More Than the Stripes on Our Sleeves

The days of getting power solely from rank are fading fast. Great leadership requires more, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

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

It was an unexpected reaction—encountered for the first time many years ago when I was a newly promoted CEO. The event was a formal dinner in Latin America, and it started late, as was the custom. Three hours later … we were still there.

Not wanting to appear rude to the hosts, I waited for others to leave first. No one did. Finally, as it approached midnight, I mentioned the late hour to a colleague sitting next to me. “No one has gotten up to leave because you haven’t,” the colleague explained.

Then I realized it. When people looked at me, they didn’t see me as just another person. They only saw the CEO—the function.

That’s simply the way it is—people defer to the most senior person in the room.

Today, we all must show that we’re more than just the title, the function, the medal, the uniform, the white coat, the stethoscope…. Yes, such distinctions deserve respect. But far more important than these stripes on the sleeves are the hearts in our chests.

It starts with looking in the mirror. What do we see—hubris or humility? Anyone who hasn’t been humbled over the past 12 months probably never will be. And, if someone is still wearing that pre-pandemic badge of honor—putting a premium on function and what they do over who they are—then it’s high time to take off that medal.

Whether we’re interacting with or leading others, we all need humility—the grace that constantly whispers, “It’s not about you.”

We went to the front lines this week—to one of the many places where the battle of the pandemic is being waged. There we found Sharon Pappas, PhD, RN, chief nursing executive for Emory Healthcare, who leads 7,000 nurses. In the worst of the crisis, it was all hands on deck.

“There is no human alive in this world who can know the answers to everything,” Pappas told us. “Healthcare is too complex for one person—for any one leader—to think they have all the answers.”

To illustrate the point, she described how involving others in her healthcare system became even more important during the pandemic. As the nurse ending the day shift and the nurse beginning the night shift discuss each case, the patient is front and center and always brought into the conversation with a question: “Is there anything we missed?”

“It becomes a dialogue,” Pappas added. “And that’s how relationships are built.”

If anyone understands this, it’s Gen. (Ret.) Lori Robinson, a member of our board of directors, with whom I spoke this week. A four-star general in the U.S. Air Force, she led the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the U.S. Northern Command. “When I was in active duty, and even now when I’m in an official capacity—or I meet someone who I outranked—then I’m General Robinson. Otherwise, I’m just Lori. Most of all, I’m a human being, whether I’m in or out of uniform.”

With moist eyes, Lori shared the story of when she was a Wing Commander of 6,000 servicepeople and a tragedy occurred. On the day of the memorial ceremony, Lori spoke in the morning to comfort the grieving families. “I had tears in my eyes, my voice cracked,” Lori said, her voice faltering as she recalled the intense emotions of that day. “Afterwards, I had to spend an hour alone to collect myself.”

A little later, Lori presided over an entirely different kind of ceremony—this time a promotion. “I needed to express how truly happy I was for this person and the family,” she told me. “They didn’t need to know what else was going on. That did not need to be their worry. It was all about the families—never about me.”

In a period of a few hours, she shifted—from grief and sadness to joy and celebration. And that’s the essence of radically human leadership. We understand that each circumstance is far bigger than ourselves. Sometimes we lead with those stripes on our sleeves, but every time we must move beyond—to connect and console, celebrate and elevate.

The days when leaders are seen as functions—by virtue of their rank, responsibility, and regalia—are fading fast. Our roles simply require more. We need to show who we are as people—with humility, authenticity, and vulnerability. Here are some thoughts:

·  It’s all about our A.C.T.: I’ve always found this to be true of great leaders, whether they are in the uniform of their position—or in the casual clothes of just being themselves. They’re always approachable and keep their focus on others. In other words, there is no difference in how they A.C.T. It’s the first and foundational principle of any interaction: being authentic, making a connection, and giving others a taste of who we are. Leaders must continually demonstrate purpose, meeting everyone—in all places—where they are. Leadership is not about the leader, but it starts with the leader.

·  Leadership (to go): A new CEO held his first town-hall meeting with employees. He charged up to the podium to show that he was the new boss and things were going to change. As the CEO spoke, he noticed a man in the corner who wasn’t paying attention. He had on jeans, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap on backward. The nerve of this guy! The CEO called him out. “How much do you make a week?” The guy shrugged. “About four hundred bucks.” The CEO reached into his pocket, pulled out a thousand dollars in cash, and told the man he was “out of here!” The guy counted the bills with a sly grin all the way to the door. After the meeting, the CEO called one of his senior vice presidents over and said, “I sure made an example of that guy.” “Yeah, he was surprised,” the SVP replied. “By the way, that was the pizza delivery guy who brought us lunch. He certainly appreciated the tip you gave him.” Moral of the story: lead with your function—lose credibility. And that’s a leadership delivery that has to go.

·  Walking in the shoes of others. It goes against everything that people associate with the highest echelons of leadership. As Brené Brown, author and researcher, observed: “The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.” Great leaders, however, are not afraid to let down their guard. It was about ten years ago, and I was strolling down the cobblestones in a small town in Mexico with former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who led his country from 2000 to 2006. We were deep in conversation when President Fox suddenly looked up. I followed his gaze across the street to an elderly woman with a cane, walking slowly and looking around as if she had lost her way. Immediately, President Fox went over to her. The woman did not seem to recognize this tall man as he listened intently, then put his arm around her shoulders and led her in the right direction. He wasn’t running for president—he wasn’t running for anything. Humbly, with great empathy and no ceremony or show, he simply saw the woman and responded to her needs.

Leadership is easy to visualize, but elusive to actualize. The stripes on our sleeves must serve as the bridge of humility—between simply characterizing it and purposefully walking it; not with power but empowerment … of others.