What enables some talented people to rise to the top and live their full ambitions at work and in life, while others stop short?
No matter what stage you are currently at in your career, or what level of leadership you aspire to, this 30-minute talk will equip you with the tools to unlock your own “Centered Leader” and achieve more positive impact at work and outside it. Listen to the teleclass recording or read the complete transcript below.
In 2007, Joanna Barsh led a team at McKinsey & Company to answer that very question. In the process, they uncovered what distinguishes leaders who are successful from those who achieve true greatness, developing an approach called Centered Leadership. They drew on research from across the academic fields of leadership, organization behavior, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and positive psychology. In addition, Barsh interviewed over 160 leaders from many fields – including business, government and the arts – and from many countries. The team learned that these leaders have mastered practices to find their balance in the midst of chaos and lead from their most resourceful selves, unleashing the potential of others.
Those early in their careers will learn how to use these skills to explore their passions and accelerate their professional development. Those forming families will be able to use them to reconcile work and life to get the most out of both. And those who have already achieved success will be able use these practices to reach their next leadership horizon.
Conferences for Women
Stand Out as a Natural Leader
Guest: Joanna Barsh
Interviewer: Karen Breslau
Karen: Welcome to the Conference for Women teleclass, Stand Out as a Natural Leader. Our guest today is Joanna Barsh, director emeritus of the Leadership Development Program and Mackenzie & Company. Her groundbreaking research on women and leadership anchored the Wall Street Journal’s Women and the Economy Task Force. Joanna’s latest book, “Centered Leadership: A Practical Field Guide for Leading with Positive Impacts, Fulfillment and Resilience,” is based on in-depth video interviews with over 160 men and women leaders around the world.
The book’s personal stories and related insights reveal the magic that happens when five elements of centered leadership, meaning, framing, connecting, engaging and energizing are put to work. In today’s teleclass, we will examine what enables some talented people to rise to the top and live their full ambitions at work and in life while others stop short. We’ll be sharing highlights from today’s call on Twitter. You can follow along, and join the conversation @PennWomen, @TexasWomen, @MassWomen and in California at #LeadOnCA. Joanna Barsh, welcome to the Conference for Women teleclass.
Joanna: Thank you so much. I feel like I’m taking a national tour all at once.
Karen: You are. Let’s start by telling us how you got start with centered leadership. Where did that come from?
Joanna: Yeah. You know, I don’t know if we’re all alike in this but when I hit 50, I woke up one morning, and I realized that my life was perfect, but I felt empty. Even more importantly, I felt invisible at work. I assumed it was because I was missing leadership qualities, which would have allowed me to become a leader at Mackenzie.
Don’t get me wrong; I was a senior partner, married, a couple of kids, great apartment. I liked the work that I was doing, but it wasn’t enough. I started to look. The way I looked based on my own training was to interview women leaders from around the world. My theory was they would be able to share with me what made them tick. I would understand it, bottle it, drink it. If it worked with me, I would share it with everybody, which is essentially what I’ve done.
Karen: Interesting. What is centered leadership exactly?
Joanna: It, actually, is based on a very simple approach, self-awareness of what drives you, puts you at choice. When you’re a choice and you practice new skills and tools and techniques, you’ll get better at having a better experience. In other words, you will be able to lead at your best more of the time. The five pieces that you mentioned earlier are capabilities. When you put these five pieces together, they are exactly what turns a good leader into a great leader.
Karen: We’ll be exploring each of those factors in a few minutes. Before we do that, I was wondering if you could talk about what you learned about women versus men in your research.
Joanna: Yeah. This is an age-old question that a lot of people take pretty extreme views on this. I presumed – you know, I’m about 5-feet tall. I presume that being a woman, one of the first women into a leadership position in the firm as a partner that people just weren’t seeing me because they would come into a room and look for the other men in the room. I was too short to be seen. That’s because I’m a woman. Then, I thought, “Maybe not. Maybe it’s because I have different strengths that I bring to work than the male.” The male is male, if you would.
The research on your brain, on your hormones, on organization behavior, on leadership, on everything you can think of, evolutionary, biology kind of proves that, yes, there are differences between men and women. Actually, what was missing is that women bring many strengths to leadership. Those strengths were not being seen or valued to the level that they should be. By the way, many men bring those same feminine, if you would, archetypes.
