Top positive review
Will it reach its intended target?
on June 23, 2012
In one section of Open Leadership, author Charlene Li alludes to experience with a fearful, therefore miserable boss. Just about everyone has had to deal with at least one territorial, vindictive boss who acted out in fear of "losing" control. Classy individual that she is, Li did not delve into details (though I would be intrigued to know them). But it lent some credibility to acknowledge that her expertise in writing this book was borne of personal experience, not just third-party observation.
This important and substantive work addresses a fundamental shift in how people -- individuals -- relate to organizations and vice versa. It's about a subtle, inevitable transfer of power that leaders can either adapt to (allowing their organization to engage an audience and thrive), or go down resisting.
The book's subtitle is "How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead." This vanilla tagline, unfortunately, does little to promote the importance and urgency of Li's message (see preceding paragraph). Public confidence in institutions is at an all-time low, and it owes in large part to the whole concept of "openness," or lack thereof.
Customers, voters, volunteers, people of faith -- pick your sub-group -- are embracing organizations that share and listen. They are tuning out those that cling to the old model of withhold and dictate. I'd add "employees" to that mix of stakeholders, too, with the caveat that the *best* employees will increasingly choose to work for open organizations versus command-and-control ones ... because even in a lousy economy, they can.
Meticulously researched, solidly written, and brimming with mostly useful sidebars and exercises, Open Leadership is a worthwhile read for new and experienced leaders at all levels. At the time of this review, there was also a web site that allowed you to fill out the exercises/assessments online. For me, this was much more convenient than stopping every chapter to complete the assessments on paper.
I've both enjoyed the pleasure of working for (with, really) "open" leaders and endured the anguish of situations where "command-and-control" systems kept all the human cogs rigidly in place. In my experience, managers who could most use the lessons offered by Li tend to be the least likely to see the need: it takes a special (and at present exceedingly rare) kind of leader to engage in introspection, self-examination, and rethinking of the status quo. These behaviors require a certain amount of humility and comfort with relinquishing control, which may run counter to the programming of traditional career hard chargers.
In defense of command-and-control, one reasonable argument for it, and against too "open" of an organization, is risk management. An inadvertant HIPAA violation by an employee using social media could result not only in huge fines but an incalculable erosion of public trust and goodwill. A culturally insensitive tweet from one impulsive worker can tar an otherwise thoughtful organization of thousands for weeks or more. More often than not, however, I think this "concern" about risk is a smokescreen to mask fear and lack of understanding of how the new, social media-interfaced business ecosystem works. I have no data to back this up, that's just what I intuit from observation and knowing how and why people react the way they do to change.
Contrary to what's been posited in other reviews, Li brilliantly suggests addressing risk-related concerns the way you would any known business risk. Not by sticking your head in the sand, but by modeling, simulating, and dreaming up worst-case scenarios -- in this context, the scenarios being all manner of social media firestorms. Of course, to approve such time-and-money-intensive action, executives would have to be convinced of the potential benefits of participating in social media in the first place. For anyone worried about loose-cannon subordinates running amok on social media, Li notes that training and policies go a long way toward reducing the risk of screw-ups.
In addition to serving managers and executives well, Open Leadership is a helpful resource to have on hand if you've been charged with getting your organization aboard the social media train. Li has used her vast network to include relevant interviews and anecdotes from a range of companies in multiple industries. There is likely a case study that addresses any resistance you're facing in implementing a more social media-friendly, open culture.