The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership

The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership

by Gary Burnison

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For Gary Burnison, CEO of the world’s largest executive search firm, these five simple words perfectly capture the essence of great leadership. There can be no half measures. Complete commitment, total engagement, and a powerful sense of personal responsibility are the criteria for true leadership excellence. It’s



For Gary Burnison, CEO of the world’s largest executive search firm, these five simple words perfectly capture the essence of great leadership. There can be no half measures. Complete commitment, total engagement, and a powerful sense of personal responsibility are the criteria for true leadership excellence. It’s more than a job; it’s a way of life. But how do you get there? In this groundbreaking book, Burnison provides the answer.

As the leader of Korn/Ferry International, Burnison is particularly well qualified to write a guide to effective leadership. On a personal level, he experiences every day what it’s like to be responsible for the lives of others, the careers of his employees, and the expectations of stakeholders. He also deals one-on-one with some of the world’s top leaders.

In The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership, Burnison distills this vast experience into an actionable plan for building world-class leadership skills. You’ll learn how to train your focus on the twelve most critical elements of leadership, so you can

  • Establish your vision and develop a strategy for achieving it
  • Inspire your people to embrace the change you envision
  • Measure the effectiveness of your leadership
  • Build powerful teams that are aligned in purpose and strategy
  • Foresee new opportunities and adjust your course to meet them

Nothing in business or life generates greater personal satisfaction than affecting peoples’ lives in a positive way through excellent leadership. Burnison refers to it as the “eighth wonder of the world.”

The prospect might seem daunting, but Burnison makes it more accessible than you thought possible. He presents a framework based on enduring human truths, which is applicable in every leadership role and arena. All you have to do is apply it with dedication and determination.

You have the ability. Take your first steps to leadership excellence with The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership.

Praise for The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership:

“In The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership, Gary Burnison captures the timeless principles that leaders must possess, beyond intelligence, courage and heart. These essential elements speak to the integrity and authenticity that underscore all effective leadership.”
—Carlos Slim, entrepreneur, Investor, and the world’s richest man

“Only a few good leaders have paused to reflect seriously on being leaders. Xenophon and Ulysses S. Grant did, and now Gary Burnison can be added to the list. This is not a business book. This is a book about the business of life.”
—P.J. O’Rourke, political satirist, journalist, and author

“Gary Burnison has distilled leadership into its essential elements—the absolute truths about leadership that apply in every arena. For those who want to know what leadership is all about, this book has the answers.”
—Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Franklin “Buster” Hagenbeck

“Leadership is the most important ingredient in any successful organization. Gary Burnison explores the essential elements of leadership through conversations with some of the world’s most seasoned and accomplished leaders.”
—Eli Broad, founder of The Broad Foundations, KB Home, and SunAmerica

”Gary Burnison’s wisdom and insight cut straight to the heart of the matter—to the essential elements of any leadership framework. His stories, observations, and conversations with leaders artfully illustrate these principles, applicable to everyone.”
—Vicente Fox, former President of Mexico

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McGraw-Hill Education
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Copyright © 2012 Gary Burnison
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-07-178676-8

Chapter One


Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

By the time you reach the level of senior leader, you have already mastered the technical skills that you need. What you may be missing, however, are the nuances and the seemingly simple truths that get lost in all the noise around how to run an organization. More often than not, a leader's blind spots stem from a lack of these softer skills, which may look very simple, but are deceptively so. There is nothing simple about empowering people so that the decisions they make and the actions they take are in line with the overall values and strategy of the organization. It is not easy to reward your team continuously with praise and acknowledgment of milestones achieved, particularly when you must steer a supertanker of an organization toward an endpoint that is over the horizon.

Leading is less about analytics and decisions, and much more about aligning, motivating, and empowering others to make those decisions. Leading is learning from the past to define the future, inspiring others to move purposefully forward. To lead is to acknowledge the reality of the here and now, while always focusing on tomorrow.