Many women bring masculine archetypes because it’s not about, in the end, being a woman on men. It’s about combining the best of both masculine and feminine to lead in the right way at the right moment. What I thought I needed was to get something I didn’t have. A lot of the thoughts were, “Whatever.” Actually, that turns out not to be true. We all have it all. We just need to unlock it. To unlock it, we need to be self aware, and we need to make that choice.
Karen: What are feminine and masculine archetypes of leadership? Could you give a few examples?
Joanna: Sure. Do you know there’s a fellow named John Grisham who wrote the book, The Athena Doctrine? He did a 65,000-person panel around the world. He asked one set of people to name the attributes that they wanted in their leaders. He asked a different set of people to classify those attributes as either masculine or feminine. This is not based on right or wrong. It’s just based on what a lot of people are thinking. What they’ll tell you is that we generally think of masculine attributes like being competitive, aggressive, proud, wanting to win all the time, able to make quick decisions. We think of feminine archetypes as being thoughtful, planning for the future, expressive, creative.
Indeed, you know men who have all those attributes, and you know women who are aggressive and competitive. That’s the difference. It’s just people’s qualification of what these are. You could argue that’s all stereotypes. However, when you put together certain masculine archetypes like taking bolder risks or the ability to deal with conflict in a direct way and you take certain feminine archetypes like looking for meetings and leading some purpose or connecting people up in the community or hearing all voices, you take both of those and put them together and now you have magic. It’s hard for a man or a woman to do both, but it really is possible and it creates a ton of positive energy.
Karen: A lot of research has been done about the importance of meaning at work. What is your definition of meaning?
Joanna: We include three things. Happiness, where does your happiness come from? Strength, not your skills, which you can gain but generally not assure yourself of positive energy but those characteristics that you had as a child that gave you a lot of energy and still would if you’re using them and purpose. If you put those three things together, happiness, strength and purpose, you typically end up doing activities that fill your life with meaning. By the way, it has been proven that you can do any job and find purpose if you look for it in this way, if you start with your strengths.
What I’d love everybody to think about is what were you like as a young child? What activities filled you with energy? As you think about yourself as a young adult, what took your breath away? What basically made you lose track of time? If you think about the last two years at work at a high point for you, what were you doing in that moment? If you put those three periods of your life together and you think about the common threads, chances are you will find strength that you bring to life and to work. If you use that more, even 5-10 minutes more everyday, you’ll unleash more positive energy.
Karen: Inspiring. Let’s continue with the factors and centered leadership. Framing must be the lens you use to see the world, right?
Joanna: Yeah. Most of us hate conflict. A couple of people that you know probably love a good fight. Most of us basically get stuck with the glasses that we’re wearing. We forget that we make assumptions at a fact. That can help us spiral down. It can actually cause what scientists call an ‘amygdala hijack’, which is when your brain feels a threat coming on. In order to protect yourself, it sends adrenaline and cortisol to all your muscles so that you can either attack or run away or freeze and basically not get eaten. It doesn’t realize that emotional danger; they give us the same response as physical danger.
By the way, the amygdala was invented about the time that dinosaurs roamed the land. You can imagine what it’s doing to your body. If you’re in a meeting and you find yourself getting really angry or upset or feeling so hopeless and drained, that’s an amygdala hijack at work. When you shift it, when you’re able to step outside yourself and see the movie without judging yourself, without beating yourself up, you do that by pausing, by taking a big breath and thinking about what you want to create. You can actually shift what is a conflict situation into a learning experience. You do that by stopping, recognizing the physical signs that are happening to you.
I get very hot, and my brain literally stops working. I can now recognize that and say, “Oops, amygdala hijack coming on.” Breathe, and go back to what it is that I’m trying to create here. That helps me focus on the other people in the room. I turn a conflict into learning. You can do the same. You can even do it by saying, “Gosh. Suddenly, the room is heating up. Let’s just slow it down for a moment and just see where everybody’s coming from.” Other people may, in fact, be having an amygdala hijack at the very same time. Pausing, that act of slowing it down literally gives you the chance to reframe, if you choose to.
Karen: When you say, “what do I really want to create here,” you’re talking about a solution to a problem, a plan of action.
