by Gael O’Brien

Leadership journeys often begin by admiring someone else’s leadership style or ability —asking what makes that person successful. Once that process starts, soul searching is unavoidable. How do you stack up to the kind of leader you want to be and what will it take for you to close the gap?

Woman_Man_Director_FeatureIndeed, the reason there are so many studies, books, theories and workshops on leadership is that as long as we are responsible for results, we face huge challenges that require skills and competencies, vision and innovation. At the core, there are questions about our abilities:  How do we learn to listen to, engage, and inspire others to do their best work? How do we lead ourselves through the inevitable obstacles?

Leadership isn’t just about becoming a CEO. According to Joanna Barsh, a director at McKinsey, only about 35 percent of men and 25 percent of women aspire to a top role in a company. However, whatever one’s professional aspiration, leadership skills are likely required.

Acquiring those skills often isn’t easy for men or women, says Barsh, whom I spoke with recently.  But for women who pursue careers in companies, there is the daunting reality that unless you start your own business, a leadership role can be hard to come by.

For example, at Fortune 500 companies, the percent of women executive officers is 14.4 percent, less than 3 percent are CEOs, and women constitute 15 percent of corporate directors. (In Asia, women occupy 1.8 percent of board seats and in Europe, 12 percent.)

Finding Magic

About seven years ago, Barsh began the Leadership Project – which evolved into the Centered Leadership Project — to answer a question important to her: “What made other women so wonderfully successful as leaders?” She figured there was some “magic” that if she could find out for herself and pass on to others, she and other women could go further, have a bigger impact and feel fulfilled.

“Imagine,” she wrote in the introduction of her book, published two years ago, “how many more women would make it to the top because these secrets would help them.” How Remarkable Women Lead: The Breakthrough Model for Work and Life, co-authored with her McKinsey colleague Susie Cranston, will be released in paperback in December with a new forward.

The book was the result of videotaped interviews with 100 women leaders around the world who shared stories about how they looked at life and work: how they found  purpose; the optimism and confidence they express; how they overcame obstacles; their openness to feedback and taking criticism; how they approached their career and unexpected opportunities; how they cultivated a sponsor, connected to others, and brought out others’ talents; how they made things happen for themselves and found their voice, and how they recovered from adversity and restored their energy.

McKinsey’s Living Portraits Video Archive,  gives a flavor of the stories told by women leaders all over the world.

As the McKinsey team looked for answers about why the women interviewed shared certain traits, they took into account, and built off, research done by others on leadership, positive psychology, search for meaning, energy and performance, gender differences, networking and bonding, and risk-taking. They also conducted their own extensive quantitative research on men and women to test their hypotheses about centered leadership. The leadership model that emerged has five dimensions: meaning, framing, connecting, engaging and energizing

I asked Barsh whether what she had learned in the five years of research leading up to the book had enabled her to find the “magic” in her own leadership journey. I was also curious about what had been happening with the concept of centered leadership since  the 2009 book was published.

In the last two years, Barsh indicates she has given 150 speeches and received anecdotal feedback consistent with research findings. She’s the recipient of emails from women saying “you’ve changed my life.” The book’s Facebook page posts ongoing research, information, and comments that support the work of centered leadership and reveals a growing fan population.

So far, McKinsey has offered two several-day programs teaching centered leadership for high-potential women leaders sent by their companies. From last fall to this month, 32 women have participated, of whom 11 have since been promoted, Barsh says.

In addition, 50 more video interviews have been conducted, including 17 with men leaders, and more surveys done of men and women executives which show, she says, that men have as much a chance as women to become a master of centered leadership (scoring in the top 20 percent of four or all five of the dimensions of the leadership model) and feel successful in their work and lives.

Mastering Centered Leadership

The men who develop mastery in centered leadership, Barsh says, are the best sponsors for women leaders. “Often women need somebody to push them; leaving their comfort zone is a lot like skydiving,” she says. “The type of sponsor you need will push you out of the plane. Fine to think it is a good idea to sky dive and get up in the plane, but it is a natural thing to want to hang on and not go out the door,” she adds. “This kind of sponsor pushes you out because he knows you can do it and is on the ground before you and spreads out a safety blanket in case you make a mistake.”

I asked her if that is what men need from sponsors? “Yes,” she says, “a good sponsor does this for men.” The challenge, she adds, is that sponsors tend to sponsor people who look like them; to sponsor someone who doesn’t is uncomfortable.

Yet that support makes the journey to the top more possible.

And what of Barsh’s own journey? She acknowledged she is by nature a pessimistic person. She regularly uses framing and reframing, she says, a technique in positive psychology, pioneered by Martin Seligman and utilized by the successful women leaders she interviewed. She is training herself to be an optimist, understanding and living into her strengths, she says. “I’m a living experiment in centered leadership,” she says.

Barsh is also careful to include enough of the work she loves in furthering centered leadership into the mix of her regular consulting responsibilities which keeps her energy high. She comments that now she feels “in her flow.”

McKinsey is also doing research on how women are held back by culture, environment or policies and practices of a company not adaptive to the reality that women have a lot of responsibilities outside of work if they have families, Barsh says.

About the same time Barsh’s book hit bookstores, the American Association of University Professors’ magazine published “So Few Women Leaders” based on a study at John Hopkins interviewing 27 senior women on their views of root causes why women are underrepresented in academic leadership positions. While not making claims of how representative these issues are and suggesting further study, the issues in the environment creating obstacles for women leaders in academia echo some of McKinsey’s research on corporate environment.

The problem of underrepresentation is further complicated. Recent studies by Mercer on Women’s Leadership Development surveys in U.S. and European companies indicate that around 70 percent of employers surveyed lack a strategy or philosophy for developing women into leadership roles, and around 40 percent don’t have any activities or programs targeted to the developmental needs of women leaders.

In many ways, that’s astonishing – after all, women make up about half the world’s population.  There’s substantial evidence that institutions that put a priority on developing talent from throughout the organization, especially mindful of under-representation of women and minorities in management and top roles, will inevitably create a stronger leadership pool and a stronger company.

So what happens while institutions catch up with where they need to be? The personal journey of leadership continues because it is also about leading oneself, even in environments that may not yet be hospitable. Books like How Remarkable Women Lead (and their valuable research) remind us of the roadmaps that support talented people in coming into their own as leaders- roadmaps that can help us unlock our own growth personally and professionally and accelerate our leadership journey.

Gael OBrien_ID_CropGael O’Brien is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is a thought leader on building leadership, trust, and reputation and writes The Week in Ethics.