Know yourself. Be attuned to the moment’s insecurities that bring out your dark side. Do the work, get assessed, know your EQ (emotional intelligence), your emotional strengths and weaknesses, and understand what triggers you when stressed and work on it. It’s never too late. I revisit my EQ typology frequently and put the time in to bring light to my dark side.

We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Barbara Spitzer.

Barbara, a dynamic and visionary leader, recently stepped away from her executive position as Managing Director at Accenture to revitalize Two Rivers Partners, LLC (TRP) and serve on corporate boards. Barbara’s extensive work experience in prominent strategy consulting firms led her to launch TRP in 2015.

Unyielding in her commitment to unleashing the power of business for positive change, Barbara is a trusted advisor to boards and C-suite executives, a sought-after advisory board member, and a nonprofit board director. She is dedicated to the organizations she serves, amplifying their purpose and guiding them toward greater influence and financial success.

Barbara opened our discussion proudly announcing that she is now in Chapter 3 of her life and career. Chapter 1 was about emerging from graduate school and finding her footing in business, and Chapter 2 was about rising and growing as a leader and executive. In this new Chapter, Barbara will continue her advisory work, find unique places to explore (Barbara is an avid scuba diver and accomplished underwater photographer), cherish time with her beloved family and friends, and pursue her many philanthropic interests. I asked her if she envisions a Chapter 4, and she said, “Absolutely, there will be a Chapter 4, which is about a long health span (not lifespan) and enjoying the fruits of deeper wisdom and joy that comes with old age.”

Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?

One of Caravaggio’s most notable paintings, “Doubting Thomas,” uses light and darkness to trace Thomas’s transition from cynic to optimist… his change of heart.

I am in the middle of a massive professional and personal pivot, embracing this time with fearlessness and optimism.

When I divorced years ago, my therapist told me, “Look, Barbara, you are in transition; you’re not where you were, and you’re not where you’re going to be. It will be bumpy with ups and downs, questions and confusion, excitement and fear, joy and sadness.” She was right, of course, and I am using her advice to guide me now.

I left my 35-year strategy consulting career in May, serving as a partner for 23 years. It’s been all that my former therapist described. I just launched my business and website, have three proposals in the works, and achieved the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) Directorship Certification®. Talk about bumpy; I’d not taken a four-hour exam in more than half a lifetime ago!

Another significant change in my life is the scattering of my NYC friends. Throughout the 90s until 2020, a dozen or so of us were thick as thieves. We threw big parties, hosted fancy dinners, crawled the bars, and flocked to the latest hot spots. We weathered 9/11 and two major economic calamities. Then poof; during and after the pandemic, nearly all left the city for various reasons. While I am still close to most of them, I am rebuilding dormant friendships and finding new ones. I am planning scuba trips to exotic places — the Solomon Islands in October and Cuba in June — and am traveling to see family and friends. I am actively engaged in two nonprofit boards and several organizations committed to increasing board diversity.

While I thought I’d have my feet up with the book, I am still right here — at my computer — but with much more freedom and personal time. In my growth as a human and a leader, I lean into this idea that transitions are part of the journey, the art of life. We do not always embrace the transitions but can always learn from them.

We all get by with a bit of help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?

It’s interesting how all the great Renaissance masters learned from one another. One artist’s work influenced another’s, and so on.

My answer may not be what you’re going for, but several leaders, not just one, inspire me. While all brought wisdom to my life, there’s no Alpha in the group. No one has it all; no one is a “be-all.” So, I cannot put anyone on a pedestal just to tidy up my answer. Instead, let me double down on what I’ve already said: Every artist, every musician, and every business leader is influenced by a constellation of sages and stars.

