We 'Will'

Great leadership first takes effort, but then can inspire it in others, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.


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

Who knows how long I've loved you
You know I love you still
Will I wait a lonely lifetime
If you want me to, I will…

        - The Beatles, “I Will”

It’s the song our colleague Jo Schaeffer sings to her four children every night. Except her youngest, now six years old, has never been able to hear her mother sing.

So, imagine Jo’s excitement when her daughter was being fitted for hearing aids for the first time. “She asked that I be the first voice she hears after she gets them,” Jo told me this week.

To keep that promise, she needed to catch the last flight out of Tulsa after a client training session she was leading in Oklahoma. Then her flight got cancelled. “I told people what happened. I was almost in tears. I needed to get home—it was non-negotiable,” Jo said.

That’s when someone suggested she try leaving out of Arkansas, three hours away. To make it, though, she needed to leave immediately—with some unexpected help. This was a room full of experienced leaders, including several police officers. Every participant sprang into action. Some people broke down the room—and others cleaned up. One police officer returned Jo’s rental car to the Tulsa airport, an hour-and-a-half away. Another officer drove her all the way to Arkansas—a six-hour round trip.

The training session ended early that day, but the real leadership lesson endured. After all, leadership is not merely words, it’s actions. And that takes Will.

It’s all about transforming the desire of the several into the Will of the many. So perhaps the question we should all ask ourselves is: What is our Will?

Will we be about it, not just talk about it?  It’s so easy to critique, instead of construct—pointing the finger in another direction, particularly today when differences too often overshadow commonalities. We need to be about it, and that requires looking in the mirror. The late John McKissick, America’s winningest football coach, shared with us the wise words of his father: “If you don’t put something in the bucket, how are you going to get anything out of it?’” We need to ask ourselves: What are we willing to put in the bucket today to help ourselves and others? 

Will we listen for what’s really going on? “Hey, I want to talk to you about a couple of things.” When those words were expressed to me just the other day by a colleague, I had no idea at first what the conversation was going to be about. “You may be getting some feedback that I am off a bit this week,” the colleague told me. “The reason is I lost a young relative.” Then he tried to go to a different topic—context for a project we’d been discussing. But the more he talked, the more emotional he became… We dropped all of that and went back to the real topic—his loss. And in that moment, that’s all there was to talk about. It’s a reminder to all of us that the difference between hearing and listening is comprehending. We have to listen to educate our intuition.

Will we help others get from here to there? Time and time again, our firm’s research indicates that people want to be part of something bigger than themselves. And when they find that connection, it turns “Me” to “We.”

And so, I asked Jo—after all that she had been through—what it was like when her daughter received her hearing aids. At first, there was only silence for what felt like more than a minute as she composed herself.

“I don’t know how to describe it,” she said, her voice cracking. “It was humbling… I could just see the relief on my daughter’s face… It was a look that said, ‘This is what other people experience.’”

… Your song will fill the air
Sing it loud so I can hear you
Make it easy to be near you
For the things you do endear you to me
You know I will
I will.

Indeed, that’s a leadership song for all of us to sing.