Centered leadership creates connection in turbulent times

| Podcast

In this episode of The McKinsey Podcast, Joanna Barsh speaks with Diane Brady about the lessons of centered leadership amid the pandemic. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

Diane Brady: Hello everyone, and welcome to another edition of The McKinsey Podcast. I’m Diane Brady. You are in for a treat today. I’m excited to speak with our guest, Joanna Barsh, who is director emeritus at McKinsey and someone for whom the label leadership guru is justified.

I first met Joanna a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, somewhere in Midtown Manhattan, when she was generating buzz for a book called How Remarkable Women Lead. From there, she led the launch of centered leadership at McKinsey, which spawned a book and programs that have since been adopted worldwide. Joanna continues to help governments and businesses, and we’re very lucky to have her here today to talk about leadership, centered and otherwise. Joanna, welcome.

Joanna Barsh: Thank you. If you heard a guffaw, that was me when you said guru. It makes me think of Yoda. As I age, I’m turning greener and smaller.

Diane Brady: Ha! Remind us what centered leadership is all about.

Joanna Barsh: In a nutshell, centered leadership is mastery of your thoughts, your feelings, and your actions in pursuit of profound change that you’re hoping to enact in the organization or community in which you lead. What that means is to be at your best more of the time, to feel that you’re both grounded but able to get above the fray.

It means that you’re operating from strength. You have a positive framing of the situation. You feel connected to the people around you. You’re fully engaged, both your right and left brain. You’re energized, too, and that energy is contagious to others.

Diane Brady: You started this program, if I recall correctly, for women. What was it that we needed that we weren’t necessarily displaying or internalizing from a leadership point of view?

Joanna Barsh: It goes way back to myself, in the sense that I thought, as a senior partner at McKinsey, that I was missing something very, very big. I couldn’t see what it was. Nobody was pointing it out to me. So I went on a personal journey to interview senior women top leaders from around the world who had what I didn’t have.

I started from that place of assuming that I was missing something and if I found it, I could share it with everybody because it would be of value to others as well. By the time that journey was halfway over in 2007 or ’08, with about 100 women interviewed, I realized that I wasn’t missing anything.

These women leaders were unbelievable. I was in love with every one of them. There was this river of strength flowing through all of the women and over to me. I learned that we’re not missing anything. We can unlock doors to find more of our own potential hidden away within ourselves, and we can choose to share that or not. It’s our choice. Men have the same opportunity as women. It’s not that we are all that different.

Diane Brady: Yes, that’s true. There was a lot of demand, wasn’t there? Weren’t the men sort of lobbying to get in?

Joanna Barsh: Yes. I spent the first five years trying to understand how women and men are different, which sounds ludicrous in 2020. Of course we’re different.

Diane Brady: I can never decide if I’m surprised at how far women have come or disappointed that they—or should I say we—haven’t done better. Where do you stand on that?

Joanna Barsh: I am both hopeful and quite ready to lead the charge to get more, to get it faster, to help more women. I’m hopeful because if you look at the data, we have come very far over the past 20, 30 years, the “we” primarily being white women. The women of color less so, but they’re still making gains.

When you look at today, we’re in a perilous position with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting how many women were able to stay in the workplace and still take care of their kids. We’re also at a point in time where we have to recognize that the world of business has not been fair, and the world at large has not been fair to Black women in particular. So we have to do something, and do it big and bold, starting at the top with leaders.

We have to recognize that the world of business has not been fair, and the world at large has not been fair to Black women in particular.

A complex mission for leaders

Diane Brady: There does seem to be this dearth of leadership or an angst over leadership right now. What do you see going on?

Joanna Barsh: We are in the midst of social unrest in the US, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the ’60s. We have economic uncertainty like crazy, and we have half the country on one side of politics and the other half on the other.

We’re divided in so many fundamental ways that it’s a very difficult and challenging time. Leaders, say, ten years ago, just had to figure out how to get their companies to grow more profits and shareholder returns, pay off the shareholders, and earn a lot of money, and then decide what boat do they want to buy, and on and on.

It was pretty simple compared with today, even though it was crazy with globalization and so many other issues that leaders had to cope with. Today, leaders are drowning in the level of complexity that they face. The only way through it is to let go of the transactional nature that we were all taught in business school and to adopt—it sounds hokey—a more humanist set of practices as a leader to deal with the emotions swirling around us. The fear, the grief, the anger, the outrage, the shame, the guilt, the embarrassment, the humiliation. I could go on. I’m bumming myself out.

