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How centered leaders achieve extraordinary results

Here is an excerpt from an excellent article co-authored by Joanna Barsh, Josephine Mogelof and Caroline Webb for The McKinsey Quarterly (October 2010). To read the complete arricle, check out other resources, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

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Executives can thrive at work and in life by adopting a leadership model that revolves around finding their strengths and connecting with others.

Source: Organization Practice

For the past six years, we have been on a journey to learn from leaders who are able to find the best in themselves and in turn inspire, engage, and mobilize others, even in the most demanding circumstances. And the business environment has become more demanding: the global financial crisis and subsequent economic downturn have ratcheted up the pressure on leaders already grappling with a world in transformation. More than half of the CEOs we and our colleagues have spoken with in the past year have said that their organization must fundamentally rethink its business model.

Our work can help. We have conducted interviews with more than 140 leaders; analysis of a wide range of academic research in fields as diverse as organizational development, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, positive psychology, and leadership; workshops with hundreds of clients to test our ideas; and global surveys. Through this research, we distilled a set of five capabilities that, in combination, generate high levels of professional performance and life satisfaction. We described this set of capabilities, which we call “centered leadership,” in the Quarterly in 2008 and subsequently in a book, How Remarkable Women Lead.1 Since then, through additional interviews and quantitative research, we’ve continued to validate the model’s applicability to leaders across different regions, cultures, and seniority levels. Better yet, we have confirmed that centered leadership appears equally useful to men. In other words, it is not just for women, but for all leaders in demanding circumstances.

Five capabilities are at the heart of centered leadership: finding meaning in work, converting emotions such as fear or stress into opportunity, leveraging connections and community, acting in the face of risk, and sustaining the energy that is the life force of change. A recent McKinsey global survey of executives shows that leaders who have mastered even one of these skills are twice as likely as those who have mastered none to feel that they can lead through change; masters of all five are more than four times as likely.2 Strikingly, leaders who have mastered all five capabilities are also more than 20 times as likely to say they are satisfied with their performance as leaders and their lives in general (for more on the research, see “The value of centered leadership: McKinsey Global Survey results”).

While such results help make the case for centered leadership, execu-tives seeking to enhance their leadership performance and general satisfaction often find personal stories more tangible. Accordingly, as this article revisits the five dimensions of centered leadership—and their applicability to times of uncertainty, stress, and change—we share the experiences of four men and one woman, all current or former CEOs of major global corporations.

We all recognize leaders who infuse their life and work with a sense of meaning. They convey energy and enthusiasm because the goal is important to them personally, because they are actively enjoying its pursuit, and because their work plays to their strengths. Our survey results show that, of all the dimensions of centered leadership, meaning has a significant impact on satisfaction with both work and life; indeed, its contribution to general life satisfaction is five times more powerful than that of any other dimension.

Whatever the source of meaning (and it can differ dramatically from one person to another), centered leaders often talk about how their purpose appeals to something greater than themselves and the importance of conveying their passion to others (for more on conveying meaning to others, see “Revealing your moment of truth”). Time and again, we heard that sharing meaning to inspire colleagues requires leaders to become great storytellers, touching hearts as well as minds. These skills are particularly applicable for executives leading through major transitions, since it takes strong personal motivation to triumph over the discomfort and fear that accompany change and that can drown out formal corporate messages, which in any event rarely fire the souls of employees and inspire greater achievement.


1 Joanna Barsh, Susie Cranston, and Geoffrey Lewis, How Remarkable Women Lead: The Breakthrough Model for Work and Life, New York: Crown Business Publishing, 2009.

2 The online survey was in the field from July 6 to 16, 2010. It garnered responses from 2,498 executives representing all regions, industries, functional specialties, and tenures. Respondents indicated their level of agreement with statements representing various dimensions of the leadership model. We then aggregated their answers into degrees of mastery of each dimension.

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About the Authors

Joanna Barsh is a director in McKinsey’s New York office, Josephine Mogelof is a consultant in the Los Angeles office, and Caroline Webb is a principal in the London office.

The authors would like to thank Aaron De Smet and Johanne Lavoie for their extraordinary contributions to this work.

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