What Qualities Make Leaders Successful? Interview with Gary Burnison, CEO Korn/Ferry


The AESC recently caught up with No Fear of Failure author, Gary Burnison, CEO of executive search firm Korn/Ferry, to learn about his inspiration for the book and to delve further into the key qualities needed for successful leadership. No Fear of Failure: Real Stories of How Leaders Deal with Risk and Change profiles twelve distinctive leaders who, in one-on-one interviews, revealed their thoughts on leadership.

What was it, in your experience of dealing with senior management, that prompted you to write this book?

Leadership is all about how you make others feel. When others are motivated and inspired, when they truly grasp the vision and the mission, they can punch through an opening in the sky. My goal in writing this book was to find out how a dozen distinguished leaders in a variety of fields--from business to government to sports to the military--accomplish just that. How do they create excitement, alignment, and possibility by giving people their true heart’s desire--that is, belonging to something that is bigger than themselves?
What common themes did you discover when talking to such different individuals?

The only failure in life is failing to fail. If a person or an organization hasn’t experienced failure, they probably haven’t experienced success. No one wants to fail, of course. But how else are you going to learn the necessary lessons if you don’t try and fail? And, if you let the possibility and even the inevitability of failing from time to time keep you from trying, then you have already failed.
Did you find that the parameters for failure and success were very different between the commercial and non commercial worlds?
Failure means different things to different leaders. For a corporate CEO, failure might mean missing an annual strategic objective, or ultimately their job. For someone like Lt. General Franklin “Buster” Hagenbeck, who led group troops against foreign al-Qaeda on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border immediately following 9/11, failure of a mission means the deaths of soldiers under his command. Among all leaders, it is necessary to be reconciled to the fact that you will fail at times; that occasional failure is part of eventual success. But that doesn’t mean accepting failure without a fight. I’ll never forget what General Hagenbeck said: “I’ve been in a lot of fights. Never on the night before a battle did I sit up with my sergeants and captains and say, ‘Gee, I hope we win tomorrow.’ Losing is just not an option.” Leaders take nothing for granted. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, who emigrated to the United States from India, addressed this with amazing candor when she said, “I have an immigrant mentality, which is that the job can be taken away at any time, so you make sure you earn it every day.” Leaders demand the best of themselves as they lead others to accomplish the mission.
Where does ego and self confidence fit into the equation?

Leadership is all about the other person: how you make that person feel, what he/she believes is possible. Coach John McKissick has led the Summerville, S.C. high school football team since Harry Truman was President - 1952, amassing more wins than anyone else in the sport at any level (576 victories and counting). As he sees it, he does not coach football; he coaches kids. He is a true fisher of men--giving credit to the team for every victory, and holding himself accountable for the losses. To lead others you first need to lead yourself. With self-knowledge, you become a more confident and capable leader who can infuse your team with confidence in their own ability.  Ego, however, is another matter. Leadership is about putting one’s ego aside. It’s simply not about you as the leader. It’s the leader’s job to make sure the team has what it needs--the resources, training, and so forth to be successful. Then the leader steps back and shines the spotlight on the team and its accomplishments.
Is no fear of failure created by a person’s inbuilt qualities or their environment?

First of all, everyone fails. Accepting that fact, that reality, is crucial. In order to have a culture that encourages appropriate risk-taking and truth-telling, the culture cannot be punitive where failure is concerned. Culture has to be allowed to bubble-up, not simply to cascade down. Own it, admit it, learn from it, and move on. People need to know that it’s safe to take calculated risks, to innovate, and launch creative ideas, even though the outcome won’t always be success. Failure is part of the process and the learning curve.
Is it an essential ingredient of leadership and success?

The average tenure of a CEO of an S&P 500 company is shy of seven years. At some point there will be a transition, whether orchestrated by the leader or by someone else. Therefore, leaders need to be resilient, knowing that setbacks can and will happen, which may one day shorten one’s career. As Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, former CEO and President of Nokia, told me, “It’s not about whether it’s fair, or right or wrong, but what is best for the organization.” Leaders can’t let a fear of failure undermine their determination to be both a steward and an enabler, turning the organization over to someone else in better shape than when they inherited it. 
What are some of the other leadership lessons from the book?

One of the fundamental questions about leadership is whether it is in-born or developed? Nature or nurture? Some abilities are in-born--a gift, if you will. However, leadership is learned through experiences, both positive and negative. In fact, leaders never stop learning no matter what level they have attained. Consider Carlos Slim: billionaire entrepreneur and investor who is the richest man in the world. Spending time with him, you can see he is still the scholar and mathematician he was as a young man. Ideas and analyses genuinely engage him. To be an effective leader is to be a lifelong learner--curious, open-minded, and engaged.
What are some other takeaways from your experience of writing the book?

Leadership is a privilege, not a right. To be in the presence of leaders who are greatly admired gives that statement deeper meaning. Great leaders are humble and accessible. They are authentic and genuine; when you look into their eyes, you can see their souls. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox embraced leadership as a calling, a vocation. He described it as having “heroic aspirations” not for only himself, but for the betterment of his country. All leaders must be truly committed to benefiting others--employees, clients, strategic partners, their industry. People who can do that have learned the right to call themselves leaders.

Click here to get more information or purchase the book.



Gary Burnison is the CEO of Korn/Ferry International, global executive search firm and member of the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC).

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