The Unseen Gift

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison says leaders should be looking to highlight the positive elements of 2023 we might have overlooked.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Take Control: The Career You Want, Where You Want.

If 2023 arrived on our doorstep in a box with a bow, would we even open it?

Bob Rozek, our CFO, told me a story that brought this to life in an uncanny way. When he was ten, Bob loved hockey. All he wanted for Christmas was a pair of real hockey gloves. But on Christmas morning, when he opened the biggest box first, he was surprised to read “men’s galoshes” on the cover. Disappointed, he set that box aside and didn’t think any more about it as he opened a couple more presents.

Months later, his aunt called to ask, “Hey, how did those gloves work out?” At first, Bob had no idea what she was talking about. Then it dawned on him, and he started digging in the back of a closet for that galoshes box.

As he started to open it, he teared up. Inside were those brand-new gloves—exactly what he’d wanted all along. But he hadn’t opened the box, and now his hockey season was over.

Of course, we don’t have the option of holding out for better or different times. No doubt, the last 12 months brought a mixed bag—including wars and an uneven economic environment. Not to mention unsettling personal experiences.

But these are the times we all share—the good, the bad, and all the formative learning experiences in between. In the midst of it all, we can discover the real gifts. We find them in precious moments with the people around us – and that extraordinary wisdom we often find in the most ordinary of places.

Within this mosaic echoes an iconic song of the season. We’ll leave it to the historians to sort out the details, but one account of it begins in a small village in Austria and a poem entitled “Stille Nacht” that was set to music to be performed for the first time on Christmas Eve in 1818. But flooding had damaged the organ, which could have silenced the whole performance. Then someone picked up a guitar, and “Stille Nacht”—better known to us today as “Silent Night”—filled the air.

Think about it, a humble, stringed instrument, nearly overlooked as inappropriate for the solemnity of the occasion, changed the musical history of the season. 

It’s a lesson for all of us as we wrap up another year and take inventory of who we are and who we want to become – what we have overlooked and who needs our appreciation. As Albert Einstein famously wrote on his chalkboard the favorite quote he had taken to heart: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.” Or as others have said, “What is unseen has just as much value as what is seen.”

Because here’s the thing, it’s never about the title, the role or even what we aspire to. It’s all about recognizing the unseen gifts of others.

So, what might we find inside the box we’ve failed to see? Is it kindness and compassion… empathy and generosity… believing and belonging? Perhaps the real question for leaders is, what would we put in the box for others to open in 2024.