Here are a few personas that have emerged in my leadership cohort who comprise my pastiche masterpiece (the New Portrait of Leadership):

  • Leader #1: Fun and Tough. These leaders know how to have fun while driving for results. Fun is one of the most important facets of leadership. That said, fun without progress in business is pointless. These leaders make me laugh, keep it light, and always know where we’re headed.
  • Leader #2: Courageously Transparent: The BS meter works, and while we all want to hear what we want to hear, we also want to be inspired. These leaders filter out the BS when they speak; they tell the truth and remain compassionate.
  • Leader #3: A Leader who Does: This leader stays out of the fray, but they roll up their sleeves and work with the team when the going gets tough. These leaders don’t just sit on a perch and bark orders; they dig in, understand the context, and help.
  • Leader #4: Healthy Ego and Egoless: You don’t get to the top without ego and the confidence and courage to take risks. However, too many get to the top with over-developed and out-of-control egos. The best leaders I know have healthy egos and the ability to do courageous things and practice humility. They take the time to understand the individual and show concern and appreciation. They also know that they are dispensable, a replaceable part of the art. A wise presenter once said, “The cemetery is full of indispensable people.” Yes, it is. Leadership is fleeting and should be an honor, not a right.

In my first job, I worked for a female CEO, and she was powerful, kind, and focused. In my second job, my bosses were none of those things. By the time I hit my third job, I was at the senior level and had few leaders (male or female) who influenced my career. I’d say that the ones who did had the courage to give me difficult to hear but unforgettable feedback, you know, the kind that creates lasting change because it hurts so much.

I don’t love this term, but I have built a ‘followership’ of fantastic talent, rising upward behind me. While that makes me feel great, I know that I come with many flaws and missing pieces.

Like a great painter, a great leader improves their craft over time. The most influential of the bunch know their foibles and idiosyncrasies and try to get a little bit better every day. They model this kind of growth for the rest of us.

Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?

Mistakes? Too many to count. I have been called inspiring, fun, strategic, authentic, and direct. I lack the political and corporate survivalist skills that many others have honed. With me, what you see is what you get. My initials may be BS, but I don’t do BS.

Here’s an early one. I led a large US Department of Defense project in my first job. I was in my 20s, and we did excellent work. After presenting our recommendations, the Surgeon General of the US Airforce said to me, “Well, young lady, I thank you for your tenacity and your team’s great ideas, but we won’t be taking your advice.” The client rejected our recommendations for politics, not for their value. But that comment still sticks with me — not the rejection but being called tenacious by such a senior executive. I don’t think it was a compliment. I was determined, but not in a good way; my team generally saw me as a jerk. I had no idea how to lead others at that young age, so I drove them hard and did not listen. Had I been more attuned to the needs of all stakeholders, including the client’s, might our ideas have landed? I never forgot what the General said and how it made me feel; tenacity is a good quality, but at what cost when we take it too far?

Da Vinci was criticized for his tenacity. Precision drove Da Vinci’s art and drove away many of those who admired him. He expected his students to exhibit determination in their work and go to deliver their best. They struggled to hear this because Da Vinci could be so out of touch with their lives.

As a young leader, I was too much of a driver. I pushed without listening and pointed to goals and objectives without practicing empathy. Even in my last job, some said, “Barbara has sharp elbows” (a phrase that should be erased from business vocabulary). I don’t even know what it means, and when I ask, I never get a good answer. Some people are uncomfortable with strong women, so maybe that was part of it. But I suspect another part of it is my basic personality — a hard driver who doesn’t “suffer fools gladly” and is direct and quick. While some of my mistakes stemmed from my drive, a lot of what gets labeled “sharp elbows” is the passion to move the team and the organization forward. The good news is that I have learned and grown, and I know in my latter years, people enjoyed working with me and felt that they learned from my strategic abilities and compassionate approach.

How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved? What does it mean to be a leader now?

One of the hallmarks of great Renaissance art is how the artists capture mannerisms, facial expressions, and the like. Renaissance art replaced the rigid symmetry of earlier works with expressive, real-life on canvas.

I no longer revere leaders. They are fallible humans, genuine and full of incredible ability and significant liability. But we should embrace our humanity, no? In my formative years, I was deferent to authority, reflecting Army Brat roots in a home with a Lt. Colonel father who served in Viet Nam. There was little confusion about our various roles in my family.

