When Our Give Meets Our Get

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains why it’s critical that leaders give others time, context, belief, and other gifts. 

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

I was a new CEO, making one of my first live TV appearances. Somewhat nervous and wanting to gather my thoughts, I grabbed an espresso-to-go and took a walk down Wall Street before heading to the studio. I strolled through the old cemetery at the historic Trinity Church—perhaps hoping for a little inspiration from above. Instead, I got something else from on high.

A pigeon flew over and dropped a “gift” … on my head. Stunned, I stood there in my best pinstriped suit, knowing I was going to be on air in 30 minutes.

When I got to the green room at the TV studio, the makeup artist gave me a strange look.

“You won’t believe what happened,” I told her and started to explain.

“You’ve got bigger issues than pigeon poop,” she said. “Those bags under your eyes have got to go.” Opening a drawer, she took out a tube of Preparation H, of all things, and rubbed it under my eyes to reduce the swelling.

It was all so absurd, I just started to crack up. And just like that, I was taken out of the moment, and my nervousness was gone.

As paradoxical and preposterous as it may sound, that pigeon’s give was really my get.

Everywhere we look, there are gifts to be discovered. And it’s up to leaders to help others find theirs.

This calls to mind a parable a colleague once told me. A ship out in the middle of the ocean was rocked by a fierce storm. Everyone had to abandon ship. After countless days in a small raft, the captain finally stood on the beach of a deserted island, surrounded by 10 wet, cold, and scared people.

The captain reassured them they would be rescued, but in the meantime, the priorities were shelter, fire, and food. As people worked together, the captain climbed a hill above the beach to scan the horizon for signs of a rescue. Instead, he saw 10 more life rafts riding the tide toward the island. Soon there would be 100 more people on the beach—all of them needing help.

Calling the group together, the captain told them, “I would like each of you to meet one life raft and assist those people for the next few days until we get rescued.”

The group didn’t look happy. “How will we do that?” they asked.

“The same way I did,” the captain said. “Reassure them about their future and help them understand what needs to be done now.”

“So, what will you be doing?” another person asked.

The captain explained: “It’s my job to help each of you become the leader that your team needs.”

Moral of the story: Leadership is not a role, it’s a calling. It’s the gift of lifting others up.  After all, when they see just how far they’ve come, they appreciate how capable they can become.

It starts by looking within: That’s where we find our gifts. For an individual, it might be creativity; for an organization, it could be collective genius. Once we find them, we then must give our gifts. At the same time, we must continuously grow our gifts.

As Kevin Cashman, our firm’s vice chairman, CEO & Enterprise Leadership, shared with me this week: “Gifts are those things that we are uniquely equipped to give to others. They may be characteristics, they may be competencies, they may be knowledge … And when we give them, we make a difference in people’s lives.”

So, what are a leader’s gifts to others? The possibilities are numerous, but let’s unpack a few:

Time: It’s the one thing we can’t make more of, but it’s the one thing that matters most.

Elevating the Horizon: Contextualizing can be liberating. 

Encouragement and Recognition: We all want to be seen and heard.

Empathy: It’s not about you, but it starts with you—by walking in others’ shoes.

Belonging and Believing: Inspiring others to believe and enabling that belief to become reality.

Indeed, that’s how—and when—we can get, give, and grow our gifts.