When Hope Meets Reality

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison highlights the biggest blind spot nearly everyone has now.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.

Do we look for what’s right in what’s wrong—or what’s wrong in what’s right? The answer is both.



In the depths of the financial crisis and the Great Recession, I started a leadership meeting by showing a picture and asking people what they saw. Most people, with a bias toward optimism, focused on the foreground where a young girl was picking flowers. A smaller number said their focus was drawn to the dilapidated buildings in the background. Only 2 out of 17 said they focused on both.

That’s what I was driving at: while there was hope and optimism (the flowers), pessimism and reality tells us there will always be risks and challenges to overcome (the decayed buildings).

Research tells us that the vast majority of people gravitate toward a good outcome. But that can be a blind spot. Drawing from nearly 70 million assessments of professionals that our firm has conducted, we know that 80% of them have at least one blind spot—a trait or capability that they overestimate. This selective myopia can derail progress.

Our biggest blind spot today is getting stuck in the past, defaulting to the way things used to be. I saw it just recently during our board meeting. Multiple times during our Zoom committee sessions, people kept catching themselves saying, “We’ll discuss that in the full board meeting tomorrow.” Guess what? That “tomorrow” was actually two hours later.

All our sessions were being held in one day via teleconference, but the old way remained etched on our memories (even for me, after 17 years of attending quarterly board meetings). It’s like writing on a white board with a permanent marker. You can spray it and rub it all you want, but that writing will always be there.

It’s not that the past doesn’t matter, it just needs to be brought into the present. My favorite professor in college taught geology—a subject that is about as “old” as you can get. And yet, in every class he brought it alive with passion. The professor had one quirky habit—he was obsessed with writing on the blackboard. He practically consumed chalk. It was amazing to see those clouds of chalk dust migrate from his hands to his clothes to his face and his mouth.... And whenever he said, “metamorphic rock,” a sea of white dust showered the first row of students. While his style was unique to say the least, he brought the past alive, making it relevant in the new world. His passion elevated our discretionary energy.

And that’s what we all must do today. Too much optimism could anchor us in the old—and threaten us with irrelevancy (and maybe extinction). We need healthy pessimism so we can wipe the board, erasing what’s no longer relevant, and give ourselves a clean slate on which to imagine tomorrow.

There are times during the year that are natural resets. Just this past week was the first day of fall. But for me, autumn always started on Labor Day. I can remember as a kid watching the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon, which was oddly mesmerizing, but bittersweet because it marked the end of the summer.

This year, I woke up on the day after Labor Day, feeling bummed out. It wasn’t just the change of seasons. It had been 181 days since the pandemic was officially declared on March 11—and it seemed endless. The problem, however, was that I momentarily locked in the old world—thinking back on how things used to be and wishing they were the same. Going to movies, attending sporting events, traveling…

I quickly snapped out of it. That’s not our reality. We can’t stay in the past, clinging to the hope that things will be back to “normal” soon. We need to wake up to the reality that it’s time to throw out the old and drive to the new.

Ironically, we need pessimism to keep us grounded in today’s reality. Pessimism is that little voice on our shoulders that whispers, “Beware.” Pessimism pushes us to see reality, which actually may allow us to reframe the picture, to then instill hope that we will make tomorrow different and better than today. It all depends on what we see. Here are some thoughts:

  • 2020’s hindsight. During one of our firm’s recent global town hall calls, in front of about 3,000 North American colleagues, I was asked an unexpected question: Looking back to the early days of the pandemic, what was one of the things I would have done differently? As I paused to collect my thoughts, I articulated something that had been weighing on my mind. From the onset of the pandemic, I had known humanity was in for a long, tough physical and emotional haul. Everywhere I looked, my analytical left brain registered the risks. As the world faced uncertainty and ambiguity, we course-corrected our strategic plan. I knew it would take a triangulation of cash, biology, and psychology to get us through. Biology and an effective vaccine would determine the end date—in the meantime we must recalibrate. We must sustain energy. But when it came to our colleagues, my right brain took over. They needed hope that everything would be OK. And, indeed, it will be OK. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, and even with the best of intentions, I see that I did not give my left brain enough equal airtime. I encouraged optimism, but I probably would have added a couple more tablespoons of reality. This is always the balance and art of leadership—never moving too far beyond what an organization can absorb.
  • The optimism illusion. Too much of a good thing is still too much—even when it’s hope. It comes down to balance, where hope meets reality—and it must be constantly recalibrated. That starts at the top. In a conversation I had this week with Stu Crandell, the global leader of our firm’s CEO and Executive Assessment Practice, he observed, “It’s the role of the leader to convey meaning, a shared way of understanding—with realism on one side and reassurance on the other, and reward and risk in between.” It’s a Monte Carlo simulation in action as we anticipate what lies ahead by accurately perceiving today’s reality. But when we connect with people, it’s important to be realistically optimistic. Yet there are people who struggle with the opposite scenario—immersed in pessimistic reality, while hope remains elusive. In a call I had this week, an executive confided in me: “We’re doing everything we can, but I worry that it’s just not sustainable.” We need to remember: while reality keeps us grounded, hope will always inspire.
  • Keeping hope alive. Even in the most dire, unthinkable reality we can still find hope. Mike Hyter, our firm’s Chief Diversity Officer, shared a personal story that touched me deeply. In September 2012, our firm bought the diversity and inclusion consulting company where Mike served as president. “I was on top of the world and excited about this opportunity for our employees,” he told me. Then seven months later, Mike lost his 21-year-old son, Donovan, in a drowning accident. “I had no spirit left in me,” Mike recalled. “Losing a child, especially as a result of a tragic, unforeseen accident, blows a hole right through your body that never truly heals. You do learn to work around it, but it is always there.” Mike confided to me that he thinks about Donovan every day. He describes it as a pain he always feels—with the bitter reality that he will always live with aching loss. But to honor Donovan’s memory he chooses to keep hope alive—to him, that’s the only choice. Out of the depths of this tragedy and years of nightmares, Mike began to see his own purpose more clearly. In honor of the lost potential of his son’s life, Mike recommitted himself to help others exceed their potential. He continues to live—and deliver—this uplifting message: “The heartache that can break people still represents an opportunity for finding hope and healing.”

Indeed, the question is not what we are going to become, but who we are going to be. And that starts with reframing the picture.