On March 18, my second book, Centered Leadership , was published. To bring you up to speed, I led a team at McKinsey & Company to shape this bold new approach to leadership back in 2007, three years into a process of interviewing successful women around the world and scanning new research on leadership, organization behavior, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, gender studies, and positive psychology.
In a nutshell, the five sets of Centered Leadership practices help you manage your thoughts, feelings, and actions to unleash your fullest potential—and the potential of everyone around you. And it works.
Back to the story! On the eve of that occasion, I took a look inside to see if five years of journeying had changed me in any way, good or bad. What I saw in there is the subject of this article, in the hopes that you, too, may consider the journey to Centered Leadership.
We often describe facing fears as pulling back the layers of an onion—a fear onion—to discover what lies at the core. Mine typically starts with being ignored (afraid of not being heard) and moves quickly to fear of rejection and on to the fear of being alone. Invariably, I end up with the mother of all fears—fear of nothingness, of being obliterated, of ceasing to be. I have plenty more to say about fears , but my task at hand is to go the other route—to figure out what’s at stake for me. What is it that I really want for—and of—myself?
You’ve got to love this question. It is one of the hardest I’ve encountered in my practice of Centered Leadership. Putting aside the health and happiness of my children and husband (a very hard thing for most of us to do), I am left with myself. I don’t know about you, but it’s very uncomfortable to sit without work, without something pressing to do, and reflect. Working at extreme jobs provides a terrific excuse. There is no time to reflect! But let’s just say that the question requires deeper reflection, and that’s what we’re going to do. And that is stressful.
Do you know the feeling? The pressure is mounting because I’m the author of a book that is going to use me as Exhibit A to demonstrate the exercises and transformation journey through finding purpose, facing fears, learning to trust, taking risks, and managing energy that unfolds. I’m the one who is most expected to know what I really want. How do you figure out what you really want? That’s a frequently asked question that always stumps me. The answer? Sit with the question. Don’t be so quick to try and answer. Spend some time simply reflecting.
Yoda would have been proud. He might have said that himself!
Meanwhile, I do want to answer that question and share it with you. Turning naturally to fears (it’s my first port of call most days), the onion analogy strikes me as the way to go. Why not peel back the layers of what I want for and of myself until I get to a spot at my core? Here goes.
The first layer is easy. I cannot get the song, “Four Minutes” by Madonna and Justin Timberlake out of my head: “I’m out of time—all I’ve got is four minutes to save the world. You got to get ’em on ‘Ha!’” Not happening, Joanna. Imagining that you can save the world, or save anyone, in four minutes, takes you right to grandiosity without stopping at “Go.” Yes, we all want to make the world a better place, but what do we really want? Better continue to the next layer.
At the next layer down, I’m met by a picture card I chose at a Centered Leadership program in 2012. It portrays an astronaut floating off into dark space. Back then, I knew I was retiring; retiring felt a lot like launching into space, not knowing what I would find and if there would be anything at all out there for me. Is that what I want for and of myself—to be floating in darkness? I thought it would be good for me at the time—getting used to not knowing, to uncertainty, and to floating. Now one year into retirement, I’ve discovered that not working as a McKinsey director does not mean not working—I’m just working in a new role. In many ways, life is so much more eventful and focused on what makes me passionate. Being an astronaut has a lot of upside!
But I’m not ready to stop peeling. Having found relief from the fear of not knowing, I have not yet answered the question. So it is down to the next layer.
There, I imagine the 30,000 women across the world whose lives I’ve touched through speeches and workshops over the last 10 years. I’d like to touch another 10,000 women, connecting them to the global and collective dream of women leaders. Since retirement, I’ve been to Saudi Arabia and Sweden, Singapore and the UK, Hong Kong and California; I’m headed to the Philippines and France and hopefully, Australia. Wherever I go, I see that women are joining the global wave of Centered Leadership—whether they want to lead companies, lead change, or simply be free to make their own way. This dream is a sky filled with light and possibility—not the darkness of outer space. So far, so good. But what message am I bringing them if I struggle with fears regularly, if I lose my sense of self over random and irrational thoughts entering dreams and daydreams unwanted? Who am I to invite others to join the wave? What happens when they join? Am I done? Something tells me—intuition perhaps—that I am not. I come back to the question, and keep peeling with curiosity and kindness.
Layers down, I (re)find the message I misplace when life gets too eventful: Centered Leadership is not about attaining some higher state of perfection—it’s not about perfection at all. Deep down in the onion of what I really want, I find humanity—yours and mine. It is my role—and my deepest desire—to transform in a way that encourages you to grow, too.
Who I am and what I do to grow, to accept and appreciate myself, is the leadership message I want to bring to those 10,000 rising women leaders. Acceptance and appreciation is what I want for myself, too.
There’s a simple exercise we use in Centered Leadership programs to build presence: A woman stands up, walks to the front of the room, faces the rest of us and says, “I am Elizabeth and I am here.” Sounds easy enough, right?
Not at all. The first time through, people giggle or tear up. They wriggle or slump. They speak so quickly or so quietly that you don’t know what they’ve said. It takes a few times at bat for each person to own it: walking with poise, standing tall and filling his or her shoes, pausing to remember intention, connecting with everyone in the room through invisible links, and finally accepting him or herself. It takes at least a few times.
Some of us take years to get there. Reframe that. It’s taken me years to peel the onion. But now, I see that every layer connects to the question of what I want for and of myself:
- I’ve got “Four Minutes” on a loop in my head because it teaches me about presence, connection, clarity of purpose, and energy…
- I am that astronaut headed into a future I do not know, scared silly but also excited and wondrous…
- As I fly through the world, driven to continue as the role model who sees and values, building community, courage, and confidence…
- …to accept ourselves, to appreciate what we bring to this world, and to take our place in it.
Centered Leadership is the mother lode, the program-in-a-book to help all of us continue the journey of self-awareness, choice, and mastery to change ourselves in order to change the world. Whether it succeeds—or not—is not the point.
You are the point. What do you most want for and of yourself? If like me, you are not sure, are you willing to sit with the question, noticing the words and images that come? Because if you are, I make this promise: Your Centered Leadership journey will reveal its next step or two if you stop and reflect.
For me, I am content in the knowledge that what I really want of myself is to be a part of the global community and to continue on my journey of self-acceptance and appreciation.
I am Joanna—and I am here!
Photo courtesy of Fabio Rose .
Director Emeritus at McKinsey & Company, Joanna Barsh is also the best-selling author of How Remarkable Women Lead. She launched Centered Leadership programs in 2008 to help accelerate development of aspiring leaders. Her new book, Centered Leadership, includes the tools, exercises and practices from those programs—along with stories of leaders to encourage you on your own leadership journey.More from this Author