they can’t wait to get moving.
Along the way, leaders are “shepherds”—sometimes in front, sometimes behind, but always beside others. Here are some thoughts:
· A purposeful drive. It was another Sunday drive—but this one started with a very specific purpose, destination, and outcome. “I want to show you something,” a friend of mine told me on that day, during a visit to Kansas about 15 years ago. Our objective: the Hutchinson salt mines, now part museum. As a young boy, I had salt rocks (I can remember licking them to taste the saltiness) but didn’t think much about where they’d come from. And even if someone had told me, I couldn’t have imagined it—not until I saw it with my own eyes. My friend and I stood in a cavernous mine—some 650 feet underground and a constant 68 degrees. The Hutchinson Salt Company mine covers 980 acres, and the network of tunnels measures 150 miles. Stored in a secure area of the mine—safe from floods, fires, and tornadoes—are priceless collections, from the original footage of Hollywood classics to valuable documents from all 50 states and foreign countries. Until that moment, I never knew what existed all along—right below my feet. And all it took was someone to show me.
· Failing to fail. It’s a question I hear in almost every conversation with executives these days: How can we ask people to do one … more … thing—to help them feel motivated and empowered? My answer, surprisingly perhaps, starts with failure. A year ago, companies everywhere took any and all actions—unconcerned about the prospect of failure because everything around us was failing. There was freedom to act without fear. Now, moving forward, if people are afraid to fail—if there are punishments or if rewards are withheld because of failure—then people won’t feel empowered to take chances. And without those risks, there will be no innovation. As we push the restart button, the only real failure will be failing to fail. When people know it’s safe to fail, learning happens.
· Marking our calendars. A year ago, when the world turned upside down, the only way for any of us to get through was to look out just a few months—even a few weeks—at a time. Imagine if we had known then where we are now—it would have lifted a lot of burdens. But we couldn’t see it and wouldn’t have believed it. Yet, here we are, and our perspectives have been reset. Now as certainties replace the unknowns, milestones are easier to set—with purpose and optimism—three months, six months, a year from now. “We all need to listen, to meet people where they are—and we also have to talk about the future,” Doug Charles, the president of our Americas region, told me this week. “It’s taking both one step ahead of the next—and thinking six months out in front of us.”
· Time to stretch. Like marathon runners about to take that last stride over the finish line, we’re on the cusp of celebrating a major achievement: we made it! How fast, how slow—it does not matter. Getting here is everything. And just like a marathon runner after 26.2 miles, we cannot just sit down. We have to stay in motion, and then it’s time to stretch—our moment of celebration. We need that pause to savor just how far we’ve come. Unless we stay flexible, nimble, and agile—stretching ourselves and building our strength—it will be impossible to start another race. It’s not intuitive, but that’s what leadership is—yin and yang, pushing and pulling, knowing when to tap the brakes and when to accelerate. And, above all, it’s showing appreciation for the distance we’ve traveled and just how much more capable we’ve become.
Just like those Sunday afternoon drives, all of us want to be in motion right now. Indeed, the question we need to ask ourselves is: Where do we go next?