Centered Leadership

Leading with Purpose, Clarity, and Impact

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What enables some talented people to rise to the top and live their full ambitions at work and in life, while others stop short?

 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. With quantitative research, 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. In 2009, Johanne Lavoie joined to lead development of programs that help executives build these capabilities. Their research and development work continues as more and more leaders experience Centered Leadership.

In the business bestseller, How Remarkable Women Lead, Barsh described Centered Leadership’s five capabilities and the research that underpins it. Here, with colleague Johanne Lavoie, Barsh provides a practical, actionable field guide for implementation. 

In Centered Leadership, Barsh and Lavoie will guide you through the Centered Leadership program. You’ll find the interactive tools, exercises, and practices that have helped the men and women participants in Centered Leadership programs gain the skills, courage and confidence to lead.  And, along the way, you’ll read inspiring stories of remarkable men and women leaders who demonstrate the power of  these skills in action. 

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 manage 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. 

No matter what stage you are currently at in your career, or what level of leadership you aspire to, this book will equip you with the tools to unlock your own Centered Leader and achieve more positive impact at work and outside it.


"Centered Leadership is a personal and practical roadmap to taking on the challenge of leadership."

- Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook and author of Lean In

"Many have tried to define the common characteristics of leadership, but few have applied the rigorous, research-based approach that Joanna Barsh takes in Centered Leadership. The result is a book that is both authoritative and actionable."
- Dan Doctoroff, CEO & President of Bloomberg L.P. 

"During in-depth interviews with over 165 men and women, [Barsh] gathered data on thriving and rising at work; she then articulated her new model for thinking about leadership development in two books: How Remarkable Women Lead and the upcoming Centered Leadership. They should be required reading for every young person- man or woman."
-Jessica Bacal, director of the Smith College Wurtele Center for Work and Life and author of Mistakes I Made at Work

"Centered Leadership is the essential leadership guide for our times, as it puts personal development at the center of the corporate leadership endeavor. Here's a program that transforms your work and life balance from a challenge into a strategy."
- Steven Pleshette Murphy, CEO Christie's International PLC

 "Barsh’s voice is original, authoritative, and above all extraordinarily practical regardless of where we are in our leadership journey. I read this book smiling—it’s a rare personal guide for every generation.” -Andrea Jung, former Chairman and CEO, Avon Products

“Many of us in leadership positions tend to think that we instinctively know what it takes to inspire and motivate others. But CENTERED LEADERSHIP opened my eyes to the fact that great leadership is more a science than we realize. Barsh and Lavoie draw on deep research and fieldwork to genuinely help us build our capabilities. “ -Gary E. Knell,  President and CEO, National Geographic Society

The Centered Leadership Project may have begun as an investigation into what makes remarkable women leaders tick, but after reading Barsh’s excellent second book, I have become convinced that she and Lavoie have their fingers on what anyone  - woman or man - can do to become the kind of inspirational leader everyone will want to follow.  -D. Ronald Daniel, Former Managing Partner, McKinsey & Company

"In Centered Leadership Joanna Barsh has given us a highly effective guide to building the more comprehensive, often deeply human, leadership skills that this complex, fast paced era requires."
- Luis Ubinas, former CEO Ford Foundation


Chapter 1

Your Centered Leadership Journey

In which we introduce the program that Fortune 100 companies have been using with success to increase their leadership capacity

In 2009 a combative colleague cornered me to ask, “What makes the leaders you interviewed remarkable? What makes Centered Leadership distinctive? ­What’s your elevator speech?” The tiny voice in my head piled on, Do you even have one, Joanna? I froze. “It’s the Force!” I responded. His eyes rolled, and he walked away, as my inner voice chided, Think you’re ­Obi-­Wan Kenobi? Really? What were you thinking? Oh, dear; I ­wasn’t.

