Saturday, 31 May 2014

Centred Leadership - an interview with Joanna Barsh & Johanne Lavoie

This interview by Ankita Rai, 28 April 2014, with McKinsey & Company's Joanna Barsh and Johanne Lavoie, respectively Director Emeritus and Global Dean of the Centered Leadership programme, has been repeated verbatim from Business Standard's website.

You have used a new term '' in your eponymous book. How is this approach different from the way we understand leadership today?

Barsh: When we shaped this leadership approach in late 2007, we wanted to name it in such a way that people would understand the physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual characteristics of this kind of leader. To me, "centered" means that you are strong in your core (physically), alert and present in the moment (mentally), in balance with others and with yourself (emotionally), and purpose-led (spiritually). Leaders make change happen because they are guiding and encouraging others to bring to life their vision for something better. When they are centered, others will be attracted to them. So 'centered leaders' build community and can harness that in positive ways.

Lavoie: Let's first take the two words separately. Leadership is about creating what is not, but should be, in contrast, about managing what is. This implies influencing new ways of working, thinking and being. Change leaders inspire, challenge the status quo, mobilise people to take personal risks to do things differently, and create new organisational narratives and cultural norms. This ability to lead others starts with the ability to lead oneself. This brings us to the word 'centered'. To what extent am I able to get out of my own comfort zone? To tap into what matters to me, face my fears, shift my own biases and stories to change my own behaviours, create something new and engage others?

Would you go as far as to say that centered leadership actually helps in developing better change agents?

Lavoie: Consider this. A senior vice-president of a global science company leading the implementation of a new operating system wanted to transform the culture from avoidance of conflict to one of constructive challenge to unleash greater learning. As he took his team through Centered Leadership workshops, he became aware that his fear of damaging relationships led him to avoid open feedback, the very thing he wanted to create more of in his organisation.

At the heart of centered leadership lies the ability to cultivate awareness about the sources of meaning, fears, values, needs. We call these mindsets. The more aware one is, the more choice he/she has to integrate new mindsets and influence new ways of doing.

We can all agree that in the corporate world, one of the keys to success is having a mentor that can guide you to avoid the landmines inherent in any large organisation. In your book you speak of who commit to spending time with people, to help accelerate their growth. So what is the basic difference between a mentor and sponsor?

Barsh: Mentors are developers of people, too, but they are different. Mentors do not have to know you well and they may choose to be neutral or even evaluative when it comes to your review. They can be experienced navigators or experts in their fields, or simply able to talk through their career insights with you. On the other hand, sponsors stick out their necks. They create opportunities for your growth and help you 'jump out of the plane' to take that risk. They also advocate for you, often in ways that you cannot do for yourself. A sponsor does not have the time to help more than two or three employees at a time, whereas a mentor can help many more.

Lavoie: A sponsor is someone in position of influence who believes in your strengths and your vision. This may mean connecting you, opening doors, promoting you, giving you an opportunity, providing a safety net if you fall. The best way to create sponsorship is to share your strengths, talk about what you want to create, identify potential sponsors, and make specific requests for support. Giving sponsorship to someone is a very gratifying act. So do not play small to your leadership vision and help your sponsor know how to sponsor you.

You have said that sponsors don't just appear magically. So how can one seek out and cultivate sponsors?

Barsh: Sponsors are more powerful individuals who believe in you and have already done their evaluation. That means you must start by doing good work that gets noticed. So let's assume you do outstanding work. Now you want to build relationships, and that starts with two things: reciprocity and trust. Look around you for the people who benefit from your work and identify what their strengths are, what you can learn from them. Often we disregard the senior people because they have characteristics we do not like, and so we don't think any sponsor exists. Over time, offering help to that person will be noticed. Help can come in the form of ideas, articles of interest, being a 'kind ear' and helping that senior person learn and grow. By the way, sponsors don't always have to be senior or even from your own company. Look to peers who are well-regarded or connected and build early relationships with them. Work relationships can bring friendship. However, keep in mind that sponsors are not friends and it is a work relationship.

Lavoie: I could give you tips and tools but these are of little use if you cultivate limiting mindsets. Start with your leadership vision: what do you want to create more of that matters to you, and plays to your strengths? Then reflect on your network. Do you have the quality and quantity of relationships you really need in service of your vision? Do you have at least one influential sponsorship for you? If not, what is getting in the way? Most of the time, the interferences lie within our own mindsets.

Can you explain the difference with an example or a case that you have come across during the course of your research?

Lavoie: Here is an example. After mapping her network, a public sector leader who was passionate about environmental stewardship in one of our Centered Leadership programme, realised that she had cultivated few deep trusting relationships and lacked influential sponsors. Digging deeper, she became aware that she did not proactively network because she felt bad asking for support. I asked her to put her vision instead of herself at the centre of her map and ask herself what type of network and sponsorship her vision needed. Immediately, she started to identify key stakeholders who ought to be on the map. The answers came naturally. She thought of an influential government official she needed sponsorship from. She searched for him and identified shared interests she could connect with. She contacted the person, set a meeting and engaged in an open conversation. Thus, she created a sponsor. The more she did this, the more comfortable she became in creating relationships and sponsorships in accordance to her visio
  • Reference: Rai, Ankita (28 April 2014). Leadership is about creating what is not...: Joanna Barsh & Johanne Lavoie. Retrieved 28 April 2014 from 


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