Tales of trailblazers in business and politics are inspiring, but the authors' "groundbreaking" findings are not
How Remarkable Women Lead: A Breakthrough Model for Work and LifeBy Joanna Barsh and Susie CranstonCrown Business; 355 pp.; $27.50
Avon (AVP) Chairman and CEO Andrea Jung has a plaque she keeps behind her desk that depicts four footprints: that of an ape, a barefoot man, a wingtip shoe, and finally a high heel. It once belonged to her predecessor and mentor, Jim Preston, who told her early on that "one day a woman will run this company—a woman should run this company."
The day Jung became CEO, Preston gave it to her. "The idea is the evolution of leadership," Jung says.
Encapsulating the way notable women rise to success is the stated goal of How Remarkable Women Lead by McKinsey consultants Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston. Besides Jung, the authors interviewed Time Inc. (TWX) Chairman and CEO Ann Moore, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde (page 78), and Xerox (XRX) Chairman Anne Mulcahy, among many others. The book is packed with revealing anecdotes from women in high places.
The stories are often inspiring, but Barsh and Cranston fall short of persuasiveness when they argue that their "Centered Leadership" model is "groundbreaking," as the book-jacket flap claims. And they could have made more of the five years of proprietary research data they promote on the cover. While it's refreshing to see a leadership book directed at women when just 3% of large U.S. corporations are run by them, this one has, at times, a self-help tone that may turn some readers off.
Barsh and Cranston began their research by interviewing more than 100 high-achieving women, mostly in business, academia, and government. They noticed common factors that led to the women's success. After conducting additional surveys and studying academic research, the authors boiled down their findings to five common traits. Top women leaders manage their energy well, find meaning in their work, excel at framing problems and solutions, connect with many colleagues and "sponsors"—mentors in senior positions—and engage deeply in their jobs. Taken together, the authors call this system Centered Leadership and use it for development programs at McKinsey. The book is structured around examples, anecdotes, and tips for achieving Centered Leadership.
Traits such as being energetic and having an ability to find meaning in one's work "lie beyond traditional approaches to management and professional development," write Barsh and Cranston. And while it's true that books on leadership typically stick to topics such as building the right teams, focusing on core strengths, and communicating a clear strategy, the elements in this "model" will feel like common sense to some readers. Those who have read popular management thinkers such as positive-psychology expert Martin Seligman, Claremont Graduate University psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and best-selling "energy management" gurus Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz will also find some of this material familiar. To distinguish their book, the authors could have delved deeper into the similarities and differences between male and female leaders found in their proprietary research. Instead, their extensive data mostly appear in an appendix.
How Remarkable Women Lead is best suited to female managers looking for lessons from others' routes to the top. There's a breath of fresh air in the candor of Axis Bank CEO Shikha Sharma's embarrassing tale of a deputy's jihad-themed sales program when she was at India's ICICI Bank (IBN), which landed her in hot water, and in former Qantas Chairman Margaret Jackson's recounting of a botched interview she gave while in the hospital and on medication. Some revelations are both reassuring and amusing: Ann Moore says "forget perfection and balance!" in recalling her failed attempt to be both a media exec and a producer of homemade baby food.
Still, the book occasionally reads like Chicken Soup for the Female Leader's Soul. In explaining their Centered Leadership concept, Barsh and Cranston tell readers: "Feel the gravity beneath your two feet holding you steady as you stretch to the sky" and are given to such phrases as "Laugh for the fun of it!" and "We're here to help you on your way." Those who can look past such tropes should end up inspired by the truly remarkable women in Remarkable Women. But those looking for surprising secrets of their success are likely to be left wanting more.