When Unexpected Is Expected

Great leaders know they can’t control everything, but they can navigate through anything, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

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

I flew on an airplane just once before college. Starting with my first job at KPMG after graduation, however, I began to fly more frequently—and later, while I was with an investment bank, I started to live on planes.

Through all this travel, I learned an invaluable lesson: the unexpected is always expected.

I can remember being on one particular flight, about 20 years ago, from Los Angeles to New York. We were supposed to land at JFK, but we couldn’t because of a blizzard. As we circled low over the New York area, I tuned into the audio channel that, back then, allowed passengers to listen to the conversation between the cockpit and air traffic control.

During the discussion of whether to land at JFK, try Newark, or fly to Philadelphia, the pilot asked about a plane that had just touched down. I was dismayed by air traffic control’s candid answer: “Yeah, they landed—if you want to call it that.”

Finally, we somehow landed at Newark where we sat on the tarmac, waiting for a gate, and then even longer to get our bags. I barely made my meeting. After that, I promised myself I’d always be prepared, starting with what I could control. No matter where or when I flew, I would always carry on my bag.

That lesson paid off many years later when I was en route to Madrid to give a speech, with a connection in London’s Heathrow Airport. The flight was diverted because of a snowstorm, and we landed in Shannon, Ireland. The pilot announced over the intercom that we’d probably be stuck there for 14 hours because the crew had exceeded their legal flying time. As I nervously pondered what to do, I looked out the window. No other planes were at the gates. It was clear that I would be stuck if I didn’t take control.

While everyone else waited on the plane for further instructions, I asked if I could deboard. So, I grabbed my carry-on, rented a car, and drove 120 kilometers through Ireland along country roads in the rain to the city of Cork. There, I got the last available seat (the last row, middle seat) on a cheap regional airline and landed at Heathrow around midnight. I stayed at an airport hotel with all the ambience of a minimum-security prison and got up at 4:30 in the morning to catch the flight to Madrid. But I made it on time.

You can’t control the weather, but you can adjust your sails.

And that’s what we are trying to do, right now. The pandemic is worsening in some parts of the world. Phase 3…Phase 4…back to Phase 3. State to state, region to region, it’s a patchwork of different economic realities, which seem to shift like the wind.

Across any global organization—with different phases and stages for any place at any given time—leaders must navigate in the moment.

To navigate is to make proactive, purposeful decisions to accelerate through the crisis curve. Most decisions these days seem to be a good decision—until they are no longer a good decision. Then it’s time to course-correct, in real time, with another decision.

The times we are in call for “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.”

Here are some thoughts:

  • Navigating means taking responsibility. Navigation is the companion to anticipation. Together, they keep the organization on an even keel. In a conversation we had a few years ago, Ken Blanchard, the management expert and co-author of The One Minute Manager, described the tension between anticipate and navigate in this way: be the “president of the present” and the “president of the future”— both at the same time. Navigation focuses on what happens in the present, with real-time adjustments. Making a decision is easy. Making a decision, knowing you personally own the consequences, is much harder. The starting point is humility—not because of the consequences on you, but rather recognizing the burden those decisions may place on others. Humility begets self-awareness, and self-awareness reminds us we’re not the smartest in the room.
  • Plan a little, think a lot, decide always. Navigating is determining both direction and velocity. The truth is leaders can’t move an organization faster than the people and culture can absorb. Another way to think about it is launching a rocket. If the launch trajectory is off by even inches at the start, the rocket is going to be off by miles when it’s in orbit. It takes navigation and strategy to maintain the right trajectory over time. One thing is certain: we can’t ignore reality. If we try, what becomes truly unavoidable is the consequence of having avoided reality. “Let me think about that” can be just as toxic as “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” No decision is still a decision—and probably a bad one—and it can lead to organizational paralysis. In these times especially, we must plan a little, think a lot, decide always.
  • Know when to take the wheel. When you’re responsible for the whole organization, you oversee the entire airspace—from ground level up to 35,000 feet and beyond. Nothing should be “beneath” you. How and when you need to take the wheel depends on the organization and the circumstances. A historic moment serves as an example. In July 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to reach the moon. The landing was supposed to be a totally hands-off operation. Just before touchdown, Armstrong noticed that the targeted landing site was at the edge of a large crater surrounded by boulders. He overrode the computer and landed the Eagle manually. “The Eagle has landed” became a victory cry everywhere. Now, 51 years later, we can reflect on that moment with deeper appreciation for Armstrong’s split-second decision to take matters into his hands. It’s a powerful lesson for all of us: When it’s smooth sailing, we can delegate more to our team and occupy the upper airspace to view the entire organization and its strategy. But when we face critical issues in the moment, we need to be at “ground level.”
  • Lessons learned the hard way. Of all the times that leaders must navigate in their careers, the moments that undoubtedly stand out the most will be times of crisis. These are the moments that teach us what to do when we don’t know what to do. I can distinctly remember, when I was about 10 years old, riding with my dad and my uncle from McPherson, Kansas, where we lived, to Topeka, in the middle of the state. There was a snowstorm, visibility was terrible, and on top of it, we got a flat tire. Because of the snowdrifts, our car was barely pulled off the road when my dad and my uncle got out to change the tire. I can remember them being so worried about what would happen if we got stuck. That day, I learned the importance of being prepared. Even to this day, I carry a potpourri of “stuff” in my car trunk: a blanket, flashlight, jumper cables, warm clothes…. Because one of these days, I’ll be glad I did—even in “sunny” Southern California. Have Plan B for Plan A, particularly today.

When we’re in the thick of it—the turbulence, the storm, the crisis—clouds of uncertainty and ambiguity shade the horizon. But the horizon is ahead. Embrace the unexpected to be expected. Look up, look out, look forward. Perspective is usually liberating!