To Walk in Their Shoes

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison highlights how we can transform our empathy from words to actions that can uplift others suffering around the world.

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

“Yes, sure—unfortunately can’t tonight. Several missile attacks on Kyiv near my apartment. I am in the bomb shelter. Air sirens still on.”

Those were the words we heard two days ago from the head of our Ukraine office after reaching out for a call, just to connect with him. It made my heart stop—and put things in perspective. Here was a colleague, still eager to have a conversation, even amid unthinkable circumstances.

“Today marks one full month of home-based lockdown in Shanghai for me and most of our Shanghai-based colleagues, though some have already been in lockdown for one and a half months…”

This chilling reality was shared by a colleague in China.

“We have stayed at home for 28 days… not allowed to walk outside.”

Another senior colleague in Shanghai described the soul-crushing isolation.

“The food supply and everything was almost in crisis at the beginning… I hope we are at the end of the tunnel, seeing the light finally.”

Another leader in Shanghai offered a reminder for all of us—even in the darkest times, there is always light. But if you don’t look for it, you won’t find it.

Just like the experiences of so many across the globe, these sentiments embody the front lines of some of humanity’s heartbreaks today.

In the world these days, so many contradictions abound. War versus peace. Lockdowns versus liberation. Isolation versus connection. Gray days versus blue skies. Despair versus hope. Egocentric versus empathetic. Self-interest versus shared interest.

One thing, though, bridges these gaps: the heart-to-heart connections forged in compassion. But even with that empathy, we can only strive to walk in their shoes.

Our best hope is to leave behind our myopia—the lens that often can point mostly to ourselves. Only then can we broaden our perspective and elevate our horizon to truly appreciate and understand the problems and challenges that disrupt, impact, and imperil the lives of others.

With greater awareness, our empathy transcends words alone to become genuine feeling—and then actions that truly uplift others.

The journey starts with Accountability. What we wish to see in the world begins with each of us. In other words, we must first be accountable to ourselves for our own behaviors. After all, when we desire peace, we act with peace. When we value truth, we uphold it. When we feel compassion, we show it.

The bridge to possibility is Belief. When we believe we can make a difference—that change is possible—then our actions will follow. This is what leadership is all about: inspiring others to believe, and enabling that belief to become tomorrow’s reality.

The destination is our greater Capability. This is a broad brush: listening, caring, connecting, inspiring, expanding, exploring, and learning. Now, everything we do is grounded in the human experiences of empathy, authenticity, and connection.

Embodying these ABCs of leadership is not dependent on any title or position—it’s for everyone. In fact, the person who will forever stand for these values is someone I knew many years ago—my friend Brett. Throughout his life, Brett was a man of modest means. But when it came to the amazing reach of his inspiring good works, he was the richest of all.

I can remember as if it were yesterday when I attended Brett’s funeral. When it came time for him to be eulogized, people held back at first—waiting for someone else to go up to the podium to speak. Then came the first story—and then another.

Each recollection… helping others, caring for others… elevated into a crescendo, taking us through an entire emotional spectrum from grief to gratitude, consolation to elation. In that moment, each in our own way, we were inspired and transformed.

We may not be able to change the circumstances of people’s lives—especially those who are half a world away. But there is that something we can do—I see you. I hear you. You matter. I care. Indeed, that’s when we start walking in their shoes.

And so we end where we began, with the words from the head of our Ukraine office: “I can tell you, optimism and the ability to generate hope are the most critical to survive. And compassion—be kind to yourself and other people. That’s how we support others every day to overcome uncertainty and fear.”