Leadership, at its core, isn't about you. It's about how effective you are at unleashing other people. So says Frances Frei, the TED talker and Harvard Business School professor hired by Uber and WeWork to turn around their toxic cultures.
I interviewed Frei recently in conjunction with the release of her new book, co-authored with Anne Morriss, Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader's Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You.
"The real work of leadership isn't particularly concerned with the leader," Frei says. "It isn't so worried about the speechifying person at the front of the room. Whether they're loved or feared. How smart they sound. Whether their rival is becoming too powerful. Yes, those things can end up mattering around the edges, but they are sideshows." Instead, she says, "leadership is about empowering other people as a result of your presence--and making sure that impact continues into your absence."
Think of empowerment leadership as a target, with trust in the center and four rings around it--first love, then belonging, then strategy, and finally culture. Love and belonging are empowering leadership currencies you exchange directly with other people. Strategy and culture are invisible forces that can shape organizations and empower other people--lots of other people--whether or not you happen to be present.
In our conversation, Frei and I delved deeper into love. "The gift of helping someone reach for a better future than the present they're living in is the purest form of love we know," Frei says.
Leaders are most effective in empowering other people when they combine high standards and deep devotion. "When a leader's expectations are high and clear, we tend to stretch to reach them," she says. "And we are far more likely to get there when we know that leader truly has our back." It's a version of tough love that places equal emphasis on the toughness and the love.
To figure out your leadership profile when it comes to standards and devotion, Frei and Morriss suggest thinking about four ways that the people you lead may experience you (as outlined below): Fidelity, Severity, Neglect, and Justice.
Don't judge yourself if you react differently to different people and situations. For example, someone may need your unconditional fidelity to get through a tough experience, and severity may be exactly the right response to a willful violation of your company's rules or values.
Even neglect may have a strategic role to play in organizations with limited time and resources. The key is to understand your patterns--and how they may be impacting your ability to unleash other people.
Who has a prize place in your life but pays a low price for maintaining that position? Who gets what they want from you (status, freedom, extra dessert), with relatively few conditions placed on the exchange? Maybe it's your boss or a longtime colleague. Maybe it's someone who's hitting their numbers but otherwise wreaking havoc. One clue to this segment is whether you regularly protect someone from hard truths such as how others experience them.
Whom are you "toughening up" out there? Who gets the impatient version of you, the one-strike-and-you're-out you, and the you with little tolerance for neediness and imperfection? Maybe you're on a mission to teach someone about personal responsibility, making up for the fact that other people haven't held them fully accountable. Whatever the rationale, signs that you're settling into severity include spending a fair amount of time justifying your behavior. You don't have time to coddle anyone, right?
Whose name do you have trouble remembering? Whom have you written off as not worthy of your time and attention? You may think they don't notice your decision to relegate them to neglect (they do). In general, a lot of neglect is a red flag for both leaders and companies, so they counsel people to find ways to empty this bucket as quickly as practical.
Who reliably shows up around you as the best version of themselves, the one who's eager to excel and grow? And how do you feel about yourself when you're around them? This is a crucial indicator of being in justice. You feel like a superhero because, in many ways, you are one. People go higher, farther, faster in your presence because they experience your conviction about what's possible for them. When do you feel like this? If it's rare, when have you ever felt like this?
Frei and Morriss are making two simple points in pushing people to find themselves in all of these categories. "The first is that you have it in you. We all have the ability to foster a range of emotional contexts for the people in our lives," Frei says. "Our second point is that from the standpoint of empowerment leadership, not all quadrants are created equal. If you want to unleash people, then spending most of your time in justice is much more effective than the other three options."