Diane Brady: When you go into the corporations around this country and around the world, are you seeing a lot of changes? Are you seeing a wider swath of leaders?

Joanna Barsh: I am, but that could be because the corporations that call me up want something else. They want centered leadership or more of it than perhaps they’ve found on their own. So I am seeing leaders who are much more self-aware than I’d seen in the past, meaning they’re more curious about what they’re feeling, sensing, and observing in the organization.

I’m also seeing people who are open to new ways of doing things. The latest research that I’ve been doing on Black and Latinx men and women who work in line jobs has suggested that we need a radical reset in the organization to enable more of the talent to rise. The leaders I talk to are curious about it, but also willing to try things that maybe they wouldn’t have given a second thought to a couple of years ago.

Diane Brady: What do you think will actually be different if I’m talking to you this time next year, or maybe in two years?

Joanna Barsh: The only thing that will change senior leadership, unless they themselves change, is if they become self-aware of what’s driving them and self-aware of how their behavior affects others. Let’s just take a simple example. You’re trying to hire somebody, and you’re pressured to fill that job very quickly. You also feel pressured to hire the person who meets all of the criteria of the people who used to have that job. You end up with a white guy, and he’s probably fabulous. But the criteria in that job is changing because the world is changing. The future of the job needs a broader set of criteria.

If you were to use a broader set of criteria, you wouldn’t be stuck hiring somebody who looks like the person who was just in the job. You might hire somebody who doesn’t look anything like anyone on that team but who has genuine leadership skills, who has strategic ability to look around the corner, who has a set of interpersonal skills that you didn’t think you needed ten years ago—but you need them now. In that case, you have a much broader talent pool to look at, and you’re going to diversify.

Diane Brady: You don’t think it’s human instinct? I often wonder about “mini-me syndrome”—that instinct to recognize excellence in a form that vaguely resembles yourself.

Joanna Barsh: That’s a real thing. There’s even a term for it: familiarity bias. You hire who you are. It could have worked in a system that’s stable, where you’re not feeling the pressures buffeting the company, the pressures buffeting the social system of the country, and the pressures that your own employees bring.

The one thing that’s really changing is you can’t close your eyes to the fact that your employees want to be heard and are going to push harder today than they would have done ten or 15 years ago. As they push, it’s going to make it a lot less pleasant if you have not developed the capability to hear them.

The evolution of centered leadership

Diane Brady: Has your thinking on centered leadership evolved as you’ve seen it in practice?

Joanna Barsh: It has. The first five or so years that I was working on centered leadership, I worried about whether it would really help people. Then I saw that it was helping people discover their strengths, learn how to shift from a moment of upset to a moment of opportunity.

It was helping people make important connections at work to create sponsors for themselves and others. It was helping people take on new risk, and it was helping people gain clarity around where they get their energy from and where it goes and how to better manage it.

So the people who adopted centered leadership were more resilient. They seemed more fulfilled, more energized, and they were getting promoted, which was a cool outcome. But there were a couple of things that just did not sit right as the world evolved. The first that I was stuck on was this notion of passion. Back in 2004, everybody was talking about passion.

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Diane Brady: Do what you’re passionate about!

Joanna Barsh: Right, follow your heart. I even wrote it in the book. I feel ashamed every time I think about it. Follow your heart. So I’ve learned, and it was a young woman, a millennial, who taught me. I remember her well because she dyed her hair purple and had a visible tattoo. I was curious about the question that she posed because she seemed like such a strongly expressive individual.

She asked, “What do you do if you don’t have passion? What does that mean for you at work?” I didn’t know what to tell her. The pat answer was, “Keep looking for it. It’ll find you, or you’ll find it.” I heard about passion or the lack of it more and more and more after that. I do think that there are a set of circumstances at work and in the community at large where you can be stripped of whatever passion you have. It’s called low-grade depression. A lot of people in America have it today because of COVID-19.

But what do you do if you don’t have passion? I’ve started to grapple with that. A second one, and this one I thanked COVID-19 for, is what do you do when you’re just filled with negative emotions and everybody’s telling you to put a smile on your face, particularly if you’re on Zoom calls all day long: look positive, or else! I’m not feeling positive. I’m feeling upset and ashamed and angry and just powerless, all at the same time. So what do I do?

