Factors that Sustain Successful Women Leaders

iStock_000006050792XSmall_1_.jpgBy Nicki Gilmour, CEO Evolved People Media (New York City)

Women seek meaning in work while men seek status and pay and that gives women an advantage over men in the workplace.

So declared Joanna Barsh, a director at McKinsey and co-author of the McKinsey report “Centered leadership: How talented women thrive” in a lively keynote speech at the Forté Foundation’s annual corporate best practices conference hosted by Ernst and Young in NY on Tuesday, April 30th.

According to the report, 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 women leaders….It’s about having a well of physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual strength that drives personal achievement and, in turn, inspires others to follow,” says Joanna and her co-authors in the report. More than 85 women where interviewed worldwide. From those interviews a model was created with 5 broad and interrelated dimensions of leadership – Meaning (finding your strengths and putting them to work in the service of an inspiring purpose); Managing Energy (knowing where your energy comes from, where it goes, and what you can do to manage it); Positive Framing (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 (who can help you grow, building stronger relationships, and increasing your sense of belonging) and Engaging (finding your voice, becoming self-reliant and confident by accepting opportunities and the inherent risks they bring, and collaborating with others).

Joanna says that the key is a sense of purpose, coupled with engaging activity, creates “flow”, a sense of being so engaged by activities that you don’t notice the passage of time. Because of the synergy between purpose and an engaging activity, you will be happy and thus be performing at your highest level without burnout.

Similarly, managing one’s energy is extremely important. To figure out what energizes you, Joanna suggests writing a list of things you enjoy doing, are good at, and which are important to you. She recommended taking an online test like the one at to help you identify values and approaches that make you tick. (As an aside, I did the test and the results definitely resonated with me as accurate, with bravery and integrity being my highest traits; launching The Glass Hammer in the world’s worst recession certainly qualifies, I think.)

Being an optimist and focusing on the positive angle of things is essential because all the little anxieties aware can lead to a downward spiral of negative thought Joanna emphasized the need to teach oneself learned optimism. She suggested several ways to do this, including: disputing the negative voice in your head; finding alternative reasons as to why the potentially upsetting event occurred (e.g. the boss had to cut the meeting short because s/he wasn’t feeling well versus because s/he didn’t like your presentation); and doing something entirely different (e.g. going to the gym or to see a movie) to take your mind off the problem because there is a chance that the unconscious side of your brain will come up with a better solution in the end.

Joanna mentioned that men have wide and superficial networks while women have a close and deep network. As connection is essential, Joanna recommends finding not only a mentor but also – perhaps more importantly –a sponsor. In other words, you should find a person with whom you enjoy a comfortable relationship but who would give you the important opportunities and, perhaps, even allow you some room for (controlled) failure from which you can learn.

Finally, it is important for women to step up and volunteer for the important opportunities at work. Joanna recommends finding your voice so you can effectively involve yourself in opportunities and collaborations. She emphasizes that you need to push through the fear of failing that holds you back and raise your hand to take on that project. To challenge the fears, you should identify what exactly you are scared of – is it a financial or reputational risk that you are taking? Give yourself a reality check about what the best and worst case results would be.

According to Joanna, if one follows her suggestions and all five dimensions of leadership are there, one will have more of a presence in the workplace. Additionally, one will have a sense of belonging and the resilience to take one’s career to the next level.

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    Hi. This article is wonderful. I am a certified Energy Leadership coach (, which is a leadership development system measures how efficiently an individual uses their energy and in what areas of his/her life catabolic energy is draining him/her. It is a truly transformational journey and the five dimensions of leadership cited in the article are the foundation for the process.

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    Bettylynn Stoops

    Leadership, management and motivation cannot be shared and authentically expressed in a meaningful way without the 5 qualities outlined above that lead to increased credibility, reliability and trust… imperative to sustain and create a space for integral leadership.

    great article and website!