Joanna Barsh, director emeritus of McKinsey, is on a mission for meaning.
Barsh, who spent three decades with the consulting firm and has led the research on the concept of centred leadership since 2004, posits that finding meaning is the most powerful of five capabilities that together distinguish great leaders from everybody else.
These five traits (meaning, framing, connecting, engaging and energizing) create high-impact, resilient leaders who also are, dare we say, happy. Barsh and Johanne Lavoie, a senior expert in McKinsey’s organisation practice, are the authors of Centered Leadership, a new book of concepts, tools and exercises for leaders.
“We’ve now, for the last five years, been teaching centred leadership in client programmes, and we are holding those in China, India, Australia, the US, the UK and Scandinavia,” among others, Barsh said. Those workshops with rising leaders unearth plenty of obstacles to becoming a high-performing, centred stalwart. Demands include operating across silos with people outside of one’s regular network; making transformative changes in companies; and working globally, all of which require accepting that the world is an exciting but exhausting whir of technology, competitive action and unpredictability, Barsh said.
So what’s one to do? Barsh recommends starting by examining meaning. Centred leadership has three facets.
“The first is understanding happiness, because fulfilment — being the longest-lasting form of happiness — is what we’re focusing on here,” she said.
It also requires a reversal of the perfectionist’s traditional focus on weaknesses or development needs. “If you can overexploit your strengths and everybody does that, you will have very, very powerful teams,” Barsh said. “And if you do that as a company recognising your strengths, you will actually reduce the fear that comes up when the word ‘change’ is voiced.
“The third piece is purpose. This is harder to find. … All human beings tend to look for meaning. Most of us start to think about it when we approach retirement. But more and more the Millennials are starting earlier, saying, ‘What is there to life if I cannot be certain that I will have a job forever or that I will have the style of living that my parents had? I need to find more to life.’ And that’s meaning. That’s purpose. It makes me want to get up in the morning and come to work. It makes me want to work with these colleagues in order to accomplish something. It’s very exciting. It’s definitely more than short-term profits. So it’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about purpose of a company. Yes, companies need to deliver financial performance. … But shareholder value can come from this longer-term reaching our purpose.
“The examples that are given are just so exciting — if you think about the fast turnaround of Starbucks when [CEO] Howard Schultz came back to it; or you look at [US grocer] Whole Foods and its meteoric rise. Even Wal-Mart is working on purpose. It’s not something that only small companies or premium-price, niche companies can do.”