Joanna: Yeah. I’ll give you an example. Sometimes, what we really want to create is we want to throttle the other person because they believe something very differently than we believe, and we’re stressed. I walked into a competitive negotiation, and what I really wanted to do deep down was to understand the client’s problems and make sure that our team had all of the fence that we needed to be able to solve it, but we were competing to win the assignment. Another level, I just wanted to win the assignment and get promoted. I stopped thinking about, “Wait a minute. To do a really good job here, we need to understand this client, and we need to help them see that we’re here to solve their problem.” It’s about them, not about me.
Yet, in the moment, when one of the clients asked me a challenging question, I completely went into amygdala hijack. All I could think about is, “I’m going to lose my job. My husband doesn’t love me anymore. My children hate me because I’m a horrible mother.” When you’re having that hijack, everything bad that you’ve been ruminating on comes right back to punch you in the face. It’s not even rational. It’s funny when you think about it, but it happens to all of us.
Going back to saying, “What do I really want to see happen here, to create here,” allows me to remember it’s not about me and whether I’m good or not good in any situation. This is about this client having a worry that he is now expressing in a hostile tone, for sure. Deep down, he’s just worried that we’re not going to do a good job. By the way, we won that study. That hijack was just energy drain, big time.
Karen: Let’s move on to connecting. Is that the same as networking, what we do at the Conference for Women?
Joanna: Yeah. I love the Conference for Women. By the way, I went to the one in Pennsylvania. It was a blast to see all these [passionate 00:13:37] and wonderful people in one room. It’s a little bit different. Networking is a part of connecting, but it’s not the whole thing.
Connecting is built on a base of trust. Think about why you trust somebody, or you don’t trust them. Then, anything that you think about, “That person says one thing and does another. That person doesn’t deliver the document to me when I ask for it, but he promised to do it. That person is constantly criticizing other people so I’m pretty sure that she’s criticizing me when I’m not in the room,” or, “That person, I have no idea where she’s coming from. She’s not an open book,” those are the elements that cause us to trust and not trust.
However, the attribute that you’re thinking about also exists in you. That gives you the idea that in order to establish trust, I can turn the question around and ask, “How could I cause this other person to trust me more? What is it that they need from me? Am I actually deliverance? Am I as aligned as I think I am? Am I being critical of them or self critical in ways that is destroying trust? Am I open about my intention and what I want to make happen? If I do those things, I can build trust.”
Trust then makes it easier to add to your network, and it makes it even easier to turn a network, a group of people who have different causes and different people into a community, which is a group of people who share objectives. You have to have trust in that.
Karen: Understood. Next, you have ‘engaging’. What is that about?
Joanna: For a lot of women, not all but for a lot of women, engaging is the hard part. It’s about speaking it up, standing up at your show. It’s about leaning in and taking action. Action is scary. It’s scary to leave our comfort zone. It’s also exciting. Your life gets a lot more colorful when you take action. We’re not talking about robbing a bank, Thelma and Louise style. We’re just talking about raising your hand for the next assignment or for a job change. We’re talking about speaking up at a meeting with senior people when your opinion is different and ought to be heard, or we’re talking about telling the person on your team that they’re struggling and that you see that, and here’s what they need to do to improve.
All kinds of things make it hard for us to engage. When you think about hope, what do I get if this works out, what do I achieve if I’m totally successful, if I weren’t afraid and I took this step, what becomes passive over us? When you engage with hope, you have enough courage that they fear. Fear is good. Fear tells you that the stakes are high and that there’s danger. Fear without hope is paralyzing, and we don’t want that. What you need to do is think about all those voices in your head. Your fearful voice is the one that’s trying to protect you. You could call that voice, if you want, your ‘critic’ or your ‘protector’.
What about your visionary, the dreamer in you that says, “Wait a minute. If I take this next job, I could have a much bigger impact on the company or on my community. While I might fail, I still will never be able to have an impact without trying.” That’s a visionary. You could have a coach in your head saying, “Come on, Karen. You can do this. When’s the last time you really messed up? Come on. You were 12. Let’s just get out there and do it.” If you hear all those voices, you’ve got balance. That’s the idea here, to turn them all on the loud speaker, listen to them all and then take action. Leave your comfort zone, and turn up the dial.
