Bruce Reyes-Chow: Book Review: Open Leadership

Book Review: "Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead" by Charlene Li

Probably wouldn't do much good to simply say, "Go get it right now!" but really that's what I want to say. After writing Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies with Josh Bernhoff, Charlene Li offers up a thoughtful book that helps folks to navigating all of this social technology hubbub, this time from the perspective of leadership.

Open Leadership is a nuanced, yet practical guide for those who believe that the world is open source, flat, fluid, etc. and now want to thrive in the midst of it. This book is for those who want to lead in this kind of world. While she does a good job of justifying some of the reasons why the world, and the business sector in particular, must adapt to an open posture, my guess is that much of what she says will really only jive if you already believe the world has changed.

Before I get into some of the specifics about the book, let me also say that I am reading and reviewing this through the lens of a pastor that has fully embraced this open world and am trying to figure out how much of the business language can translate into church life. As I read this book, especially the - ahem, Inviting Customers Into a Covenant section (p122) - I had VERY little trouble translating this into my religious context. While non-profits and churches do not have a financial bottom line that is the driving force, we do want to lead well and in a way that is attuned with elements of culture and technology that are important. So, if you are church person, please do not dismiss this book because it is for the business community. That would just be silly ;-)

The major assumption that Li makes is that the world is open and everyone needs to figure out how he/she will lead their organization. Couple that with social technologies and any power that we think we may have to direct and control as we have in the past is kaput. And in her words - . . . unless you are Apple and a combination of brilliant engineers and designers, a charismatic CEO, and a brand that everybody loves, openness be damned! - otherwise, we best all get on the Open Leadership train.

Like any good book on systems and leadership there are some profound nuggets sprinkled throughout. Honestly, the whole book is quote worthy and my copy is littered with post-it flags to the point that they really were not very useful for figuring out what to include in this review.

Still if I had to choose a few great chapters, I would start with Chapter 2, The Ten Elements of Openness that gives a good breakdown in how she would define "openness" in regards to both "Information Sharing" and "Decision Making." I also really appreciated Chapter 5 on setting up "Covenants" of behavior when it comes to social technologies within an organization as well as with clients/customers. Also how she talks about "transparency" versus "visibility" were profound in Chapter 8, Nurturing Open Leadership.

There were, of course a few gems that I think are really worth noting:

On the need for leadership to give up control . . .

The reason to get proactive about giving up control is that by doing so you can actually regain some semblance of control. It seems counterintuitive, but the act of engaging with people, of accepting that they have power, can actually put you in a position to counter negative behavior. In fact, it's the only chance you have of being able to influence the outcome. (p9)

On sticking to old leadership models in the face of the effects of social technologies on businesses:

All of this leads to a critical juncture in leadership. Yet many of the executives I speak with refuse to acknowledge that any change is needed; they believe that in times of crisis and change, greater leadership from the top is needed. Thus they insist on sticking with their traditional command-and-control leadership styles of limited information sharing and decision making.

I wish them luck, because they will need, it. (p164)

And finally I actually laughed out loud when I read the following dialog (pp51-52) because I have had these VERY conversations about social media and social technology with church leadership. As you read through this simple substitute your favorite church staff person during a conversation on worship, outreach or whatever.

Chief Marketing Officer: We need to get close to our customers - be more transparent with them. Why don't we start a blog and get on Twitter?

VP Customer Service: That's not going to work. All we'll get are complaints from irate customers. We can't win in that kind of situation.

VP Production Development: But we need to get feedback on what our customers like and don't like - otherwise we'll never create products better than our competitors'.

Director of Sales: Our competitors will be able to exploit areas where our customers are unhappy, the'll swoop in to steal the sale.

CMO: Better we find out directly. We should have a place on our Web site where customers can review our products so we know what's broken and what needs to be fixed.

CEO: But having those negative reviews on our own site will kill sales.

VP-PD: Other companies like us are doing this. Dell, for example.

CEO: We're not Dell.

And there are plenty more wonderful moments in this book.

Now some of what Li offers are things that we have heard before, Chapter 9, The Failure Imperative, for instance, but in the context of an open leadership style failure as part of the process seems to make more sense that, the "just know you are going to fail and learn from those times." words that are often given. I am also a little iffy on the whole Open Leadership Self-Assessment, p180, but I think, taken lightly yet honestly, could be really helpful to gauge where one is amidst all of the open leadership talk.

So there you have it, my two cents. Hope it has been helpful.

[Taken with permission from Bruce Reyes-Chow's blog. Follow Bruce on Twitter @breyeschow ]