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The Power of ‘Centeredness’—Two Renowned CEOs on How to Unlock Your Limitless Leadership Potential

At ConantLeadership’s recent BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit—a biannual, virtual meeting of the top leadership minds across the globe—Jessica Bigazzi Foster (CEO of RHR International and trusted advisor to some of the world’s most influential leaders) spoke with Doug Conant (founder of ConantLeadership, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, and bestselling author of The Blueprint and TouchPoints) about how centeredness is the key to achieving high performance and unlocking your limitless leadership potential.

Enjoy the following tips and takeaways from their conversation in the recap below. You can also watch the recording of their discussion (skip to roughly minute 5 to skip intros and housekeeping).

Stay Centered When the World Pulls You in Different Directions

Today’s leaders are facing lightspeed changes that were unimaginable just a few short decades ago. Social justice reform, the advent of AI, and the current state of global politics have left many leaders feeling anxious and alone as they try to chart a course toward high performance—all while volatility looms.

Foster, who works with some of the world’s most influential boards and C-suite executives, has seen firsthand how tumultuous modern leadership can be. She recalls recently coaching an executive who was experiencing what she described as “empathy fatigue.” The executive felt understandably overwhelmed by the worries of her tens of thousands of employees while simultaneously trying to manage her own distress.

This sense of overwhelm is a plight of many leaders today. And while it may feel right to steep in that anxiety, trying to squash every worry, Foster says it can be a recipe for “misdirection and freneticism.” The harsh reality is: “Change is speeding up, and things are getting more complex, but as a leader, you can’t just go faster. You can’t just be bolder.” Instead, she says, sometimes you need to do the opposite, to find stillness amidst the chaos.

Doug Conant, a 45-plus year leader and former Fortune 500 CEO who’s now devoted his career to teaching the tenets of leadership that works, is on the same page. He speaks with leaders “six out of seven days a week,” and has noticed that their collective anxiety is palpable. He says, “leaders are trying to lead their teams to higher ground while they feel like they don’t have a foundation. They’re on shifting sands.” And they are searching for steadiness. Fortunately, it’s never too late to look at the map and reroute.

Both panelists agree that for leaders to navigate through the mayhem, they must look inward and get authentically anchored in who they are and what they believe. It’s only then that they can model stability to their stakeholders and provide a port in the storm for their organizations. Foster says: “What really inspires people [and] allows them to go out and do hard things is what they call centeredness.” And Conant adds that “centeredness” is what will help leaders “simplify the decision tree down to something that’s actionable,” so no one feels “paralyzed by the world around them.”

“The not doing is sometimes even harder than the doing.”

Three Critical Skills for Centered Leaders

Since being centered holds great power, Conant asks Foster what skills she sees in the CEOs and leaders who are actively practicing centeredness every day. To answer, she shares three critical leadership skills she’s observed.

1. Know the way. Foster says the first skill for centered leadership is creating directional alignment. In other words, find a path and share it with your people: “You really see that sense that [centered leaders] know what mission they’re on . . . No matter how big the company, the need to create that alignment means that everyone’s consistent in the direction they’re headed and where their energy is going.”

Directional alignment is also about discernment. While some ventures or projects have good potential, they may veer too far off course. Foster acknowledges that this strategic selectivity is easier said than done: “The not doing is sometimes even harder than the doing.”

2. Build mental toughness. The second skill Foster sees in actively-centered CEOs is resilience. Think about the hour-by-hour progression of an executive’s day—engaging with employees, making tough calls, speaking with investors. It all requires a balance of confidence and transparency that’s difficult to achieve if you’re not centered in who you are.

Psychologist Melissa Hill describes resilience as the pliable, bouncy outer layer that protects your well-being—the healthy core of who you are. Fittingly, Foster says the ability to bounce back is what helps leaders “get a hold of emotionally driven behavior” and “get to goal-directed behavior” instead.