As described, I became jaded and questioned leadership — my own and that of others. Eventually, I refined my understanding of leadership and practiced it. I was asked in a recent interview to define transformational leadership. I shared my “Four I’s” (not ‘four eyes’ but perhaps that’s more apt because leadership to me is more the nerdy facets of life, not the jock or the popular kid angle)

My Four I’s of transformational leadership include: Finding words that inspire, caring for the individual, being intellectually challenging, and pursuing the leadership ideal, that is, walking the talk.

  • Inspirational leadership inspires with a compelling vision, clear goals, and effective communication
  • Individualized leadership happens when leaders genuinely care about people’s needs, offering personalized support and mentorship. Individualized leaders truly care about helping each reach their full potential.
  • Intellectual leadership fosters creativity and critical thinking, encouraging innovation and learning. Intellectual leaders challenge assumptions and encourage their people to test the status quo and explore new ideas.
  • Idealized leadership sets high standards, such as inspiring through actions, earning trust, and respecting and motivating growth

Nowhere in here does it say privileged, demanding, dismissive, or aloof.

Success is as often about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?

Some artists fall on their faces because of an overuse of symbolism. If it takes two paragraphs of text to explain the art, is it good art?

Indeed, some leadership behaviors don’t move the needle on leadership at all.

Micro-managing, specifically not trusting my team or knowing how my words and tone impacted them, is a leadership behavior I had to scrap quickly. It was tough because I believed my overinvolvement in others’ work was the best way to get the job done. When I let go of micromanaging, my world opened up, my time freed up, and people enjoyed working with me much more. I saw new ways of doing things different from my own and realized I did not know better than everyone else.

Looking back, I realize how much of a chore it must have been to work with me. Until the last day of my full-time employment, I worked with plenty of leaders who micromanaged. In a word, it was awful. I felt like my ideas did not matter, mistrusted, and unheard.

What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?

Da Vinci said, “I love those who can smile in trouble, gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection.”

I especially love the final bit: grow brave by reflection. I’ve learned how to be soft and hard all at once. Be kind and be tough. Be supportive and challenging at the same time.

It’s no fun only to be hard, tough, and challenging. It’s even less fun to be soft, kind, and supportive all the time. People want structure, direction, feedback, and guidance; they want to learn and grow, but the soft leader can’t provide that. However, suppose your default position is always the tough leader. In that case, you may not last long unless you’re a star producer since too many organizations still tolerate bullying for top-line results.

Could the best leaders serve at the intersection of sweet and salty and empathetic and firm?

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?

Lazy artists are forgotten artists.

Said another way, “Grow up.” I mean, come on! You’re making the big bucks; you have all these perks and a dozen people buzzing around you to serve your needs. Get over your need for admiration, for the trappings of the office, and the gloss and glory of being seen.

Get to know people, ask them about themselves, be kind, communicate authentically, don’t obfuscate. Do the work. Keep growing. Rise and get better with criticism.

Care more!

Many readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?

Your leadership style — your art — is unique to you. Embrace the best of it; tweak the rest.

Trust yourself. You didn’t get here out of luck. Even if you did, it’s even more vital that you trust yourself. You can rework the mistakes on the canvas later.

Take your time; there is no rush to “prove yourself.” Learn, know people, trust people, and be gentle with yourself.

Toss out the notion of “imposter syndrome.” It’s such a negative internal dialogue — Do you and I’ll do me.

Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now?

A nod to the prolific Michelangelo as I respond to this one. He never stopped growing his ample ability.