Karen: Last comes energizing. What does that mean? Is it about the work/life balance?
Joanna: So many people want work/life balance, but no one in a leadership position has shared that they’ve got it. What they do have is a lot of energy. By managing where your energy comes from and where it goes and as you think about your energy in four forces. Obviously, physical, going to the gym, drinking water, sleeping, eating good foods, all of this will give your audience the energy. What about mental energy, working on things that get your curiosity, that leave you feeling alert and focused? Mindful, those [unintelligible 00:18:49] can do that.
What about emotional energy, connecting with people, building relationships and truly getting the heart-filled impact of where you work, and then finally spiritual energy? Even if you’re not religious, you can have that sometimes through mindfulness, sometimes through quiet times and meditating at work, using poetry, looking out the window, looking at art all can give you that kind of energy. Energizing is about taking ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the afternoon. You don’t even have to leave your desk for lunch if you don’t like to.
Taking time to recover, to recognize that you cannot be in high performance all day long, nobody can, it’s not possible, even athletes walk in between running in order to build strength, we, executives, reach recover in order to be in high performance more of the time. That’s the idea. Different things work for different people.
Although, if you want one action, it would be to practice gratitude everyday for a few minutes. Practice thinking about what you’re grateful for today. Do it at work, or do it, if you prefer, at home in the evening. That will begin to create more positive energy as well for you. There’s many, many other chips that people have shared through the workshop. If you don’t practice recovery, then guess what’s going to happen to you. You’re going to drain so far that you will be in burnout, and that’s not a good feeling.
Karen: Tell us a bit about the journey that you’ve been on to master these five capabilities.
Joanna: Sure. You know, it’s not a switch. It’s a little bit like exercising where you get better as you go along. At the same time, it’s so much more refreshing and positive. I started by going to programs that we were teaching. I teach them. I sit I them as a student. I read books that tell me different pieces that I’m looking at here. I do everything I can to bring outside influences on me, and then to use my everyday activity or experiences as a way to grow. I’m going to have a difficult experience tonight. I’m going to sit on a panel to talk about women in Japan.
As an example, I don’t know anything about women in Japan. Yet, there will be experts on that panel. This is a beautiful opportunity for me to face a fear of mine that I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, I’m not knowledgeable enough, and people are not going to take me for real. That’s just a fear. I’m sure I can contribute something if I’m open to learning from the great people who are there.
As an example, every single day something will happen that you can learn from, and you can practice recovery. You can practice your strengths. You can build trust. That’s what I’ve been doing. If you can believe it, for the last six years, of course, it goes up and down. Some days just seem dark, but most days are filled with more energy, more happiness but even more importantly, more positive impacts.
Karen: [Unintelligible 00:22:27] discovery that you could give us an example of?
Joanna: I’m doing new research now on young women and young men. A young man was on the phone with me today. We were talking about fear. It hit me that he and I are alike. He’s a young, African-American, gay man. I am an old, white lady. We share this in common that fear was so strong in our lives that it held us back. I discovered this a couple of years ago. I gave the critic in my head a name.
I don’t know if you know this movie, but I really love The Incredibles. There’s this tiny, little character named ‘Edna’ who’s always right. She’s really mean. She lives inside my head. Edna was holding me back, calling me ‘stupid’, telling me that I was fat. You can’t believe what Edna was doing to me. She was also protecting me, and I didn’t realize it that she was just trying to help.
Once I was able to see that I was allowing fear to rule my life and, therefore, Edna to try to constrain me from getting hurt by the fear, once I let go of all that, Edna quieted down. I began to actually do more interesting stuff. Same ways this young man went through a very low period when he was at his most successful and realized that he would choose to have love instead of fear. By shifting, which takes a lot of work; he was able to find greater peace.
Karen: What is one practice you use that we could all benefit from doing?
Joanna: Here’s a really practical one. You have to admit, at least to yourself, if you use a smartphone to wake up with by your night tables and if you look at your emails the first minute you wake up, if you do that, the best tip I can give you is to actually take that damn thing out of your room, and wake up instead and breathe deeply, and just ask yourself, “What do I want today for and from myself?” That’s what I do.