3. Make people your purpose. The third skill Foster sees in centered CEOs is a “sense of humanity,” e.g., humble, compassionate care for the people in their organization and community. She says that leaders have an incredible opportunity to positively impact people and the bottom line. It’s an opportunity Conant has never taken lightly: “When I was at Campbell, we created this mission of nourishing people’s lives everywhere, every day.” His efforts to re-energize a previously low-engagement culture and strategically improve the company’s market value resulted in cumulative shareholder returns in the top tier of the global food industry. That’s what purpose does. He says, “If you don’t know what to do, you go to the purpose. It’s the default position. You nourish people,” and high performance often follows.

Use Courage to Build a Bridge from Anxiety to Action

Both panelists say that being a centered leader also requires that your organization’s mission and values remain explicit and alive, not vaguely parked in the back of your mind. Make sure they live “front and center as you’re making hard choices,” Foster advises. That way, when external turmoil and challenges inevitably come along, you’re confident and transparent enough to name what you’re dealing with, to lay it all out on the table and ask, in her words: “If we’re living our mission, if we’re living our purpose, then what would we do here? . . . What’s the right thing to do for us, for our shareholders, for our stakeholders?”

Conant builds on the importance of candor. He says that when something feels difficult or awry, leaders must have the courage to broach the subject with the people touched by the issue, and then work through it. He emphasizes calling it like you see it: “You’ve got this anxiety-creating moment, and then the bridge to get to action is to name it.” If leaders expect to build these bridges from anxiety to action time and again, it also requires them to slow down and take a closer look at their own beliefs, purpose, and values—a process outlined in the six steps in Conant’s book, The Blueprint.

Foster also offers the tactical advice to “pause and re-anchor.” This means taking care of yourself first, so you have the necessary energy to take action when it matters most. She says to be disciplined about sleep, nutrition, movement, and time management so that you don’t run yourself ragged. Start small and chip away at it if needed. Otherwise, Foster says, leaders “don’t even have a hope of getting to some of these higher-order things if they can’t figure out how to spend their days,” and manage their capacity.

One tip is to take a minute (or more if you have it) between meetings to process the previous conversation and prepare for the next—a practice that Conant says made him more centered and “well-anchored in the decision-making process” as CEO of Campbell.

“If you don’t know what to do, you go to the purpose.”

Listen from the Bottom Up

To avoid the isolation that sometimes comes with senior leadership, Foster recommends you “listen from the bottom up.” Often, she says, the further you rise, the smaller your circle gets, “until the only voices you hear tend to agree with you.”

Foster says leading by listening is the path out of the echo chamber: “Give permission to others to acknowledge their weaknesses, or their challenges, or the things they need help with, so it creates an entire ecosystem that says, ‘it’s okay for us to not have all the answers.’” Then add to that ecosystem a practice of “repetitive communication” and psychological safety so people know where they stand and how to move forward with the same courage that their leaders model.

Foster gently reminds us that leadership is “iterative” and “experimental.” Once you take her advice to “get comfortable with the process of always evolving,” Conant affirms that, “not only will you find it’s not so hard to lead, you will actually find joy in the journey.” It’s refreshingly true. Leaders at any stage, and in any space, don’t have to go it alone.

Foster leaves this parting wisdom: “Know your purpose. Know your values. Stay tethered to them and return to them often so that you have something to center on.” Then, show others the way too, from a place of centeredness.


Enjoyed these insights?

Watch the full recording of this interview to get more details, including insights from an audience Q&A. You can also access the complete inventory of previous BLUEPRINT Leadership Summit sessions, including illuminating conversations with Brené Brown, Susan Cain, Indra Nooyi, Amy Edmondson, Bill George, Barbara Humpton, and many more.

Vanessa BradfordAbout the author: Vanessa Bradford is a freelance content writer and copywriter, and C3PR’s Content Marketing Director.

(Cover photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash)

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