Frances Frei’s Three Pillars of Leadership

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I’ll start by saying I’m now a fangirl of Frances Frei (it only took a couple podcasts/interviews). She is a Harvard Business School professor with an incredible amount of grit and ambition. She is unapologetically authentic (though she admits to sometimes struggling with this) and serves as a wonderful example of strong female leadership today.


In her TED interview, Frei outlines three pillars necessary for a healthy work culture–trust, love and belonging.

  1. Trust, Frei states, relies on a triangle of authenticity, logic and empathy. We have to have faith that we are interacting with the authentic selves of our leadership, that they have a rigorous and sound logic, and that they deeply care about our success. sourceIn this Harvard Business Review article, Paul J. Zak summarizes his research on the effects of high trust in the workplace:
  2. Love is conveyed in the setting of high expectations simultaneously experienced with the deep devotion of our leaders to our success. As Frei put it, it’s not “tough love,” but rather “tough and love.”
  3. Belonging is achieved when we set conditions for more people and more varied people to achieve and thrive. The goal is not to take anything away from what already exists, but to broaden it. Frei also notes that the phrase “diversity and inclusion” should in fact be “inclusion and diversity.” Inclusion, she feels, begets diversity and not the other way around. At first, I thought she might be unnecessarily splitting hairs and thought this might not always be true of schools since, as a teacher, you don’t usually choose who is in your classroom (but I’m definitely not the expert here!).As we think about DEI in our classrooms, I pose this question to you: Do you agree with Frei’s viewpoint that inclusion must come first? Why or why not? Would love to hear your answers in the comments below.

I’m really looking forward to delving deeper in her book (co-written with Anne Morriss)
Unleashed,The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You 

My last thought on these learnings is this: The challenge right now is how to build up and maintain these pillars remotely. Following posts will contain some reflections on this.



  1. I really loved reading this and I’m excited to hear more about this Esther! I also appreciate the concept of this triangle and how much all three of these concepts are so vital for us to flourish and survive right now. I know it’s useful in our everyday but right now we do need to be as authentic, logical and empathetic as we can.

    1. Robin, thanks for taking the time to read my post! I also love the triangle–the conditions for trust are interconnected and breaks down if any one point is disconnected.

  2. Hi Esther,
    Strong leadership could not be more important at this time and your post around the Frei’s pillars is timely. With respect to your question, I disagree with her (and I’m not an expert in the field) but I feel like we want our groups to be diverse – diversity is our strength and if we can all embrace that, wouldn’t inclusion be so much more attainable?

    These are my initial thoughts after a short week (which always seems longer than it is) and I look forward to others weighing in.

    Thanks for a great read!

    1. Hi Derek, thanks for taking the time to read this post and for your thoughts! I think the inclusivity vs. diversity first idea can also be thought of also as a virtuous cycle, where one feeds into the other (and/or occur simultaneously).

  3. Thanks Esther, you’ve given me a lot to think about here. That line about “tough” and “love” is something that is sticking with me. How might we be both tough and loving with colleagues that are under incredible stress and pressure without breaking their trust? At its heart is empathy, and as you’ve identified already, that is challenge remotely; however, it is also a challenge if you are on-campus, but separated by ‘cohorting’, bubbles, and/or just trying to respect colleagues by not doing office drop-ins, etc… That is a current struggle for me.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for your perspective! You’re right, what a tricky balancing act, anytime really, but especially given our unique circumstances. Along with empathy, flexibility comes to mind. I think we’re going to have to let go of our expectations sometimes so that we promote wellbeing over everything else.

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