The route to Centered Leadership

That conversation prompted me to think hard about the video interviews and what had drawn me to each remarkable leader. Not everyone had magic, but most did and they weren’t born with it. These were people who saw opportunity everywhere. They exuded positive energy. They understood ­themselves—­their thoughts, feelings, and ­actions—­and they were open to others, welcoming opposition. They were eager to connect; they touched others deeply. They faced big challenges and took personal risks with the confidence that if things ­didn’t work out, they would move on. They bounced back from failures with unstoppable energy. They were driven by purpose; they were a force.

It took years to articulate what my intuition ­understood—­how to explain Centered Leadership in an elevator ride. I was not looking to describe every possible leadership capability or to fully explain leaders. I just wanted to know, in a nutshell, what distinguishes leaders who have a profound and positive impact on us versus other leaders who do a fine but unremarkable job. I was looking for the smallest combination of capabilities that matter.

So ­we—­a team of colleagues and ­experts—­set out to explore. After poring over reams of research in relevant academic fields, we were ready. And when we settled on meaning, framing, connecting, engaging, and energizing as the smallest combination, I felt complete without knowing why on a conscious level.

We tested these dimensions in two worldwide quantitative surveys of executives working in a range of industries and companies. And what we found astounded us.

A small segment of men and women—­about one hundred people—­regularly practiced four or all five of Centered Leadership’s dimensions and reported a high level of leadership effectiveness, a high level of satisfaction at work and at home, and a high level of preparedness for the current challenging environment. My mathematician husband, David, tactfully asked if possibly we had uncovered a random coincidence, but ­here’s the clincher: In contrast, hardly any of the 1,300 men and women who ­didn’t practice any dimension regularly felt that way. My resident skeptic then asked for cause and effect: Did these practices really lead to greater leadership success and personal fulfillment, or was it the other way around? Hundreds of workshops convinced us that the practices made the difference. We observed how individuals practiced Centered Leadership to be their best at work more of the time, to feel more in control of their destiny, and to have a positive effect on those around them.

But it ­doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a journey.

Five parts make a whole

What’s intriguing is that the five dimensions of Centered Leadership work better together than alone. Use just one and you’ll be able to make incremental improvements in your leadership. Use them all in concert, and you’ll have lasting impact. Centered Leadership practices build on and reinforce one another, bringing you the inspiration, motivation, and energy to continue. It is, like life itself, a gestalt. Here is the unifying map, refined since How Remarkable Women Lead.

Since 2008, we have honed the dimensions of Centered Leadership, and Johanne recognized how all of Centered Leadership resides within each dimension:

■Meaning: Still the most powerful factor, meaning is the anchor of Centered Leadership. It begins with happiness: Meaningful engagement offers longest lasting fulfillment; and it taps our core strengths (and gives us energy). By knowing what really matters to us we can discover our purpose, which in turn inspires us to gain conviction, courage, and confidence we may not realize we have. We lead through vision, which helps us reframe challenges as opportunities, connect deeply with the hearts and spirits of others, take on risk, and exude positive energy.

■ Framing: We see the world through invisible frames of our own making. You may think you know yourself, but how ­self-­aware and ­self-­reflective are you in the throes of panic? With practice, we can learn to see ourselves “in the movie” of our own ­lives—­noticing what triggers our emotions and reactive patterns of thoughts and actions. Once we pause, we become aware of our ­fears—­how they serve but also how they limit us. With acceptance we can adapt, choosing to reframe our mind-set or belief, which enables a different behavior to emerge. Choosing our experience in any situation releases a rush of positive energy. Reframing opens a window for us to build on strengths, help others move forward, and see more possibilities, too.

■ Connecting: For some, forging true connection does not feel like real work. Not so! Reciprocity is the currency of work relationships, but genuine trust building turns that transaction into much more. Those who cultivate meaningful community from their networks are able to scale their leadership visions. In particular, ­sponsors—­powerful people who take a risk on ­us—­accelerate our growth. Belonging is a powerful driver of meaning; strong relationships increase our openness to reframing; and, with that support, we take risks and act. This is how Connecting creates energy.

