When Pat Dooling died last Sunday, we lost a truly special and beloved member of the Holton community. We are collecting remembrances of Pat from her students and colleagues, and I will use those as the basis of my column next week, after her funeral service this weekend.
For this week’s column, I was researching women in leadership and I came across an article published by the consulting firm McKinsey entitled, “Centered leadership: How talented women thrive: A new approach to leadership can help women become more self-confident and effective business leaders.” [i] This article is interesting for several reasons. Most importantly, perhaps, is the fact that McKinsey believed this a worthy subject. Recognizing that while men and women start their careers with the “same level of intelligence, education, and commitment, . . . comparatively few reach the top echelons,” McKinsey actually sponsored the McKinsey Leadership Project “to learn what drives and sustains successful female leaders.” Secondly, in contrast to much of the literature on women and leadership, this study provides a prescription for women’s success as leaders rather than an identification of the particular qualities women bring to leadership. Finally, I was intrigued by the degree to which their findings incorporated what I had learned myself from positive psychology and the work of Daniel Pink and other influential thinkers. So what did their research conclude?
After interviewing 85 highly successful women who strive to make a difference in the world, as well as reviewing the research, the authors developed “a leadership model comprising five broad and interrelated dimensions: meaning, managing energy, positive framing, connecting and engaging.” Termed “Centered Leadership,” the McKinsey team acknowledges that these “dimensions” would be helpful for men as well, but argues that they serve women particularly well for three reasons. Specifically, they note that women can “opt out” more often than men; the point being, I think, that women whose jobs are unfulfilling are more likely to be able to leave the workforce than most men. Second, despite progress made on this front, women still bear most of the responsibility on the home front for managing the household and taking care of children—according to McKinsey, fully 92 percent of working women still handle childcare and do the cooking. Finally, the McKinsey team asserts that women “tend to experience emotional ups and downs more often and more intensely than most men do.”
There is no question about the “opting out” assumption and, while there is some evidence that household management is being shared more equally, women do still carry the bulk of those responsibilities. As someone who works with girls all the time and who would tell you that the emotional ups and downs of adolescent girls can be extreme (a statement with which the parents of girls that age would certainly agree), I will still admit to bristling a little at the attribution of emotionalism, a characterization that has condemned women for centuries. I think I might rephrase that observation to say that women respond to situations more personally, and they take criticism harder than some men do. In addition, we know that girls are more likely than boys to be motivated by what others think (they care very deeply what their teachers think of them, for example, and they don’t want to disappoint them), and it would be logical that grown women are similar. The McKinsey group uses various lessons from positive psychology to help women even out these ups and downs, and I would agree with the value of positive psychology’s lessons (which I have shared frequently in this column). However, I would argue that they are valuable independent of women’s supposed emotionalism. Anyway, enough editorializing. Let’s look at these five “dimensions” one by one (I will do this over the course of several columns).
Let’s begin with “meaning.” Finding “meaning” in your work seems fairly self-explanatory, but they define it as “finding your strengths and putting them to work in the service of an inspiring purpose.” Actually this definition encompasses two parts: identifying and building on your strengths and pursuing work that you find truly meaningful; I would argue these are not the same necessarily. Finding one’s signature strengths and building on them is a core tenet of positive psychology. The theory is simple: you’ll be happier and more fulfilled if you do things you’re naturally good at. You can go to Professor Martin Seligman’s website and fill out a free questionnaire that will help you identify your signature strengths. Marcus Buckingham has written a number of books to help you with this process including, “Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently.” A job that allows you to capitalize on your own signature strengths will certainly be more satisfying than one that constantly demands qualities that come less naturally to you. Odds are that you’ll be more successful as well. That, I would argue, however, differs from finding meaning in your work.
To me, finding meaning in your work means that you feel that what you do makes a difference, the second part of their definition. As the McKinsey group says, “Without meaning, work is a slog between weekends. With meaning, any job can become a calling.” You might be working on a cause you really care about or you might feel as though you are having an impact on people’s lives—teachers, doctors, nurses, and social workers come to mind. It’s important to recognize, though, that almost any job can be turned into something meaningful by your attitude. The story told in “Fish” about Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market is a great example of this. The employees featured sell fish, a seemingly mundane task, but they do it in a way that “makes the day” of their customers. We can make what we do meaningful through our interactions with others, regardless of the actual job we are doing.
Daniel Pink in “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” argues that “purpose” along with “autonomy” and “mastery,” represent humans’ true motivations. “Purpose” is very akin to “meaning.” Pink observes that “the most deeply motivated people—not to mention those who are most productive and satisfied—hitch their desires to a larger cause than themselves.” [ii] He describes a study by psychologists at the University of Rochester who surveyed students’ goals at graduation and their subsequent life satisfaction. They found that students with “profit goals,” the desire to make a lot of money or become famous, were no better off in satisfaction, self-esteem, or positive affect than when they were undergraduates—even if they achieved their goals. Moreover, they experienced higher levels of anxiety and depression than they had as students. By contrast, those students who had pursued “purpose goals,” “to help others improve their lives, to learn, and to grow,” enjoyed greater satisfaction, self-esteem, and positive affect and lower levels of depression and anxiety than they had in college. As Richard Ryan, one of the researchers observed, “People who are very high in extrinsic goals for wealth are more likely to attain that wealth, but they’re still unhappy.” [iii] Or to put it another way, money isn’t everything.
The researchers at Rochester were studying both men and women, and Pink writes about both genders as well, suggesting that meaning is potentially as important for men as it is for women. So is there a reason to emphasize meaning for women? Because women may feel greater freedom in the jobs they choose, finding meaning may encourage women to stay in the workforce. If they are to assume leadership in any professional capacity, they must continue to work. From this perspective, women who don’t have to continue working will probably be more likely to do so if they find meaning in their jobs and therefore potentially be positioned for leadership positions.
On another level, which the McKinsey paper doesn’t discuss, leadership demands a great deal. It puts one in a public role, subjects one to criticism, and often requires considerable emotional, intellectual and moral energy, not to mention time. While sometimes high compensation and expansive perks accompany leadership positions, they often don’t make up for the personal demands and sacrifices. Meaning, however, can make it all worthwhile. For women, for whom it’s harder to struggle to the top, the value of meaningful work to justify leadership sacrifices may be especially significant.
How important do you think meaning is to work and therefore leadership for women? For men?
[ii] Daniel Pink, "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us" (New York, 2009), 133.
[iii] Pink, 142-43.
Friday April, 13, 2012 at 04:16PM