Leadership Is Not About You
Leadership at its core is never about you. Leadership is about how effective you’re at unleashing other people. Full stop. That’s it. That’s the secret.
Your job as a leader is to create an environment for people around you to become extremely effective and perform at their own capacity and power. You must aim to do so not only when you’re in trenches with them also when you’re not around, and perhaps even after you’ve permanently moved on from the team.
It helps to imagine yourself as the director rather than the star of the show. Your job is to make Oscar-worthy movies about other people. If you do it right, status and recognition will come to you naturally.
Other People’s Awesomeness: OPA
The truth is you can improve yourself or other at a given time. It’s generally one or the other. It’s difficult to do both at the same time. Take that vacation and after-hours management course. Hit the trail and read a leadership book. Then get back to business of leading whenever you come back to work again.
To help people practice leadership skill, send them out to the world as ambassadors of other people’s awesomeness (OPA). It works like this:
- Choose someone in whom you see some kind of talent
- Find a genuine way to let them know you’ve noticed them
The goal is to start getting in the habit of external leadership orientation and away from your own thoughts and experiences. While you’re at it, go ahead and generate some unexpected joy. Talk to different kinds of people and catch them in the act of expressing their gifts.
10 Signs It Might Be All About You
Reid Hoffman famously said, “As a leader, you have to constantly shut off your own reel and watch all the movies playing around you.” Pay attention to warning signs you may be getting in your own way as a leader:
- What other people know, feel and act rarely occurs to you.
- You don’t ask many questions.
- The most interesting thing about other people is what they think of you.
- You’re constantly updating a catalogue of your own weaknesses and imperfections.
- Other peoples’ abilities bum you out.
- You’re constantly in crisis.
- You’re pessimistic about the future.
- Reality has become tedious.
- Apathy and powerlessness are dominant emotions.
- You’re the star of your own show.
Rings of Empowerment Leadership
Trust, Love and Belonging: The first step to unleashing your leadership potential is to build trust with people around you. This requires you to set high standards and reveal deep devotion at the same time. Once you’ve established trust, champion the difference among the individuals and ensure everyone can contribute their unique capacities and perspectives. This is the essence of love and belonging.
Strategy and Culture: They are invisible forces that shape organizations and empower people whether or not you happen to be present. You need to spend a whole lot of time getting strategy and culture right if you want to lead the organization at scale.
Triangle of Trust
The key to building up your stores of essential leadership is threefold (1) Authenticity (2) Logic (3) Empathy. Here’s why. People trust you when they think they’re interacting with the real you (authenticity), when they have faith in your judgement and competence (logic) and when they believe they care about them (empathy).
It also goes the other way around. When trust is lost, it almost always come back to a breakdown in one of these three drivers.
Let’s apply the triangle of trust to Uber’s wobble. On the empathy front, Uber had improved the lives of unthinkable number of people but many of the concerns of key stakeholders remain unaddressed, including employees demanding a healthy workplace and drivers looking for more support from the company. When it comes to logic, despite Uber’s trajectory of hypergrowth, there are still open questions about the long-term viability of the company’s business model. It’s also questionable whether Uber’s management have the skills to lead an organization of its expansive scale and scope. Finally, at the heart of its authenticity challenges, no one seems to be getting the full story.
Uber’s Road to Redemption
Former CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, knew that his company had trust issues. And so, he invited Frances to join the company as Uber’s first senior VP for strategy and leadership. A number of initiatives were already underway to steady the company’s biggest wobbles by that time.
Kalanick however didn’t get the chance to see most part of the reinvention at least from the CEO’s chair. Uber’s board removed him as CEO in 2017 and put Dara Khosrowshahi in charge of the company.
Most of the work Frances and Khosrowshahi did was rebuilding trust at the employee level. Some things were easy to identify and fix such as ratcheting down the widespread texting during meetings about the other people in the meeting. This shocked Frances when she first experienced it. They quickly introduced a new norm of no personal technology during meetings which forced people to make eye contact with their colleagues again.
Of course, not all challenges were that easy to tackle, like the need to upskill thousands of managers. Uber has long underinvested in its people in its pursuit of hypergrowth, leaving many managers underprepared for the increasing complexity of their jobs. Frances and the team addressed this logic wobble with a massive influx of executive education, and they did it at an extraordinary pace, scale and absorption of management education.
The curriculum gave people tools and concepts to develop quickly as leaders. Leaders not only learnt to listen better, they also improved their articulation and collaboration across many business units and geographies. By the time Frances moved on from Uber, the company was less wobbly. Uber still had problems here and there, but employee sentiment and brand health were heading in the right direction and the march toward an IPO began in earnest. Good people were deciding to stay, and more good people were joining. Increasing number of Uber T-shirts could now be spotted on city streets. It was all a testament to talent, creativity and commitment to learning at every level of the organization and to the foundation of trust that first Kalanick and then Khosrowshahi had been able to rebuild.
2 Easy Ways to Build Trust
First, catch people doing something right. The most effective way to accelerate human progress is to tap into our devotional impulses. The idea is simple. Catch someone in the act of behaving exactly as they should, using sincere and specific praise. In fact for every one criticism, aim for five positive reinforcements. If it sounds too much for you, remember the ratio is within anyone’s reach, even for the diehard critics. You just need to seize the opportunities and praise people more.
Second, be specific. Specificity matters a lot. Sincere but non-specific praise sounds good, but it rarely helps anyone improve. Only when you describe the behavior in detail, they can replicate it. So instead of telling someone they did a nice job, tell them “The way you took too competing ideas and articulated what was in common between them was really effective in breaking the stalemate.”