Let the emotions come out

Diane Brady: Should we express all that on our Zoom calls? I don’t know.

Joanna Barsh: Actually, you should. There’s one company that said, “Start your Zoom calls with not just, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ in which case the only right answer is, ‘Fine,’ or ‘Great,’ but to say, ‘How are you really, really doing today?’” Then shut up and listen. If the person says, “You know, not good,” give them the space and stop yourself from a tendency that we all have to say, “Oh, it’ll get better,” or, “You should be happy because the day is sunny.” We do this to each other all the time. We shame each other into positivity.

Diane Brady: It still seems like a difficult thing for a leader to admit to anxiety, sadness, or all the other emotions that one feels.

Joanna Barsh: That’s right. But I know from everybody, from Brené Brown to Barack Obama, that when leaders show vulnerability, they gain power. People want to follow a leader who opens up a little bit. It’s an element of trust that means if you’re afraid to do it, you’re at least self-aware that you’re afraid.

Then you can go into an introspection around what is it that’s making you afraid and how can you work around that, welcoming the fear, allowing it to settle. It will pass through you because you’ll recognize that it limits you. If you want to connect, if you want to get more out of your people, then you’ve got to show some vulnerability. It is one of the most powerful tools that a leader can use.

If you want to connect, if you want to get more out of your people, then you’ve got to show some vulnerability.

The passion paradox

Diane Brady: You mentioned passion and the fact that we may not need it as much as we think. So what keeps us connected? What keeps our companies vibrant and growing, or whatever success looks like in the next iteration, if we don’t have people who are engaged and passionate about what they’re doing.

Joanna Barsh: We tend to think in black and white. So if you don’t have passion, that must mean that you’re on automatic or perhaps you’re an automaton, a robotic person. That’s not true at all. Putting that aside, you might have a passion for gardening or for playing volleyball after work. It’s not that you’re a passionless person. It’s that you don’t have a passion for looking at spreadsheets all day or sitting in 12 hours of Zoom calls. And that’s OK.

You do have to find a different way to recover your energy because the lack of passion also means lack of energy. Think about passion as, what is it that you value? What is it that just fills you up with positive energy? Can you do a little bit more of that at work? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a task. It could be an interaction with a colleague. I’m having a blast talking to you right now. It’s filling me with energy. I feel passionate about centered leadership, and I like your questions. So I’m having a moment. From here, I might have another Zoom call where something else is happening and I don’t feel it anymore. That is OK.

First, recognize that it’s normal, and then think about skill building. Think about contributions that you’re making to others. Think about what you’re grateful for and appreciative of, regarding yourself, not just of other people. Pretty soon, you’re going to find more energy creeping back into your workday.

You have to focus on it for it to come. You have to invite it in. It doesn’t typically creep on you from behind. Finding the work that you love may take a lifetime to do, and I think the pressure we put on our children to find it at 18 or at 22 or at 26 is just wrong. It takes a long time for some people. I did not know I wanted to be a consultant when I was five, when I was ten, or when I was 26. I just took that job because it was a job I could get.

Diane Brady: Well, it’s not a bad job to get.

Joanna Barsh: I loved it in the end.

Diane Brady: You wrote a book for millennials that I think was inspired by your daughters, if I’m not mistaken. What is unique about that generation that made you feel you had to reframe the message somewhat for them or even give a different message altogether?

Joanna Barsh: I think the world is so much harder today, and we parents and leaders, managers at work, are using the rubric that we grew up with and trying to retrofit it onto these people who are living in a far more global, complex, fast-moving, uncertain world in which they’re unlikely to make it in the way that we made it.

If you look back to—I’m a young baby boomer—that time, we all believed we could do anything. You could do it whenever you wanted. Whenever you stopped taking illegal drugs, you would decide to go back to school and become somebody. You could just make up the job. In a lot of ways, people were creating their futures or believed that they could. That’s really hard to do now, even though entrepreneurship is a very, very strong vector for today’s young people. The challenges that they face, while they seem similar to the ones we faced, are so much greater.

For example, the lack of passion. A lot of people are in jobs that they really don’t like, and they turn around, they get laid off. They see their parents getting laid off and not being able to find work again. That’s scary. What about working for not just a person you don’t like but a person who’s a genuine bully or jerk? Bob Sutton, a professor at Stanford who I adore, wrote a book called The No Asshole Rule book. It should have been required reading for every corporate executive.

