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Q&A on the Book Unleashed

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Key Takeaways

  • Leadership is about empowering the people around you and unleashing their full potential.
  • The foundation of leadership is trust that’s built when leaders reveal empathy, logic, and authenticity.
  • The most successful leaders drive performance by setting high standards and revealing deep devotion.
  • A value-based strategy can create high and rising value for all stakeholders, not just financial returns for your company.  
  • Culture change depends on your willingness to believe in a better future than the present you’re living today.

The book Unleashed - The Unapologetic Leader's Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss explores how leaders can become more effective in empowering their people. It shows how they can combine trust, love, and belonging to create spaces where people excel.

InfoQ readers can download an extract of Unleashed.

InfoQ interviewed Frances Frei and Anne Morriss about trust as the foundation of leadership and how leaders can improve trust, how leaders can raise the bar for people around us to improve performance, how to attract more women, people of color, and LGBT+ people to vacancies, doing 360-degree reviews, establishing a value-based strategy, and solving cultural problems.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Anne Morriss: Traditional leadership narratives are based on the idea that the leader is the most important person in the room. We wrote this book to challenge that storyline, which wasn’t holding up for us in the real world. After studying and building organizations for the last few decades, we wanted to offer a different perspective. Our starting point is that true leadership, at its core, isn’t about you. It’s about how effective you are at empowering other people and unleashing their full potential.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Frances Frei: We wrote this book for anyone who wants to become a better leader, particularly in this moment of massive change and uncertainty. Many leadership models aren’t up to the challenge of handling the problems we now face together, from rebuilding trust in institutions to unleashing potential at the scale of an organization. In our experience, leaders of all backgrounds and tenures are hungry to learn how to create the conditions for their teams and colleagues to thrive, now more than ever.

InfoQ: How would you define leadership?

Morriss: The practical definition of leadership we use in our work is that leadership is about empowering other people as a result of your presence – and making sure that impact continues into your absence. Your job as a leader is to create the conditions for the people around you to become increasingly effective, not only when you’re in the same room with them, but also when circumstances – for example, a global pandemic – make that impossible.

Frei: For a good example of what we’re talking about, watch Reid Hoffman in action. Hoffman is one of the most successful entrepreneurs on the planet. In describing how he sees his job as a leader, he likes to say that you have to shut off your own movie and watch all the movies playing around you. We couldn’t agree more. Our point is simply that the central questions of leadership have little to do with your own performance and almost everything to do with the performances of other people. Instead of worrying about how you’re doing, your job as a leader is to make everyone else better.

InfoQ: What makes trust the foundation of leadership?

Morriss: Trust creates the conditions for leadership, for our willingness to be guided by you as a leader. Here’s another way to think about it: if leadership is all about empowering other people, in your presence and absence, then trust is the emotional framework that makes that beautiful exchange possible. I’m willing to be led by you because I trust you. I’m willing to follow your lead and put my future in your hands because I trust you. Leadership is a sacred exchange that’s impossible without trust.

InfoQ: How can we improve our trust as leaders?

Frei: Here’s the basic formula: people tend to trust you when they think they are interacting with the real you (authenticity), when they have faith in your judgment and competence (logic), and when they believe that you care about them (empathy). We call these three pillars the drivers of your "trust triangle." We advise leaders to figure out which of these drivers tends to get "wobbly" on them in situations where trust has broken down. We all wobble on trust some of the time, so start by figuring out your own patterns. The good news is that small changes in behavior can go a long way. For example, empathy wobblers can build more trust by putting away their phones. Logic wobblers can change the way they present information, starting with the headline first. We spent a lot of time on this in the book and our core message is that while trust is essential for leadership, it’s also highly actionable. We can all build more trust tomorrow than we did today.

InfoQ: What can we do as leaders to raise the bar for people around us to improve performance?

Frei: Leaders are most effective in empowering other people when they create a context we describe as high standards and deep devotion. When a leader’s expectations are high and clear, we tend to stretch to reach them. And we are far more likely to get there when we know that a leader truly has our back. It’s a version of tough love that places equal emphasis on the toughness and the love parts.

An example of a great leader who operates this way is Lisa Su, the CEO of Advanced Micro Devices. Su led the turnaround of AMD from the point of near bankruptcy to spectacular performance five years later. She’s known for her "5% rule," which is her commitment that AMD will get better every time the company performs a task. She sets a high bar of refusing to accept the status quo, and then rolls up her sleeves and delivers on that commitment with deep devotion to her team.

