Who Do We Support?

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison argues that it’s a leader’s responsibility to inspire both connection and conviction. 

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

First there were cheers—then only tears. A man covered his face with his hands as he wept openly. Beside him, another person sobbed—and another and another...

While I was in London recently, I went to Wembley Stadium to see Southampton versus Leeds United in a high-stakes futbol match—with the winner promoted to the top-tier Premier League. When Southampton won, the Leeds supporters around me broke down in an unfiltered outpouring of raw emotion.

It brought to mind that famous line, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”—never had I witnessed such agonized fans before.

What jarred me at first, I soon came to appreciate. Everyone wore their allegiance on their sleeves—and as proudly as the team color emblazoned on the players’ jerseys. Here was a deep sense of connectedness even among those who otherwise might have little in common.

Who do you support?

It’s both a question and an answer. To ask it of someone in football circles is to get their histories—where they grew up, where they went to school, who their families cheered for, their loyalties and rivalries. Woven into these stories are long-standing traditions.

There are many more layers here than the question we usually ask in the States: “What team are you a fan of?”

To support someone is to invest in them emotionally. And it goes right to the heart of our most basic human needs—to grow, advance, connect, and feel part of something bigger than ourselves.

As leaders, it’s not only our role but also our responsibility to inspire connection and conviction. So, how do we support those around us? After all, purpose and people are inextricably intertwined.

The answer can be found in how we live and lead. Leadership is not only personal, but truly SPECIAL:

  • Selflessness—knowing that improving an organization starts by improving ourselves
  • Potential—helping others exceed more than what they thought possible
  • Empathy—meeting others where they are to embrace who they are
  • Connection—adopting a horizontal mindset within organizations
  • Inclusion—creating a sense of belonging by consciously including everyone
  • Authenticity—ensuring others trust what we say, so they can believe in what we do
  • Love—leading with our hearts as we seek to understand

First, last, and always, it’s fostering connections and showing our true selves—who we are, not just what we do.

“Tottenham, that’s my team,” Gerald Spiro-Gee, who leads hospitality for our London office, told me when I ran into him the other day. “It isn’t about the trophies. It’s the unadulterated moments of joy—that late goal that equalizes the match and you end up hugging random strangers.” And then he enthusiastically shared his story—starting with going to a first match with his father at the age of five. It was personal and generational.

This calls to mind another time and a far different place—the high school hallways in Summerville, South Carolina, where we walked with the late Coach John McKissick, the winningest coach in American football. As students passed classes, a young man spotted the coach and called out, “Next year, I’m playing for you!”

Now tell me, as leaders, isn’t that what we all strive for? No matter the playing field, leading is not just about the what and the how—it’s always about the who. We are all in the people business.

Indeed, that’s who we support.