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Long-term leadership strategies for flexible work

A candid Q&A with Harvard Business School’s Frances Frei

Posted March 17, 2021 by Sheela Subramanian

Reading time 2 min

For Frances Frei, Professor at Harvard Business School, the anxiety and uncertainty of the past year hit hard when she and her wife both contracted COVID-19 early in the pandemic. Thankfully, they fully recovered, but Frei’s personal experience highlighted the stress and blurriness of the past year. She spoke about her experiences, her views on leadership, and the importance of setting boundaries, at the Reimagine Work Summit hosted by the Future Forum and FORTUNE. 

The number one piece of advice that I have for people is pick a couple of things that you’re going to be great at. And let the others go. For me, it’s family and work. I think we need to give each other that gift. Dare to be bad in the service of great. Otherwise, it leads to exhausted mediocrity.” 

Frances Frei
Professor, Technology and Operations Management, Harvard Business School

Resilience and trust

According to Frei, it’s important to decide what you’re going to be great at and reverse engineer what you are going to drop. A key step to making this right is to have conversations with the important people in your life and ask them where they want “super you” to show up. This attitude can and must be adopted in the workplace as well.

“We need to build resilience into our cultures like we never have before. If it’s not a pandemic, then it’s going to be something else, and we have to be prepared. You have to be able to bounce back. That means you have to build a culture based on trust and resilience.” 

Frances Frei
Professor, Technology and Operations Management, Harvard Business School

Leading in the service of others

Frei has worked in leadership for a long time, and she used to define leadership as making others better as a result of your presence, and having it last into your absence. All that, she says, is out the window. During this time, we have to prepare people for our presence and absence, but perhaps our absence first. In the past, people often thought of leadership as an achievement, but nothing could be further from the truth. 

“Leadership is exhausting, because you have to constantly be thinking about others. Leaders are sometimes leading and sometimes putting the oxygen mask on themselves. Leadership is actually a moment-by-moment commitment.”

Frances Frei
Professor, Technology and Operations Management, Harvard Business School

In a world turned upside down by the pandemic, leaders need to take better care of each other and themselves and reach out with empathy. One thing is certain: the struggles of the past year provide an opportunity to redefine the nature of leadership and become better versions of ourselves. 

Watch more on the Future Forum YouTube channel.