Being a leader, being a CEO, is not just a position; it's a lifestyle choice. It consumes you well beyond the hours and the travel. Inevitably, "work/life" will not always be balanced. The mental and emotional energy required is far more than you'll realize until you're actually in the CEO role. The obvious, but elusive "making others believe" requires you to be "all in." Authenticity will always trump charisma. I have found that the best source of authenticity is belief—that is, your own belief in the organization's mission. To convey that "everything will be okay," the sense that together the team will punch through a small opening in the sky, means allowing others to look into your eyes and see your soul. You must believe.

The lessons from the leadership journey are numerous. I am continually reminded that I'm not simply a messenger of our strategy. I am the message—not only in words, but in demeanor, mannerisms, decisions, behavior, and actions.

Make sure you have a hand on the wheel. Leadership is a contact sport. Read and interpret "between the lines." Empower others, but venture out yourself to listen and learn, to separate perception from reality. Have lofty thoughts, but be grounded, too. Separate what you do from who you are, all the while keeping heroic aspirations and recognizing that leadership, like life, is a journey.

Anchor Yourself in Humility

As a leader, you must have confidence in your own ability and, more important, in your team. But you must never cross the line into cockiness. Often it is a fine line, particularly when you are rallying your team members, helping them to see what is possible and what is within reach. With humility, you are reminded of where you came from and that the future is not guaranteed. You must relentlessly drive performance.

Humility is not about demeaning yourself, shrugging off your accomplishments, or downplaying yourself in any way. Humility means that you know who you are, where you've been, and what you have accomplished to get where you are. With that knowledge, you can get out of your own way and focus on others with the confidence that you can lead, inspire, and guide people—that you can help them to do and become more than their own vision for themselves.

To be a leader is not to compete with anyone else, whether it's your predecessor, a peer, or a role model. You've got to play your own game. I learned this lesson years ago when I played competitive golf. When you're on the course, you don't think about the other players or the gallery watching you. Your focus has to be 100 percent on what matters most, which is the shot you're about to take. The same is true for leaders, who cannot afford to be distracted by outside forces that allow one's ego to get involved. What matters most is the organization—where it is headed and the team's ability to get it there. That's the game that's being played, here and now.

Leadership is taxing and burdensome. It's not the visible stuff—the long hours, travel, pressure, and responsibility. Yes, leadership means working hard—being the first one in and the last one out; going to bed and waking up caring about the organization and its employees. But it's also what goes on behind the scenes that consumes so much emotional energy. You serve as the mirror for everyone else, reflecting optimism and confidence.

Leaders are mirrors for the entire organization. If they are down, the organization will follow. If they reflect brightness, the organization will shine. Leadership is making certain that after every conversation with an employee, the person feels better, more capable, and more willing to stretch than before the conversation began.

* Balance heroics with humility.

* Humility is the grace that constantly whispers, "This is not about you."

* If it is done with sincerity, leadership should be humbling. Your leadership will shine the spotlight on others and what they achieve.

* Leadership is a privilege and a responsibility, not an automatic right. Others must stand on your shoulders.

* Past performance doesn't guarantee future success. Eschew entitlement. As a leader, you have to earn the right to your title every day.

For the Leader, There's No Such Thing as Having a Bad Day

Being a leader means that you don't have the same freedom you once had. Until you have the title, you don't fully comprehend the "all-in" intensity required to be the leader with the final say—what it takes to be CEO. This is the emotional, spiritual part of leadership that you can't learn from anyone else. You can observe it, but you cannot truly experience it until this opportunity and burden are on your shoulders. Only then can you know what it's like to be "on" 24/7.

When I was an operating officer, I was "one of the guys." People viewed me as a person, not as a function, which meant that they spoke their minds to me. Receiving unfiltered feedback was never a problem. Because people viewed me as "Gary," not as a position, I was even allowed to have a bad day once in a while without its affecting the company. That all changed when I became the leader.