■ Engaging: Presence happens when you align your intention (what you really want to have happen) with your attention (what you choose to focus on) and your emotions (how you experience the moment). That alignment helps you balance fear with hope. Hope shows you the upside of opportunities and challenges, helps you accept the personal risk of acting, and as you do, you become the author of your future. As I leaned into Engaging, I felt enormous ­power—­a scary feeling. That power enables our pursuit of purpose, helps us see more opportunity, draws others to us, and, once again, releases positive energy.

■Energizing: It is disappointing to learn that ­work-­life balance is a myth, but there is a solution: learning to manage our sources and uses of energy so we can work and live more fully. With attention to our bodies, minds, emotional ­well-­being, and spiritual health, we can sustain high performance more of the time, bounce back quicker, and practice recovery when we need it. Energy is the fuel for each dimension, and, at the same time, more energy is released as you unlock each one. Energized leaders and teams build on strengths, pause and reframe in challenging moments, attract and mobilize others, accept risks, and take action!

In practical terms, mastery of these five dimensions enables us to extend our range of choices and actions. Centered Leadership is as much about doing as it is about knowing and being. That helps us become better leaders of teams and organizations: We see more possibilities, handle adversity instead of avoiding it, and transform ourselves to meet complex challenges without easy solutions. Equally powerful for men and women, Centered Leadership works across cultures, across industries, across pretty much everything.

David sees humanity at its best in Centered Leadership’s five-­dimension design. Johanne sees mind-set and behavioral change infused throughout. I feel a force just waiting to ­awaken—­what I thought I had been missing but actually had inside me all the while.

Now that’s what I call an elevator pitch.

The road ahead

You picked up this book for a reason. Something about your professional hopes or aspirations wants your attention. Something about your untapped leadership potential is longing to be heard. Ask ­yourself what that might be. As you read, notice whether you’re ­experiencing the high positive energy of hope, excitement, and joy or the high negative energy of fear, anxiety, and stress. Every now and then, step back to integrate what you are experiencing and learning, discussing your insights with others. How are you changing, and what is changing in you? You are the scientist, but you are also the subject.

Each section on your Centered Leadership journey begins with a chapter explaining the key concepts and their effect on ­me—­your “guinea pig.” Mind you, I put myself out there, showing you the “before” and “after” and how I transformed. ­That’s a pretty vulnerable place to be (just sayin’)! Then, we teach you the specific tools, skills, and practices using Johanne’s exercises that enable you to interact with them, using your real life challenges. We’ve relegated further resources to footnotes so that you can remain in the learning experience. After each “tool kit” chapter, you’ll find stories of remarkable men and women leaders who demonstrate that practice in action. Here is a quick summary (tools, skills, and practices are in italics):

■What you’ll find in Meaning: We’ll help you discover your core strengths and show you how to tap into them in pursuit of your leadership vision. Specifically:

Recognize and use your unique strengths by reflecting on what energizes you and what you value most about yourself.

Dig into what really matters to you through visualizing your far future and using appreciative questions that help you unblock the path to it.

Reflect on your past, your future, and your essence, integrating them to inform discovery of your purpose.

Begin to give voice to your vision for your leadership today.

■ What you’ll find in Framing: We’ll help you recognize the frames through which you are currently experiencing difficult or draining situations. Then we’ll teach you how to use choice to shift your mind-set and broaden your range of behaviors and actions in line with your growth aspirations. Specifically:

Become aware of the fears or unmet needs that get triggered in you, knowing that, through acceptance, you regain your power to choose your actions.

Access your natural ability to pause in the moment of an upset to see yourself and the pattern of how you tend to react.

Make the choice to shift your belief in order to experience new behaviors.

Create your own sustaining practice to help you integrate your desired mind-set and behaviors.

■ What you’ll find in Connecting: We’ll help you learn how to build trust, develop your network strategically, forge a ­close-­knit community, cultivate sponsor relationships, and become an effective sponsor yourself. Specifically:

Build greater trust, creating greater belonging and meaningful relationships.