When I go to a hotel room when I travel, I have my Blackberry sitting right next to me. I resist the temptation, which is really hard, to look at email. I just turn the alarm off and do my thing and start thinking about what I want to make happen that day while I go to the shower, etc. After a cup of coffee, I come back to the emails. The reason you do this, it really, really helps, is that you allow your brain when you are at your most creative even if you’re not a morning person, you allow your brain to have deeper thoughts before you go to task mode, before you start to get stressed out and anxious with all the problems people give you. You can do this. Buy an alarm clock and take the smartphone off the night table. That’s one thing I do, and I really had to work on it.
Karen: What about in the evenings?
Joanna: I do this with my kids, and I’m sure a lot of women do do this. If you don’t – actually, there’s three variations. I started by asking my kids at night and myself, “What are three good things that happened today? What is one not so good thing that happened today,” without judgement. It’s great for children. Some women told me they do this at the dinner table every night. I shifted to something that’s much harder for me, which is I ask myself at night, “What is one new thing I appreciate about myself today?”
I am working on letting go of this striving for perfection. I’m working on letting go of being so self-critical that I can strip away my own happiness. By the way, if you do it to yourself, you’re clearly doing it to everybody around you by focusing on appreciation and self love and actually increasing my capacity to appreciate and love other people, which is working.
Karen: Where are you? You describe this centered leadership as a journey. Where are you in your journey now?
Joanna: It’s funny because – well, maybe it’s like [geejew], it’s not that funny. I did not become a leader at Mackenzie. I just – I didn’t run. In all fairness, I didn’t run an industry. I just built this practice and left firm, retired at 60, which was in 2013. I didn’t even think about what are all these people who’ve either read one of the two books, Centered Leadership, or How Remarkable Women Lead, and I didn’t think about the people who’ve gone on the [unintelligible 00:27:55] and heard me speak or heard a colleague speak about Centered Leadership, but I continued to write and speak and teach.
Now what I’m starting to realize, and a younger woman told this to me two weeks ago, it blew my mind that we are now getting large enough both within Mackenzie and within the world, women are rising up everywhere. Those who have practiced centered leadership, either intuitively or through conscious effort, are beginning to join up and start to make bigger things happen. That’s really exciting to be a part of.
Karen: Interesting. We have time for one last question. That is what kind of leader are you now versus when you started out ten years ago?
Joanna: To be honest, ten years ago, I was the smartest lady in the room. I was really creative. I told everybody, “Nope, nope. That’s not going to work. Here, worry about this idea.” I was really quick to say, “That page doesn’t work. Here, let’s do it this way.” I didn’t even think about my negative impact on everybody around me. They told me. They gave me a lot of feedback, which was painful, which is, “Joanna, your vision is so strong, but you’re wounding us. It’s so hard to work with you. If you could just be softer with us.”
I thought, “What do you mean? My standards are high.” Yet, as Centered Leadership unfolded and I began to be less fearful, to live into my own strengths, to use love more than fear with others and with myself, suddenly I became more fun to be with. I floated above the room. I watched what other people did and only selectively intervened. I told them more jokes. I had a better time.
What I began to notice is that more and more people took on leadership roles. What I was afraid of at the very beginning is that people would take on centered leadership and somehow destroy it. Ten years later, what I realized is people take on centered leadership and it floats. It gets bigger. It gets more powerful, and more and more people are helped. The mission is achieved. What does that do for me personally? It gives me so much energy that at 62, I work harder than I did at 52.
It means that we’re having a greater impact around the world, and that when life knocks me in the teeth, I’m more likely to get back up more quickly. It does knock you down. It’s not a fair game that we’re all playing. Gee, it’s just that much more exciting because I can grow from everything that happens. Now, it’s about my attitude and my willingness to accept and then use what I’m seeing in the world. I’m not taller. I’m not more important. I’m less important than I ever was, but I feel that my mission is being accomplished.
Now I’m working on research for young women, women in their 20s and early 30s with the hope that we can take the tenants of centered leadership and blow it down into actions that younger women can take to accelerate their growth to get more out of life. As I interview them, they’re giving me their recommended actions so I’m real excited about what we’re going to find.
Karen: That is all we have time for today. Thank you so much, Joanna Barsh. The book is Centered Leadership: A Practical Field Guide for Leading with Positive Impacts, Fulfillment and Resistance. Thank you all for joining today.