Diane Brady: That’s not unique to millennials or Gen Z, where my kids sit, or Gen X, which is my generation.

Joanna Barsh: That’s fair, but the number of jerks has multiplied in the world because jobs have multiplied over the last god-knows-how-many years. None of us were trained to become great managers, and people are really not trained to become great leaders, other than in a few companies that are known for their training, McKinsey being one of them.

I’m proud to have come through the McKinsey training and to have contributed to it. But just imagine being 28 years old, put in charge of a task force that’s global, with 200 people on it whom you’ve never met and never will meet because, of course, you’re not going to be traveling. Suddenly, you have to figure out how to make this brand-new project work and get all of these people to do what you want them to do. It’s a really hard challenge. I don’t think I ever had to do anything like that at 28.

Self-care and the myth of self-made

Diane Brady: For many 28-year-olds, that may sound like a dream job. As things have gotten more nasty, brutish, and short outside the walls and windows of our offices and our homes, is it harder or easier to be a centered leader? What do you do?

Joanna Barsh: One of the things that I’m finding is very helpful is that it’s bringing me back to take care of myself. I am a little bit sick and tired of overused words like self-care. They come from a place of genuine good intention, but I’m not talking about sinking your feet into a bath of cream or whatever. What I am thinking about is the daily practice of setting intention, of practicing appreciation for the day, for yourself, of practicing gratitude. Which sounds so hokey because we’ve seen it now on greeting cards and all over the internet.

Practice three good things every day: What is it about today that struck you, that makes you glad to be alive, that makes you feel love and energy, a presence? That, I think, is very attuned to centered leadership. But there’s another piece of centered leadership that’s quite important.

I’ve always been fond of connecting as one of the five capabilities because I struggled with it for many, many years—to make truly meaningful connections with people who report to me, people I report to, my colleagues at work, my clients. What I’ve seen through my recent research with leaders who happen to be Black or Latinx is that the system fails to make connections with many, many people. And without those connections, it’s practically impossible to succeed.

Diane Brady: Because they’re the only?

Joanna Barsh: Because they’re not helped. We’re all helped, even Benjamin Franklin, who says, “Gee, I’m a self-made man.” His sister helped him, his parents helped him, all his friends helped him. He did not make it on his own.

Diane Brady: The words self-made man, yes, never quite accurate. Everybody needs help.

Joanna Barsh: And connection. Think about all of the people in your work life and in your personal life who are truly helping you in some way, even small. Today, I’ve broken every piece of electronics that I own. It’s very hard to do business without your PC, without a phone that works, et cetera. There are dozens of people at McKinsey who I don’t know who are helping me. Yes, it’s their job, but they don’t have to help me. They could go help somebody else in the hierarchy of who really matters in this world. But they’re helping me, and I’m grateful for it. And it makes me feel good to know that I’m being this supported. So that’s what I mean by centered leadership practice.

Diane Brady: For somebody who travels around the world at almost a breakneck pace, home time might feel good. I’ve seen it with celebrities—not to put you in the same camp as, say, the Kardashians.

Joanna Barsh: That’s a very funny thought.

Diane Brady: Whereas, for someone like me, who perhaps is emblematic of the broader population, it feels isolating. Joanna Barsh: It’s hard.

Be 5 percent braver

Diane Brady: For people who do want to take on bigger leadership roles, it seems in some ways more difficult to do it from your living room, certainly when you’ve got kids, dogs, and everything else running about. What advice do you give to that group, myself included?

Joanna Barsh: There’s this notion that things don’t need to be at the extremes. When you are this constrained situationally, be 5 percent braver in taking risk. You don’t have to be 150 percent braver. Any movement is good because you’ll be learning and growing.

When you are this constrained situationally, be 5 percent braver in taking risk. You don’t have to be 150 percent braver.

If you’ve gotten to a point where you know you’ve stopped learning, you’re in protection mode, which means that you’re afraid. The most important thing to do is to shift out of that into feeling safe and feeling that you have room to grow. How do you do that? This is really tough advice. You welcome fear.

I lived with fear for most of my life, mostly self-imposed. It’s not that I grew up in circumstances where you would say, “Yes, I totally get it, Joanna.” It was all inside my head. Part of centered leadership is calming yourself to get curious about your own fear. How does it serve you, and how does it limit you? When you can see it in that way—that it was trying to help you, but it’s served its time, and it’s now limiting you—then you have the power to be able to move past it.

