Making Believe

Making Believe

by Gary Burnison

Ten, nine, eight, seven … Everyone scattered. Three, two, one … Out went the lights.

The giggles from my children could have led me immediately to their hiding places in the dark—behind the sofa, under the table, in the closet. But I pretended to scan every nook and corner with a flashlight. After all, it was Halloween, and the flashlight game was all about playing make-believe in the dark—until the lights came on and we saw reality.

Flash forward several years to when my family was in Asia. While living temporarily in Shanghai, we went to the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and its famed observation deck—the one with the glass floor. There I was, more than 800 feet in the air, with nothing between me and the ground far below except a couple of inches of glass. I had never been afraid of heights before, but I simply could not move.

As my family walked along, completely unfazed, I had to crawl on my hands and knees. When I finally reached them, we were all having a good laugh at my expense. But I had made my path as I “walked” it—any way I could. There was simply no other option.

As leaders—whether of teams, entire organizations, or only ourselves—we never have the luxury of pretending. We can’t just make believe. We need to inspire others to believe and enable that belief to become reality.

Now, this attitude is more important than ever—especially given the question I’m being asked so often these days: How can we keep up this pace of change? Or, as one executive confided to me recently, “We’ve been so nimble for the past year and a half. But I’m afraid we are slipping back to our old ways—task forces, meetings, less risk-taking, complacency. I’m just not sure how we can keep this going.”
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My response, paradoxical perhaps, is always to ask about their attitude toward failure. What’s the threshold? Is failure embraced as a pathway to learning? Or is it perceived as an impediment to progress? Today, organizations everywhere need to create and sustain climates in which failure is not only tolerated, but also encouraged. How else can we innovate?

As Evelyn Orr, Chief Operating Officer of our Korn Ferry Institute, pointed out to me this week, as we become more comfortable with failure, we also see that it isn’t fatal—and it’s certainly not personal. Too often when we fail at something, we see ourselves as failures. But nothing can be further from the truth. Who we are is not what we do, and failure can often be—and usually is—progress in disguise.

As Michael Jordan famously said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted with the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

We all need a “fail fast, learn faster” attitude in today’s evolving hybrid workscape. The only way to find the answers to the challenges staring us in the face is to believe that we will, indeed, find those connections that we need more than ever—and that together we will create our new reality.

There’s no “Halloween” make-believe—only inspiring belief. Here are some thoughts:

  • Mission first, people always. People face personal fears, every single day. Change, isolation, loneliness, disconnection, feeling inadequate, being overlooked, shame, embarrassment, rejection, being judged, not fitting in, or not being liked. These fears can undermine the basic human need to grow, advance, connect, and feel part of something bigger than ourselves. And, of course, one of the biggest fears of all is fear of failure. None of us want to fail, nor does anyone want to follow a leader who lacks confidence—any more than someone wants to play for a coach who says, “We’re going to lose this game.” It first takes belief—unshakeable—in the mission and the purpose, in others and in ourselves. And, when we authentically believe, others will as well. Believe to achieve.
  • Believe in others. While it starts with us, it’s not about us—none of us can go it alone. It’s how the best teams come together—one person’s strengths compensating for someone else’s weaknesses, and vice versa. We saw this in the early days of the pandemic, when leaders of organizations everywhere had no choice but to trust and empower the people who were on their front lines—those closest to customers, suppliers, and partners. People were empowered. Now, we need to heighten this belief in others. A few years ago, when we started a B2C business, I encouraged the team to “fail and fail fast—just be sure to learn faster.” Week after week, that was the process—trial and error and constant learning. After all, the only real failure is failing to fail.
  • Believe in learning. Only one letter separates can from can’t—and learning bridges that gap. If we want to grow our organizations, we must first improve ourselves and others through learning. In fact, our firm views it as the No. 1 predictor of success—learning agility. It’s the ability and willingness to apply past experiences and lessons learned to new and first-time challenges. Or, as I like to say, it’s knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do. We saw it in action across organizations in the early days of the pandemic when there was freedom to act without fear because everything around us had failed. It was oddly liberating and, as a result, people often thought and acted more like entrepreneurs. Agility transmutes loss into learning as we reframe our experiences and discover the deeper meanings. As Amelia Haynes, a research associate in our Korn Ferry Institute, told me this week, “Even fear and failure become something we can learn from, instead of just hitting us, over and over again.” It’s not the moment of failure that counts—it’s what we do afterward that matters most. To quote the legendary basketball coach, the late John Wooden, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.”

There are no “Halloween Fright Nights” in leadership—no make-believing. Rather, it’s believing—in purpose and in others.



Originally published by Korn Ferry October 31, 2021. Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.

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