  • Give a darn (I would prefer a different ‘d’ word). Indeed, leaders are often responsible more for short-term results and shareholder value (dividends). But increasingly, they are accountable for the long-term and serving the needs of multiple stakeholders — employees, communities, and the planet.
  • Are you familiar with Richard Branson’s The B Team? He wants to unite businesses to thwart the damage we do to the environment and people. That’s giving a darn.
  • Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global is another example. Huffington understands that caring for your people and community should be imperative in every business.
  • Don’t BS. Do not lie, be honest. Get that people can see through the obfuscation. For example, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, one-time director of the World Health Organization, told the world on March 11, 2020, that the novel coronavirus was a pandemic and a grave threat to all of humanity — no sugarcoating — no BS — just the truth.
  • Know yourself. Be attuned to the moment’s insecurities that bring out your dark side. Do the work, get assessed, know your EQ (emotional intelligence), your emotional strengths and weaknesses, and understand what triggers you when stressed and work on it. It’s never too late. I revisit my EQ typology frequently and put the time in to bring light to my dark side. Here is one of my favorite quick, free quizzes.
  • Be anti-verbose. Use fewer words to say more. Be brief, short emails, short meetings. Cut to the chase, value people’s time. Grab a copy of “Smart Brevity,” and tidy up your communication.
  • Nurture culture. There is much talk about culture, but it goes out the window when the going gets tough. I once worked at a place that had the best culture. I loved the people and made many friends (who are still friends). But the culture tanked when the economy soured, and the fat trimming started. All the buzz about “we care, be yourself, you belong, you matter” was replaced by “what have you done for us lately?” This experience felt like being painted into Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” (a convivial and serene scene), and suddenly “The Scream” by Edvard Munch appears. That’s how I describe the culture shift at this organization, devolving from a peaceful existence to existential angst. It takes years to build culture and hours to destroy it. It took a generation of new leaders to rebuild. Yes, that’s dramatic, but doesn’t art help us express ourselves vividly?

Check out my video, Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Had the Honor of Being a Leader

Note: In the video I reference the “100-year life.” Credit goes to Lynda Gratton & Andrew Scott who wrote The 100-Year Life. As well, the term was first introduced to me by Ken Stern when interviewed for the Stanford Center for Longevity’s Century Lives Podcast, “Work After 50”.

American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.

OK, I had to look this one up; I am many things but a sports aficionado, I am not.

It turns out Wooden wasn’t a great basketball player. Instead, he inspired the great ball players of his era. Wooden understood that the great ones have good and bad days, like mortals. Like the excellent basketball players on Wooden’s teams, perfection imprisoned many great Renaissance artists.

The creativity that inspired the best art could also lead to dissatisfaction, melancholy, and depression. Some days it all comes together — the colors work, the strokes are perfect, and the form emerges. On other days, the paint is just mud-brown, the strokes are sloppy, and what the painter sees in the mind’s eye can’t be found on the canvas. The good days feel good, but the bad days feel awful.

Michelangelo would spend hours on his back or knees trying to pull the perfect form from a square foot of canvas. Sometimes, the passion would morph into fury, the fury into deep despair. Only when he stepped away for a while, allowing heart and mind to reset, could he return to the canvas and let himself enjoy the subtle imperfection in the work.

Michelangelo’s story is similar to my journey. I am a sensitive soul and feel things profoundly. I put tremendous pressure on myself to excel in everything I do. Fortunately, with age comes growth, and I have learned how to temper this anxiety. I work out, go for walks, and take deep breaths (yep, all that works), but more importantly, I listen to myself; I hear that mean voice we all know too well, and I let it talk. Once it’s done, I sit there and inventory my accomplishments, my value and take stock of my gratitude. It works during waking hours, but I use Headspace’s Nighttime SOS meditations at night to stop the chatter and lull me to sleep. I highly recommend it.

Imperfection can make art.

Great leaders aren’t perfect. They’re just wise enough to know that imperfections that come with the territory are part of our humanity.

What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?

She was intelligent, fun, and a pain in the ass. You may wonder how I’m doing with that. Let me share some feedback I’ve gotten along the way, and you can judge for yourself.

The rosy stuff: “She seeks to be the best she can be and to add value in every interaction.” “She connects and relates well to others…she tells a flawless strategic story and cares about people.” “Incredible, transparent leader, and takes time always to help.” “Clear, decisive, and speaks up when she has a view, even if it contradicts someone more senior.”

The helpful stuff: “Not enough awareness of others’ feelings; driving ahead without the team.” “Needs to prioritize time to listen and check on others’ experiences.” “When I first met her, I was intimidated, and we’re the same age.”

People see me as collaborative, adaptable, open to feedback, pragmatic, resilient, and a fixer. But I can be polarizing, just like other leaders we know.

All any of us can do is to press on!

How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?

[email protected]

Linked in Profile

Two Rivers Partners Linked-In Page


Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!