Finding Our Footing

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison urges leaders to periodically evaluate their leadership styles.

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

When I was a kid, basketball season meant one thing—a new set of calluses.

We played in Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers—non-stop … blisters turning into calluses. That was the body’s instinctive response to friction—forming new, hardened tissue over a wound. My loyalty to Converse has remained strong even to this day.

But when it comes to calluses, perhaps that’s exactly what has happened to all of us today. The world has sent so much change our way over the last three years.

As such, it wouldn’t be surprising to develop calluses, slowly shaped and formed. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a kind of self-protection, especially in the workplace that’s morphing before our eyes. To move forward, we need to find our footing.

Case in point: It was a celebratory dinner not long ago. As we talked, one of the daughters in the group who had recently graduated excitedly told us about her new job and experiencing today’s work environment for the first time.

“We’ve got this thing called Throwback Tuesday,” she said.

“Nice, what’s that all about?” someone asked.

“It’s really cool,” she explained enthusiastically. “We all get dressed up and go into the office.”

“Well, actually—that’s called work,” another person quipped. “And I did it for 35 years.”

We all laughed, and pretty soon everyone was sharing. Words and descriptions differed, but that conversation was all about change in this transitory moment—the magnitude of which no one would have predicted even three years ago.

It has impacted everything from strategy and pace to culture and climate.

While this differs from one organization to the next, we do know the key ingredients. First and foremost, it’s the “why” and “what” of what needs to get done. Next is the “how”—people’s perceptions of “what it’s like to work here,” including any factors that impact their ability to excel at their job. Then, it’s up to the leader to continually synthesize it all into three-part harmony.

And then there’s climate—and that’s set by the leader. In fact, our firm’s research has found that up to 70 percent of an organization’s climate can be determined simply by leadership style, and that the best leaders know how to toggle among multiple styles depending on the situation.

After all, leadership today is not about merely surrendering to what’s happening. It’s about what you can change. To do that, we need to shave our calluses once in a while—and that starts with the leader.

But we can’t assume that the answer is just to keep moving faster. After all, mastering a faster pace is about more than mere acceleration. Rather, it’s about moving at the optimal pace, and that starts with knowing when to push pause—even for a moment—to reflect and reset, to embrace this transitory moment.

As our colleague Kevin Cashman, global leader of CEO and Enterprise Leader Development, says, pause holds the creative power to reframe and refresh how we see ourselves—“our challenges, our capacities, our organizations, and missions within a larger context.”

This does not mean slowing down. But it does mean pausing occasionally to reflect and contextualize today’s ever-changing reality.

We reflect. Circumstances change, but do we? Pausing is a psychological process—both conscious and unconscious, as we strive to make meaning—redefining our work, our lives, and even our identities. To do that, we need to reflect. Reflection may likely reveal “you’re not the only one thinking this way … you’re not alone.”

We reset. “There’s a world outside every darkened door,” as the lyricist said. And, as leaders, do we have the courage to open it—to leave behind what we’ve done in the past—whether success or failure? This is not about yesterday—it’s about tomorrow. We need to reset ourselves as leaders at every level … receiving feedback to move ahead. At our firm, we’re doing exactly that with our own leadership team, so we can then continue to shape the journey.

With shifting circumstances, inevitably, a new set of calluses are formed. Indeed, we’ve all got them. The first step starts with each of us—not what is done to us, but what we do with it. Embrace. Reflect. Reset. It's each of us and all of us.