That’s what you need to do, or anyone needs to do, who says, “I feel isolated, I feel stuck, I feel like I could be doing more, I should be growing, I should be rising, I should be accomplishing.” We are in a very weird time right now. If you’re not accomplishing as much as your life plan on paper says you should, maybe it’s time to put the life plan on the shelf for now and figure out how to have a better time every day.

Begin to explore other parts of yourself and grow in other ways as well. For leaders, this is a very important time to learn how to listen.

There is always a silver lining in any tragedy. I love this guy, David Kessler, who’s a grief counselor. What he says is, “Recognize that you are in the middle of loss, somebody you love has passed away, the life you loved is no longer, and you’ll probably never get it back.”

There are a lot of things to feel grief about. What David writes and says is, “There will be meaning. When you’re ready, you’ll find meaning in the loss. The meaning will take a completely different shape than what you expect it to, but it’s there to be found.” That makes things better. For someone to die senselessly, you can’t find meaning in that. But to carry the spirit of that person on in the actions that you take, well, there’s meaning in that.

Postpandemic avenues of opportunity

Diane Brady: You’ve talked a lot about the individual-leader perspective, but is this reshaping business?

Joanna Barsh: We’re in a time of extraordinary change, and that changes risk–reward a lot. As companies face new stark realities, creativity and innovation are needed at an all-time high. You see companies doing things that are extraordinary. You see human beings coming together to do extraordinary things.

I’m on a public board of a company that got hit because it’s a retailer. When you don’t have stores open, you can’t sell a lot of stuff unless you really invested in e-commerce. Their e-commerce sales went through the roof. It allowed them to see possibilities that they had not seen before. That’s a silver lining. Does it change the brutish reality of store closures? No. But it opens up a new avenue of opportunity. There are lots of other things that will come to a company as a result of suddenly not being able to do business in the old way.

I think that another element, which has its pluses and minuses, is that the population has a louder voice and is using it. The population is outside your door; they’re your employees. They’re also your consumers. They are thinking through things themselves and behaving in new ways. It behooves the company to figure out how to adapt. The guys who do it faster are going to reap some reward from that. I see it in the public marketplace, and I see it from the companies that I’ve been talking to. A wonderful example would be, are you really providing the entertainment that your consumers want to watch and digest?

A lot of entertainment companies, a lot of news companies that were really not diverse at top levels, suddenly got religion and said, “Hey, we have to serve up what people want. For us to know that, we need to have far greater diversity in our ranks. Let’s get that done now. Why wait?” The worst thing to do is to cling to the old. Those companies that cling to old ways are going to lose out in the end, and they should lose out, if you think about it.

Diane Brady: Very true. I think the term I used was nasty, brutish, and short, which I cribbed from Hobbes in philosophy class. All of which, Joanna, you are not.

Joanna Barsh: That’s what life is, so that’s that!

Energizing from home

Joanna Barsh: You know, I think that energizing gets short shrift. I watched that, by the way, from 2004 to 2015. In centered leadership, energizing is one of the five capabilities. People have let it go. It was a badge of courage for you to be an executive who didn’t sleep, who was on planes all the time, who worked to the point of burnout.

But, Zoom can burn us out. You’ve got to be careful that what was good and true before may not be good and true now, just like flexibility. We were all looking forward to working from home. Now that we’ve worked from home all the time, we’re all heading to burnout. Get outside, get up, move around every hour, jump up and down, be silly.

Do something to get your energy back. There are four great ways to get it back. One is physical, and that’s the one we all know about. But think about emotional energy. When you feel isolated, you have to reach out to some people. Think about mental energy. When you’re stuck doing one kind of thing all day long, you’ve got to learn something else that’s interesting to you. And also think about spiritual energy, which I do think about a lot. I get that from being in nature and from appreciating beauty. I don’t know where you’ll get it from. We’re all different, and we need energy.

Diane Brady: Great advice for now and also for later, of course. Thank you very much for joining us, Joanna.

Joanna Barsh: Are we out of time already? I have so much I want to tell you!

Diane Brady: Well, save it for another show. And for those of you who want to hear more and read more, you can go and buy the book. You can also go to, where you will see a lot of Joanna’s work and our work on centered leadership. I’m Diane Brady. Thank you very much for joining us, and have a great day.

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