Develop your desired relationship network and forge communities in service of your leadership vision.

Coach your (potential) sponsors to be more effective in helping you make your vision a reality; pay that forward by learning to be a better sponsor.

■ What you’ll find in Engaging: We’ll help you build or expand your presence to live into your intention, and offer you ways to assess risks and take action to lead positive change in your team or organization. You will:

Align your attention with your intention and emotion, allowing others to see you and hear you more clearly through compelling storytelling.

Enlist hope to balance fear, learning to say no by saying yes first to your priorities and listening to the internal voices that tap into hope.

Build courage to take risks and bolder actions through tools that help you assess risk.

Solicit counsel through a ­“mini-­board” process that increases support and coaching.

■ What you’ll find in Energizing: We’ll help you actively manage your own energy sources and uses to refuel in the short and longer term. Specifically:

Heighten your emotional literacy, recognizing positive and negative emotions and their impact on your energy and your effectiveness in that moment.

Cultivate mindfulness through practices that develop your capacity to reflect and stay present to your experience of the moment.

Build in daily recovery routines to refill your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy during the workday.

Adopt your own sustaining energy practices to renew for the longer term.

Our destination? Positive impact. Fulfillment. Resilience.

Can you think of anything better?

We cannot.


Introducing Your Guides

In which we share our professional and personal context and describe the leadership journey that awaits you

Back in 2008, we knew that Centered Leadership was more than a list of leadership qualities; it was a map of capabilities that people could master with deliberate practice. ­Here’s how we figured that out: We introduced new training to McKinsey colleagues in North America, and before we could catch our breath, word had spread across the globe. Our goal was to train a few hundred, but we trained thousands. I felt part of a wave, and very few things in life beat that. Still, in quiet moments I was nagged by the feeling that our training was missing the mark. We taught people the concepts, sparked flashes of insight, and offered practical tactics, but we did not help people actively build new capabilities. Everyone “got” Centered Leadership but struggled with mastery, including me.

Making Centered Leadership real

I needed help. So I called Scott Keller, a leader in McKinsey’s Organization practice, and said, “Centered Leadership is creating a wave, and ­that’s magical.” So far so good. Then I decided to be vulnerable. “But I don’t know how to design a ­capability-­building program. You know how to do that, Scott, so will you help me?”




Hey! the tiny voice in my head scolded, Now you’ve gone and exposed yourself as a complete fraud. “I don’t know how to design a ­capability-­building program!” What propelled you to ­self-­destruct? Really!

“Scott? Are you there?”


He’s doing ­e-­mails while you’re dyin’ here! I told myself.

Nope. Scott was thinking. He replied, “I’ll introduce you to Johanne Lavoie. She’ll help you with design. She rocks. Hell, yeah, Joanna!” (Scott really likes heavy metal and he draws on those two phrases with regularity to great effect. I never fail to feel the energy.) Johanne had an electrical engineering degree, an MBA, and ten years’ experience in McKinsey Argentina, Brazil, and Canada. She was a coach and facilitator with five years of designing learning programs. Perfect.

This story would end there except for the fact that . . .

Johanne refused on the spot.

Johanne refused a second time, and I became convinced that the story really did end.

Her reason? At the time, Centered Leadership was all about how remarkable women lead, and she did not believe in teaching something different to women. Many of you might think the same: If women have the same potential as men, why should they need special training to lead in the same context? The idea of teaching a new leadership approach in a ­women-­only program was against Johanne’s principles.

So she said no, in no uncertain terms; and we both walked away.

Not so fast.

I was frustrated that senior, male colleagues who attended briefings on Centered Leadership told me they understood it, practiced it, loved ­it—­and then wished me good luck with the women! I remembered “mucho macho” ­Dave’s advice: “The Centered Leadership Project will only be taken seriously if men think it is important.” What made me think that teaching women would be different?

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