Chief Executive Officer
When We Hit the Wall
Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.
It was years ago, and the concert hall was packed. I had a good seat with a clear view of the stage as the pianist—the star of the show—began to play flawlessly. Then halfway through Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, he suddenly stopped.
His hands froze on the keys, and he bowed his head. He turned to us and said, “I don’t want to play in public anymore.” This world-renowned performer had simply hit the wall. Whatever the reason, he could not play one…more…note.
We know what this kind of fatigue feels like—it’s been building day to day, week to week, month to month—first wave, second wave. Who knows anymore? In many ways we’ve been dulled to it—our minds, our bodies, and our spirits.
It’s just so surreal. Imagine that you were transported directly from last year to this moment in time, with no knowledge of what had happened since the beginning of 2020. Walking around you’d see people wearing face shields and masks. Restaurants have set up tables in tents and in parking lots. Hand sanitizer stations, circles and arrows of where to stand and where to go.
What would you assume—a natural disaster, the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe, chemical warfare? Learning that it was actually a pandemic, you wouldn’t know quite what to make of it. It would seem unbelievable.
And yet, here we are. Fatigue has no respect for boundaries or organizational level. No one is immune. A CEO confided in me recently, “I thought I had four or five years left in my career. But now I’m thinking, I’m done.”
Feeling discouraged, people often ask, “Why are we even doing this?” Indeed—why? What sounds like a complaint is actually an invitation to go deeper into the why—the meaning, the ultimate antidote to fatigue.
Purpose precedes the first step of every journey, both personal and professional. To connect with purpose, we go within, asking ourselves, “Why am I doing this?” When our purpose is about others – and the gifts of time, talent and treasure that we give generously to others – it makes our “why” all the more enduring. In fact, as leadership guru Daniel Goleman points out, to reimagine tomorrow we need positive thinking, a strong foothold in reality, and a deep sense of purpose. This is how we create meaning amid uncertainty and as ambiguity abounds. Goleman cites Martin Seligman, a psychologist with the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, who describes three different kinds of happiness: the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life. Of the three, a meaningful life is the most fulfilling as we devote our talents and strengths to serving others.
Purpose also unleashes discretionary energy. According to our firm’s research, organizations that are filled with people who are high in discretionary energy achieve better outcomes than those that aren’t. A strong sense of purpose—who we are, what we value, what defines us, and who we want to become in the most challenging times—drives us forward, even when we are feeling the most fatigued.
In the fog of fatigue, though, it’s almost impossible to have perspective. What we’re facing often feels bigger in the moment, than when we look back on it. We need to take ourselves out of this moment and focus on the horizon. Imagine, October 2022—what would we want to see? How do we see the world then? How do we see ourselves? What do we want to accomplish—and who do we want to become? These questions create an instant perspective shift.
To be sure, people continue to face fear, anxiety, and stress—the pandemic is a humanitarian crisis, first and foremost. But even when we feel fatigued by the deepest challenges, we can find a way to elevate ourselves—above and beyond today—with the knowledge that there is a better tomorrow. Here are some thoughts:
No matter where or how we perform—on a stage, in a plant, or in a virtual work environment—we need to ask ourselves: Are we playing only for ourselves or for others? The more we do for others, the more we take ourselves out of this moment and elevate the future—we rise above the fatigue.