Last Updated Aug 17, 2010 5:49 PM EDT
Women start careers in business and other professions with the same level of intelligence, education, and commitment as men. Yet comparatively few reach the top echelons.
This gap matters not only because the familiar glass ceiling is unfair, but also because the world has an increasingly urgent need for more leaders. All men and women with the brains, the desire, and the perseverance to lead should be encouraged to fulfill their potential and leave their mark.
With all this in mind, the McKinsey Leadership Project—an initiative to help professional women at McKinsey and elsewhere—set out four years ago to learn what drives and sustains successful female leaders. We wanted to help younger women navigate the paths to leadership and, at the same time, to learn how organizations could get the best out of this talented group.
To that end, we have interviewed more than 85 women around the world (and a few good men) who are successful in diverse fields. Some lead 10,000 people or more, others 5 or even fewer. While the specifics of their lives vary, each one shares the goal of making a difference in the wider world. All were willing to discuss their personal experiences and to provide insights into what it takes to stay the leadership course. We have also studied the academic literature; consulted experts in leadership, psychology, organizational behavior, and biology; and sifted through the experiences of hundreds of colleagues at McKinsey.
From the interviews and other research, we have distilled a leadership model comprising five broad and interrelated dimensions (exhibit): meaning, or finding your strengths and putting them to work in the service of an inspiring purpose; managing energy, or knowing where your energy comes from, where it goes, and what you can do to manage it; positive framing, or adopting a more constructive way to view your world, expand your horizons, and gain the resilience to move ahead even when bad things happen; connecting, or identifying who can help you grow, building stronger relationships, and increasing your sense of belonging; and engaging, or finding your voice, becoming self-reliant and confident by accepting opportunities and the inherent risks they bring, and collaborating with others.
We call this model centered leadership. As the name implies, it's about having a well of physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual strength that drives personal achievement and, in turn, inspires others to follow. What's particularly exciting is that we are starting to discover ways women can actively build the skills to become more self-confident and effective leaders. Centered leadership also works for men, though we have found that the model resonates particularly well with women because we have built it on a foundation of research into their specific needs and experiences.
Centered leadership emphasizes the role of positive emotions. A few characteristics particularly distinguish women from their male counterparts in the workplace. First, women can more often opt out of it than men can. Second, their double burden—motherhood and management—drains energy in a particularly challenging way. Third, they tend to experience emotional ups and downs more often and more intensely than most men do. Given these potentially negative emotions, centered leadership consciously draws on positive psychology, a discipline that seeks to identify what makes healthy people thrive. Although none of the women we interviewed articulated her ideas in precisely those terms, when we dived into the literature and interviewed leading academics, we found strong echoes of what our female leaders had been telling us.
Additional writing by Susie Cranston and Rebecca A. Craske
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