Good leaders are the least interesting people in the room

Leadership depends on how well you unleash the potential of other people. That's the radical redefinition of leadership from Harvard Business School Professor Frances Frei and co-author Anne Morriss​' new book, Unleashed.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer

Frances Frei is a professor at Harvard Business School. Frei recently served as Uber's first SVP of leadership and strategy. Her TED talk about building trust has logged over four million views. She was described in a recent Los Angeles Times article as "the go-to woman for companies like Uber and WeWork looking to improve their image." Frei is also the co-author of a new book, Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader's Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You.


Francis Frei - Author of Unleashed and professor at Harvard Business School.

Frances Frei in the hot seat Adam Tow (Recode)

It's not about you. Instead, leadership depends on how well you unleash the potential of other people. That's the radical redefinition of leadership from Frei and her co-author Anne Morriss' new book, Unleashed. Frei was hired to turn around Uber's culture. She is also credited with transforming Harvard Business School to become gender-inclusive. The book guides leaders to: 

  • Hire and retain diverse talent and giving them an equal opportunity to thrive.
  • Build a foundation of trust so people are willing to be led by you.
  • Take radical responsibility for the performance of other people.
  • Create conditions where people excel in response to high standards and deep devotion.
  • Show people how to create and capture value on their own and changing your company's culture to reinforce trust, belonging, and integrity.

To help us better understand how leaders can establish trust and cultivate a culture of empowerment, Ray Wang, CEO and founder of a Silicon Valley-based advisory firm Constellation Research, and I invited Frei to join our weekly show DisrupTV. Here are my main takeaways of our conversation with Francis Frei.

  1. Trust is the most important core value. Frei reminded us that companies need a solid definition of trust. The operational manifestations of understanding trust are important -- authenticity, logic, or empathy. If you treat trust like you treat every supply chain or operational issue, you can quickly root cause and fix the trust deficit. People are usually very hungry for a better version. 
    "I tell my students, 'When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else." -- Toni Morrison 
  2. Leadership isn't about you. When you earn the power that you richly deserve, you must turn around and empower other people, Frei references Toni Morrison's philosophy. Take your power and make it contagious for others. A good culture is what happens when the managers are not in the room. Do your employees do the right thing, for the right reasons, at the right time, even in the absence of authority?
  3. Strategy and culture drive the optimal empowerment culture. How are employees guided in the absence of authority? It is the employee's understanding of the company strategy and guides their decisions. Frei reminds us that all the board of directors of companies are highly involved with shaping and guiding company strategy, but they are not deeply involved in defining and cultivating healthy company culture. 
  4. Human progress is accelerated when we trust each other. If you trust me, I have earned it. It is your obligation to earn trust. The accountability of trust is important. When you have trust, you have the benefit of the doubt. Everything moves faster, smoother, and you can aim higher. How can you empower one other person for success? Now how can you scale the trust foundation for a team, organization, and all stakeholders?
  5. Trust can be quickly gained. Frei reminds us that trust can be quickly gained. She believes that if you understand the components parts -- empathy, logic, substance, communication -- then you can gain trust faster. 
  6. Your culture is your brand. Uncover the data about your company's culture. To improve your culture, you need to capture evidence about your culture. Collect the devastating data and do not share broadly right away -- this is counter-intuitive. Radical transparency is important but giving data without any way to process it can take up to two years to digest the findings. Collect the data, execute optimistic pilots moving forward, demonstrate forward progress, and avoid analysis paralysis. Frei said that spending a number of weeks to analyze your company's cultural data is key to better developing contextual understanding of your cultural strengths and weaknesses. 
  7. Everyone has a wobble in their authenticity. Frei reminds us that we have some people who are not authentic at all and then people who are totally authentic. We need to balance our approach to authenticity. Each of us has an authenticity wobble and we must manage. Authenticity needs conditions for it to flourish. You set the conditions for my authenticity to flourish. Leaders must set the conditions for others' authenticity to flourish. 
  8. Inclusion and diversity -- the order matters. Diversity without inclusion will not make progress. Frei said that if you learn to be inclusive, the diversity will flourish. Frei talked about how she admired the way Tony Prophet, chief equality officer at Salesforce, manages to shape and promote a company culture of inclusiveness, diversity, and equality. Frei talked about how she helped WeWork address the demographic of their leadership team. How do you attract and retain awesome women leaders? Through a pilot program, they developed the ability to recruit fantastic women leaders. How do you recruit the people that you don't already know? Developing the ability to be inclusive and diverse takes mindful steps and reflection. 
  9. Don't be self-distracted, be other-distracted. Frei reminds us that, when you walk in a room, don't be self-distracted. You are the least interesting person when you walk into the room as a leader.  

Frei is brilliant and her video conversation with Ray Wang and I was simply awesome. Do yourself a favor and watch the entire video segment. 

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