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The value of centered leadership: McKinsey Global Survey results

The five key capabilities that make up centered leadership—used together—are important predictors of executives’ satisfaction with their leadership performance and their life overall.

October 2010

Over the past six years, McKinsey has developed a map of capabilities we call centered leadership. This concept has five dimensions: meaning, or finding your strengths and putting them to work in the service of a purpose that inspires you; positive framing, or adopting a more constructive way to view your world and convert even difficult situations into opportunities; connecting, or building a stronger sense of community and belonging; engaging, or pursuing opportunities disguised by risk; and energizing, or practicing ways to sustain your energy on a long leadership journey.

We began this work by interviewing female leaders around the world to identify the traits that characterize them.1 In 2008, we began conducting quantitative research with women—and men—to test our findings. When preparing for this year’s effort, we posed two overarching questions: “Is centered leadership as good for men as it appears to be for women?” and “Do all five capabilities matter?” This survey yields a “yes” to both questions. Responses from around the world show just how well this model predicts personal and professional satisfaction for men and women. Notably, the results highlight distinct leadership character-istics found in both sexes that are somewhat different from traditional male traits.

Moreover, this survey underscores the impact when leaders embrace not just one or two but all five dimensions of centered leadership. As our 2009 survey also suggested,2 finding meaning in one’s activities has the strongest impact on general satisfaction with one’s life, but the more dimensions that respondents say they have mastered, the more likely they are to rate themselves highly satisfied with their performance as leaders and with their lives generally.

We asked more than 2,000 executives a series of questions that gave us insight into their mastery of each dimension. In addition, we had respondents rate themselves on performance and leadership at work, as well as indicate how happy they are with their lives in general.3

How centered leadership makes a difference

Originally, we developed the centered-leadership model based on strengths we identified among female leaders.4 This survey, which underlines the work we’ve done since our initial research, shows that men as well as women can master centered leadership holistically and feel successful, in both their work performance and their lives (Exhibit 1).

For our purposes, respondents “master” each dimension when their answers put them in the top 20 percent of overall scores. We were pleased to see men and women in each group. In most dimensions, women do have an edge—their share of the top 20 percent is higher than in the overall pool, suggesting that centered leadership remains geared to women’s strengths (Exhibit 2). The very high share of men who have mastered each dimension shows, however, that centered leadership is about not simply being a woman but also making use of mindsets and behavior often considered feminine, such as being motivated by meaning at work (as opposed to pay or status) and seeking to forge community and collaboration.

Executives’ mastery of centered leadership is related to their self-assessed performance as leaders and their satisfaction with life in general. Four of the five dimensions have a statistically significant positive effect on high scores for leadership and work performance, and each dimension has about equal influence.5 As the number of dimensions that respondents have mastered increases, so does the likelihood they will rate themselves highly in this area (Exhibit 3).

When we look at how respondents assess their general satisfaction, four dimensions matter again; this time, energizing replaces framing. Further, we discovered that finding meaning in one’s activities has the strongest impact on general satisfaction. In fact, meaning is five times more influential than either of the two closest dimensions: energizing and engaging.

As you might expect, some differences exist between men and women—but the differences are slight, and those that are statistically significant appear in only about a third of all the questions asked (Exhibit 4). Women outscore men on 10 of the 11.

The clear message, however, is that all five dimensions are important to how men and women rate their performance as leaders and their satisfaction with life overall. Indeed, the difference in these areas between respondents who have mastered all of an outcome’s relevant dimensions and those who have mastered none is striking (Exhibit 5).

Exhibit 1

Elements of centered leadership

Exhibit 2

Masters of centered leadership

Exhibit 3

Mastering performance and leadership

Exhibit 4

Getting to the same place differently

Exhibit 5

The influence of dimensions

Getting older matters—if you can afford to wait

Age brings skill, as the old saw reminds us. Across the five dimensions of centered leadership, respondents who are older than 50 have higher net scores than any other age group (Exhibit 6). Two other findings, though, are particularly notable. The first is that women’s scores in each dimension tend to improve more than men’s, which fits with our hypothesis that as women mature, they use their strengths more and more (something we focus on teaching future leaders). The second is the slump in energizing felt by men and women in their 30s—possibly a function of raising families just as work responsibilities accelerate. Men feel the bite more than women do, though for both, energizing drops more than any other dimension.

Exhibit 6

How age and sex matter

Looking ahead

This is the third generation of our centered-leadership surveys, and we are still learning, questioning, and validating. We can suggest three areas in which our current research offers implications for organizations of all kinds and in which we are continuing to work ourselves:

  • Centered leadership equips leaders for leading change. Among leaders who have mastered all five dimensions of centered leadership, 92 percent say they have the skills to lead through times of major change (versus 21 percent for those yet to master them). Since most executives are living through particularly turbulent economic times, a focus on centered leadership could benefit leaders significantly.6

  • Big organizations can learn from small ones. Across the board, executives at smaller organizations say they have mastered more dimensions of centered leadership and feel better about their work performance and overall satisfaction. These results suggest that larger organizations have much to learn from small ones on how to attract, motivate, and inspire their employees.

  • Future leaders are most at risk. We have long believed that mastering centered leadership is most important for younger women and men who desire to lead, a belief these numbers underscore. The youngest respondents report the lowest scores in all dimensions except connecting. Given the correlation between higher scores and good outcomes, such as leadership effectiveness and general satisfaction, companies would benefit from undertaking the cultural transformation that centered leadership augurs.

About the authors

Contributors to the development and analysis of this survey include Joanna Barsh, a director in McKinsey’s New York office; Josephine Mogelof, a consultant in the Los Angeles office; and Caroline Webb, a principal in the London office.


The contributors would like to thank Aaron De Smet, a principal in McKinsey’s Houston office; and Johanne Lavoie, a consultant in the Calgary office, for their extraordinary contributions to this work.

About this content

The material on this page draws on the research and experience of McKinsey consultants and other sources. To learn more about our expertise, please visit the Organization Practice.