The Power of Choice

Why leaders today must enlarge their worlds, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry.

All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places, worn out faces …
Going nowhere …
No tomorrow …
I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take
When people run in circles, it’s a very very
Mad world …
Enlarge your world
     - Mad World by Tears for Fears

The only certainty today is uncertainty. And, for good reason.

Long-overdue calls for social equality, recovery curves, second waves, exhaustion, isolation—just to name a few. Days blur into nights and nights turn into day; tomorrow feels like yesterday. The walls in our minds are making our worlds smaller.

As leaders today, we must enlarge our worlds. We must “live out living up,” as a colleague told me this week.

I’ve always thought that, to motivate others, you must first motivate yourself. But honestly, over the last several weeks, my world has been enlarged by others—by the power of choice.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when my colleague, Esther Colwill—one of only about a few hundred people on the planet to reach the “Seven Summits” of the highest peaks on every continent—described being stranded in a tent on the side of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, and withstanding temperatures of -60 degrees Fahrenheit, plus deadly windchill. “Once you get high up on these mountains, it’s like being on a different planet. Your connection to the rest of humanity gets stripped away,” said Esther, who is president of our Global Technology practice.

Her words capture what many people are feeling today: isolated, afraid, and in danger of giving up.

In that tent on Denali, Esther relied on “mission, purpose, and choice” not simply to survive, but rather to thrive. She then took what she learned from Denali (including failures) to Everest where she summited on her first attempt, beating the 9-out-of-10 odds against it.

Her attitude was her altitude!

Katy Shaddock, another colleague, reached out to me with a very moving message about her difficult journey of the past year (and graciously allowed me to share her story). As the primary caregiver, Katy moved her mother into her home “while maintaining all the normal life functions of a family with one special needs child.” Her mother died on Easter Sunday after a sudden illness made lethal by her multiple sclerosis. “The horrible circumstances of her death were made more awful by the pandemic,” Katy admitted. “But there is joy.”

The only choice is positivity, Katy said, even when “it would be too easy to focus on the pit of despair instead of the horizon above.” To honor her mother’s memory and example, Katy motivates herself with a favorite phrase: “live out living up.” As Katy explained, “Whatever potential I have, I need to live up to it. Nobody can measure that based on what I say—I have to live it.”

Katy’s message has inspired me. This is how “discretionary energy” is tapped, as people willingly contribute the story behind the story.

That’s the power of choice—to enlarge our worlds.

Here are some thoughts:

  • What gets you moving? Are you driven to exceed your own goals? Do you thrive when working with others and feeling connected? Is your motivation to influence others? These desires capture the essence of three motivations—achievement, affiliation, and power—as defined by the late David McClelland, one of our firm’s early thought leaders. As positive drivers, they fuel discretionary energy. Leveraging these three motivators can help people get unstuck and moving again. Achievement today speaks to the reality that different work needs to get done—and work needs to get done differently. Affiliation today addresses the emotional side, with a focus on relationships that can help people feel less isolated. Power (meaning to influence) drives the kind of change the world needs today.
  • Avoiding avoidance. There is also a fourth motivator, as McClelland defined later in his work: avoidance. It’s a kind of self-protection against unpleasant people or circumstances. Often, avoidance is driven by fear of rejection or failure. Given how overwhelmed people feel today, avoidance could become the default—especially if they consider 2020 the year they want to “write off.” That’s the opposite of what they should be doing. Today, leaders must mirror the behaviors they wish to see in others—live out living up.
  • Mediocre or meteoric? It’s our choice to let circumstances define us—or define our response to the circumstances. I’ve always cautioned myself never to complain about the consequences of my own decisions. Rather, I’ve thought about making another decision—that’s the power of choice. Mike Hyter, our chief diversity officer, is a strong believer in the power of making deliberate choices, as he wrote in his book, The Power of Choice. One of the biggest career risks is not failure—it’s frustration. Each of us can make positive choices, instead of falling into stagnation.
  • Nobody gets out of sixth grade. The basic desire to belong, to be appreciated in our differences, to be loved in the moment are at the heart of intrinsic motivations—and they are more important than ever. Face it, the classic extrinsic motivators may be harder these days. Far more enduring are the intrinsic motivations: to have a purpose, to make a difference, to help others. Leaders need to tap that power of the intrinsic for themselves and for others. People want to know that they matter—not merely accepted but appreciated. It’s the same as when we were in sixth grade. That never changes.

It’s the secret to sustainable success: when you’re happy, you’re positively motivated, and if you’re positively motivated, you’re going to outperform. Try enlarging your world—it will help you and everyone around you. Indeed, the power of choice is yours.

Here’s a simple checklist to help you motivate yourself and others:

  • What is motivating me right now and what will keep me motivated?
  • Whom have I neglected to appreciate out loud?
  • What efforts of others have I overlooked?
  • Which two people will I do something specific for this week?
  • Am I more often sharing criticism or praise?
  • How am I celebrating others?
  • How many times did I say thank you today?