Five years ago, I became CEO of Korn/Ferry, a New York Stock Exchange—traded company operating in 40 countries around the world, and the world's largest executive recruiting firm and a leading global provider of talent management solutions. With this position came the responsibility for growth through the "care" of our customers and the "feeding" of our employees, as well as the ultimate accountability to our shareholders for performance. At that point, leadership became all-consuming.

By the time I became CEO, I had presumably developed the requisite technical skills—the ability to strategize, implement, and execute. And I thought I had mastered the soft skills—the ability to shift from individual accomplishment to team performance, from what I do to enabling others to do. But suddenly, I was no longer just myself; I represented the position and, more important, the institution. I noticed that the people around me began reading my mood like tea leaves. Such a change can be disconcerting for any person, but for a leader, it cannot result in isolation.

When I was first promoted to CEO, on several occasions—whether I was in a meeting, giving a speech, or having a phone conversation—people would ask me, "Are you okay?" At first I couldn't figure it out. Then it dawned on me. I had failed to appreciate that equally as important as what I was saying (and perhaps even more important) was how I was saying it. From that moment on, I shifted. I did away with PowerPoints, and I made sure I focused as much on my tone, my attitude, and the energy with which I spoke to and interacted with others as I did on what I had to tell them.

I could not just talk about the mission; I had to exude a steadfast belief in it. No matter how worried I might be about the economy, the stock market, competitive pressures, or a dozen other things, I couldn't show it. My burdens were mine alone. It didn't matter that everyone else's burdens were also mine; it was my job to keep my worries, concerns, and problems to myself.

As the leader, you cannot allow your gray days to show. If you do, others' perceptions of what you're thinking or feeling will become their reality. Pessimism and doubt are simply not an option. No matter what worries or concerns are on your mind, you are always the one who people look to for direction and assurance. Your team needs to know that "we're going to get there," and that a game plan exists to make that belief a reality, particularly when things are not going your way.

Leaders are in the confidence-building business. As the CEO, I was responsible for developing and projecting confidence. Such confidence was not about me personally, but it needed to be in others and the organization, with assuredness of the vision, the journey, the team, and what we could accomplish together. The global financial crisis of 2008—2009 brought this point home to me in a powerful way. We had achieved revenue and profitability levels that set records for the company's 40-year history. Shortly after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in late 2008, however, our industry, like almost every business in the world, experienced a white-knuckle free fall. Clients retrenched, and some global companies went out of business. Cash became king. Our organization was a microcosm of the global economy: we saw a multi-hundred-million-dollar loss of revenue over days.

In the surrounding chaos, we decided to orient our organization toward opportunity, not crisis. This isn't to say that we didn't have to make difficult decisions. We did, but we made these choices immediately and navigated decisively. This is because we had anticipated the problem well in advance, although obviously not the depth of the crisis or the near-collapse of the banking system. However, I had said publicly in September 2007 that an economic downturn was coming. In the ensuing months, we had prepared a contingency plan anchored around opportunity and confidence—preserving the brand and as many jobs as possible, and, equally important, positioning the company for growth as we accelerated out of the economic downturn. When the recession hit, we were ready. We moved the organization from uncertainty to certainty. Even though we asked our employees for personal sacrifices (such as furloughs and pay cuts), we established a tone of confidence in the operating plan, in the destination to which that plan would lead us, and, most important, in our people.

During the crisis, Korn/Ferry completed three strategic acquisitions, launched online and offline marketing initiatives, and added employees in strategic markets, which enabled us to significantly expand our talent management business worldwide. The result has been postrecession growth that has substantially outpaced that of the competition. My confidence in making such moves came from knowing the capability of the people in our organization as well as anticipating a better future. We had saved during the better times so that we would be able to invest during a period of crisis. I have come to appreciate how organizations can make their best strategic, cultural, and operational moves during difficult times.

* To lead is to give, not to receive.

* Seek commonalities among people, not differences. By embracing commonalities, uniqueness can be celebrated.

* Immediately redirect conflict into positive action.

