Want to Be a Good Leader? Focus Less on Yourself

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If you poke around your local bookstore or library – or do the online equivalent these days – you’ll eventually stumble upon a section rife with career books on the topic of leadership. To be sure, there’s no shortage of advice about the things leaders should do and say (or not do or say) in order to succeed in their roles. But a new book by Frances Frei focuses less on the leader and more on empowering the people he or she is leading. 

In fact, “a leader is the least important person in any room they walk into,” Frei, a professor of technology and operations management at Harvard Business School, said in a recent episode of Talks at GS. During the discussion, she shared some takeaways from her new book, Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader's Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You. 

The ‘secret sauce.’ Like chefs or mixologists, many business leaders search for that perfect recipe – in their case, for success that goes beyond the products or services they’re selling. Frei said she has found “the secret sauce of how to get pretty dramatic improvement [in an organization], pretty quickly.” And it entails shaking up the prevailing idea about leadership that’s very leader-focused.


Think: Less “me” and more “we."


Based on research she did with co–author Anne Morriss, Frei said they found that a leader–focused approach actually didn’t coincide with “winning” – or the organization succeeding. “We were finding just the opposite; that the less a leader was focused on themselves, the better they did,” she noted. 

Shifting the focus. For leaders who have spent years (or decades) climbing up the corporate ladder, this type of message could be a bit jarring. And Frei acknowledged that a framework that’s less leader-focused goes against the norm. “The truth is, all of us make it about ourselves some of the time,” she said. 

But she pointed out that “when it’s about you, you’re not leading.” She thinks “a leader’s job is to set the conditions for other people to thrive, as a result of their presence, and then lasting into their absence.” That type of leadership flips the script on a “super suboptimal” dynamic in which everyone is serving the leader, Frei added. Think: Less “me” and more “we.” 


Research shows that the less a leader was focused on themselves, and the more they empowered others, the more they succeeded at "winning."


Instead of spending time on self-introspection and agonizing over her or his faults, Frei said leaders should devote that energy to empowering others. What does that look like in practice? Frei thinks you’re a leader then you’re serving other people.

Embrace being different. Rather than worry about straying from the prevailing narrative – the leader-focused one – Frei encourages people in charge to take pride in a new leadership mindset and be “unapologetically different” about taking a novel approach. “Even if my peers and even if others are coaching me to make it more about me…don’t do another minute of that. Start paying attention to what other people need,” she said. 

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