Attract and Retain Diverse Talents
Empower not in spite of their differences, but because of them. Good leaders are committed to this idea but still they’re having a hard time putting it into practice and fully unleashing people. That’s where the inclusion dial comes into play.
The inclusion dial
What does the inclusion dial look like in practice? Imagine a team meeting. Imagine that you’re a young black woman on a primarily white team. You feel safe showing up at the meeting because the guy who’s been asking you out repeatedly despite you asking him to stop, has been removed.
You walk in and a white colleague makes you feel welcome by inviting you to sit next to her. The team lead opens by saying “I’d like to get the team’s advice and I want to hear from everyone.” You’re feeling pretty comfortable at this point and ready to participate.
The meeting continues. There seems to be some convergence in group thinking. You have a different idea, but you want to hold it back. Then the team lead says “OK, if we were to think about this problem differently, what would that look like?” A new voice jumps into which the team lead replies “Excellent! I never would have thought of that!”. Different opinions were celebrated for making the group thinking more rigorous.
Finally, the team lead concludes “What else are we missing?” to shift the dynamics in the room. You decide to share your idea. Your colleagues beg to differ. They identify some risks you never thought of before. The team lead jumps in “Listen, it might not work, but I love the audacity of this idea. It’s the kind of thinking we need to win.” You leave the room feeling cherished by the team for your ability to contribute in your own unique way against the opposing views.
“Make it better for black working moms.” said Sheryl Sandberg. If a black working mom has a good chance of thriving in you company as anyone else, then you’re getting a whole lot of things right.
What happens if you leave the proverbial room?
In the most common leadership dynamics, when a leader exits even temporarily, the performance of others plateaus or even drops. On one hand, this reinforces the leader’s value and ego. On the other hand, it limits their influence on people they interact with on a regular basis. The good news is you have two invisible leadership levers – Strategy and Culture – that can shape the organization and empower people whether or not you happen to be present.
2 Invisible Leadership Leverages: Strategy and Culture
Herb Kelleher and Southwest Airlines
Under Herb Kelleher’s leadership, Southwest Airlines became best-in-class on attributes that mattered most to its customers precisely because it chose to be worst-in-class on the ones that mattered least. Southwest operated in inconvenient and least popular locations but that gave the airline leverage in cost-savings which in turn could pass onto price-sensitive customers. These customers are more than willing to give up convenience in return for savings. Southwest also refused to serve inflight meals and seat assignment. No seating plan means faster turnaround times and higher revenues, freeing up even more room to lower prices.
Kelleher once famously received a complaint against Southwest’s policy of not transferring bags to other airlines. In Kelleher’s response, he pointed out Southwest’s business model wouldn’t be commercially viable if he revised the policy. Transferring bags to other airlines would eat away Southwest’s advantage in fast turnarounds. So, Kelleher was sorry, but the airline wouldn’t be transferring bags anytime soon.
Now think about this… how hard it would have been to say no to this perfectly reasonable statement that represents many other customers frustrated by anomalous policies. It would have been strategically excruciating, on one level, to deny people a basic service. But in return for this discipline, Kelleher managed to build the most successful airline in history.
Frances love this story because one thing that doesn’t get a lot of attention in leadership is it takes tremendous effort to lead well. Building trust, maintaining high standards, devoting deeply and unleashing the potential of people around you sound easy in theory but difficult in practice. If you want to excel at all of them, do us all a favor and please be bad at something else.
Hiroshi Mikitani and Rakuten
Hiroshi, CEO of Rakuten, transformed Tokyo-based e-commerce giant by embracing English as the company’s primary tongue. By putting the business language of the world at the center of its communication efforts, Hiroshi was able to change Rakuten’s Japanese workforce behavior at extraordinary scale. He initiated a campaign called “Englishnization” and rolled out a system of incentives and disincentives (including demotion for those who resist the change). In doing so, Rakuten got everyone speaking English in record time.
But the most impactful choice Hiroshi made may have been to stop speaking his mother language at his own soil. Even in one to one setting, Hiroshi was using English to communicate with his colleagues. He was betting his company’s future on English and had courage to model the change he envisioned in every single interaction.
Patty McCord and Netflix
Patty McCord, former chief talent officer of Netflix, is known to be one of the most effective culture warriors walking on the planet. Patty helped Netflix become the next big thing. She articulated the behaviors Netflix priced most and used them to drive all hiring, compensation and exit decisions. She socialized new recruits and reinforced them the company’s unique culture.
Patty designed Netflix’s culture to attract high-performing creative leaders who thrive in democratic environments. In Patty’s worldview, leaders are self-motivated, self-aware and self-disciplined that they’re also worthy of that freedom. And they’re certainly not wasting time reading company’s handbook. They even resist to put restrictions such as vacation and annual leaves. And the company’s expense policy is “Act in Netflix’s best interest.”
Patty did everything she can to attract self-driven high performers into the building and then set them free with a democratic culture. Netflix leadership then stayed out of their way. At times, Netflix’s senior leadership is intentionally absent to lead from the sidelines. Patty realizes the company’s best people don’t always want her in the room.
“Culture gives you the confidence to exit.” – Frances Frei
Your Cultural Playbook
Once you’re ready for change, use this playbook to move from informed conviction to organizational impact.
- Collect the devastating data (describe the problem and culture change will solve)
- Keep it to yourself for now (resist the temptation to broadcast your findings)
- Pilot a rigorous and optimistic way forward (design and execute pilot team which behaviors you want to change and most effective levers for changing them: you want to be soft and flexible at design phase, and bold and audacious at the execution phase)
- Involve everyone in the solution (tell everyone the good news and share before-and-after pilot data)