It's Lonely at the Top, but Don't Make It Isolating

The first challenge for any leader is to take charge. Yes, you have a leadership team and several close confidants. But unlike every other job you've had, where there was someone above you making the final decision or having the last word, you're it. Taking charge doesn't mean telling people what to do or what to think, but rather telling them what to think about—in other words, the why as well as your intent, which will have to be carried out many times over. Taking charge also entails finding the balance—mastering the yin and yang of leadership; knowing when to shift between pushing and pulling the team and the organization. For any leader, taking charge means that you don't run things on the basis of consensus or committee. Leadership requires making crisp decisions and explaining your intent so that others can carry it out.

Taking charge requires focus. As the CEO, you have the luxury of knowing that if you don't like something, you can change it. You don't have to accept the explanation that "that's how we've always done things" or "that's just the way it is." The bad news, however, is that changing anything requires time, energy, and resources. So while leadership is not laissez-faire, it is also not change for the sake of change. A great leadership team continually monitors whether it is focused and involved in the real game changers.

Taking charge means setting not only the strategic agenda, but also the length and pace of the runway needed to actualize that agenda. The CEO of a large U.S. company is in the job for an average of five years. Some departures are planned; others are not. The job can be taken away from you at any time; it's not a lifetime appointment. This is why your focus has to be on momentum changers. As the leader, you must recognize that the endpoint of your leadership term is not the endpoint of the organization. You are part of a leadership continuum. Just as you took over from someone else, so a successor will eventually follow you. Your job, therefore, is to be a source of energy and change to grow the organization, as well as to be a steward during the time of your leadership. Your goal should be to elevate and improve the organization and then turn it over to another leader in better shape than it was when you inherited it.

The leadership experience can only be described as a humbling privilege. Yes, there are extrinsic rewards that come with having the corner office with a view, but these are clearly secondary. To stand before the team as the leader—to shine the spotlight on its members and their accomplishments, and to feel that we are truly all in this together—is an indescribable feeling. To lead is to earn the trust of others, to know that when you climb the next mountain, others will be with you.

When you reach the top of the proverbial pyramid, you quickly realize that nobody else is there. You are the one in charge; it's all on your shoulders. The danger is that you can become insulated—even isolated. If you are out of touch, it's easy to get sidetracked by the layers and layers of other constituencies: media, special-interest groups, the critics, the "yes" people, even stockholders. Keep a laser focus on those who matter most: employees and customers. Although others may have a say in your approval rating, these two groups determine your ultimate performance.

To keep from being isolated, stay connected to your close advisors who are able to give you honest feedback, particularly about yourself. Take it as a fact: when most people look at you, they do not see you as a person; you represent the company. When you speak, be measured—your words will be taken literally. They no longer represent your own position; they are the voice of the institution. Only the outliers around you will behave differently. These are the rare people who will tell you things as they really are, who have the courage to give you the "bad news" instead of just telling you what they think you want to hear.

For most people, though, there is no real "freedom of speech" where the leader is concerned because they don't have economic freedom—meaning that they'll always think about their paychecks first. Try to reduce these tendencies. Create a safe environment, with no retribution for people who deliver bad news. Ask questions, listen and learn, and decide—not judge. But don't be naïve; people's desire to sugarcoat and put a spin on things will never be truly eliminated.

Most important, rely on those who remind you that you are not your job, such as your spouse, family, and close friends. Create social outlets for yourself outside of your professional capacity. Maintain a balanced perspective that keeps you in touch with people who know you as a person, not as a job title.


Excerpted from The TWELVE ABSOLUTES of LEADERSHIP by GARY BURNISON Copyright © 2012 by Gary Burnison. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Gary Burnison is Chief Executive Officer of Korn/Ferry International, the world’s largest executive recruiting firm and a leading global provider of talent management solutions. Based in Los Angeles, the firm delivers an array of solutions that help clients to attract, deploy, develop, and reward their talent. Burnison is a regular contributor to CNBC, CNN, Fox Business, and to other international news outlets.

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