We often get asked about where to begin in creating this context for your own team. One very practical place to start is positive reinforcement, which is the fastest, most direct path we know to improving performance. Catch someone in the act of behaving exactly like you want them to behave, using sincere and specific praise. Describe the behavior in enough detail so that they can replicate it.

InfoQ: What can be done to attract more women, people of color, and LGBT+ people to vacancies?

Frei: If your existing processes tend to attract a singular profile, then you likely need to design different processes for attracting other profiles. For example, if you’re an organization that skews white in its leadership ranks, then you may want to begin actively recruiting at historically black colleges and universities. If you want to attract different types of people, then start meeting them where they are, in different types of places.

InfoQ: What are your experiences with 360-degree reviews?

Morriss: 360 reviews are well-intentioned, but they often break down in practice. For example, research shows that reviewers tend to respond differently to men and women of equal caliber, particularly when a woman holds formal power. The short explanation for this pattern is that people are more likely to say – to use a technical term – dopey things about women, particularly when they have the chance to do so anonymously. Our practical advice is simply to use anonymous evaluation tools sparingly, or at least with the recognition that they don’t reliably bring out the best in us.

Frei: The other pattern we see in 360’s is that something completely new almost always pops up – again, particularly for women. A curveball comes out of nowhere from a source no one can identify, at a stage in the process where it’s hard for anyone to provide context or defend themselves. This violates everything we know about how constructive advice is best given and received. Again, for constructive advice to be productive, it has to be layered on a foundation of trust. Anonymity, by definition, obscures that foundation, increasing the chance that feedback will do more harm than good.

InfoQ: What does a value-based strategy look like?

Frei: We believe that your responsibility as a leader is to create more value than you capture. A value-based strategy can help you get there by making tradeoffs explicit. The inputs vary by industry, but they typically include customers, employees, and suppliers, the stakeholders whose decisions can make or break you. Companies with a value-based strategy create high and rising value for all of these stakeholders, not just financial returns for their own shareholders. This kind of strategic leadership also depends on people understanding the strategy well enough to inform their own decisions with it. In our experience, too many companies are held back by strategic confusion below the most senior ranks.

InfoQ: How do you describe culture?

Morriss: Culture establishes a company’s rules of engagement. It tells us who gets to take up space automatically and who has to work for it. It tells us whether we should follow the rules or cut corners, whether we should share or hoard information, whether we should stick our necks out and try to make things better or simply adapt to the status quo. The most successful leaders we know put creating culture at the very center of what they do. They view building and protecting culture as core to their responsibilities, regardless of title or job description.

Frei: That’s the mentality that has made Satya Nadella and his leadership team so effective at Microsoft. When Nadella became CEO, he declared culture change his most important responsibility and bet Microsoft’s future on his ability to shift the company’s beliefs, including the strategic importance of championing difference and making Microsoft’s culture more inclusive. The short version of the story, of course, is that this bet paid off in very big ways. When Nadella started his campaign, the company’s performance was stagnating. Five years later, in what has become one of the most exciting culture change stories of our lifetime, Microsoft is competing and winning in unprecedented ways.

InfoQ: What's your playbook for solving cultural problems?

Frei: We call it the Culture Change Playbook, which is a battle-tested roadmap for rebuilding cultures that have become unhealthy or simply need a refresh. There are four steps: confirm the problem with data, keep that data to yourself (for now), pilot an optimistic and rigorous way forward, and then invite everyone in the organization to be part of the solution.  All four steps are important, but we’d highlight optimism as the most essential input. Leadership depends on your willingness to believe in a better future than the present you’re living today.

About the Book Authors

Frances Frei is a professor at Harvard Business School. She recently served as Uber’s first SVP of leadership and strategy. Her TED talk about building trust has logged over 4 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." She has made headlines in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, FT, USA Today, Washington Post, CNN, NPR, CNBC, The New Yorker, Fortune, Variety, ESPN, New York Magazine, Vox, and Business Insider.

Anne Morriss is a highly sought-after leadership coach. She’s the executive founder of The Leadership Consortium, a first-of-its-kind leadership accelerator that works to help more and varied leaders thrive. Her collaborators have ranged from early-stage tech founders to Fortune 50 executives to public-sector leaders building national competitiveness. Morriss has spent the last twenty years building and leading mission-driven enterprises, serving most recently as CEO and founder of GenePeeks, which addressed the urgent need for better personal health information. She has appeared on CBS This Morning and other programs.


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