Open Leadership - a review by Ron Cacioppe

Did you ever feel that there something major that is happening and you don’t know if you should be part of it? Over the last few years I have watched the phenomena of Facebook, LinkedIn, Bloggs, and Tweets and wondered if there was something that I wasn’t getting. I confess I joined LinkedIn and Facebook but I seldom looked at them and being placed in a position of having to ‘accept’ or ‘ignore’ someone who wanted to be my friend wasn’t easy. But I had this gnawing feeling that there was something going on that I should know about.

When I decided to include this book in the Integral Leadership Book Forum I was a bit sceptical and wondered if this book could focus on social media and leadership and do both well. So it was pleasing to this find Open Leadership stimulating, comprehensive and very relevant to how leaders and organisations can use social media to be more open and successful. Both the conceptual aspects of open leadership and the new, practical ideas on how to use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and blogs make the book very useful.

The book opens with a good story about musician, Dave Carroll, and his unfortunate incident when United Airlines damaged his guitar. Nine months later, when Carroll hadn’t made any progress being compensated for his guitar, he vented his feelings by making a music video called “United Breaks Guitars” and posted it on YouTube. Within three days, the video had over one million views, and Carroll’s song became a viral sensation. By the end of 2009, there had been over seven million views and hundreds of news stories about Carroll’s experience.”

With this story, Charlene Li lays the groundwork about the ways in which social technology has changed the shift in power, where “individuals have the ability to broadcast their views to the world.” Li defines open leadership as “having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals”. Leaders accomplish this by having an open mind-set – the ability to let go of control “at the right time, in the right place, and in the right amount.” Open leadership is about new relationships with social media and new guidelines. Li suggests the following:

1. Respect that your customers and employees have power.
2. Share constantly to build trust.
3. Nurture curiosity and humility.
4. Hold openness accountable.
5. Forgive failure.

While these are common leadership ideas, what is new in this book is that it shows how to accomplish open leadership with the use of new and evolving social technologies. This book strongly suggests that leaders and companies that make social media only about marketing are missing a major opportunity. Leaders have to learn faster than their competitors and embed this knowledge in new products, services, and operational processes that create something remarkable about what you do and how you do it. These powerful social technologies are available today for leaders to listen, respond, and learn faster and more effectively than any time in our lives.

The main premise of the book is that in order for organizations to use social tools and technology, they need to be able to operate in a more open manner. Li declares open leadership to be a vital factor in whether an organisation succeeds using social media. By becoming more open, organizations will be able to build real, honest relationships with their employees, clients and vendors.

Li argues that the old ‘command and control’ structure that most organizations have used (and still use) will not work in this more open environment. The book tries to assure those who still prefer the top-down command approach with a ‘controlled’ openness approach. The book isn’t advocating the continuation of the command and control approach but puts forward processes that help shape the open environment. The reason why openness is a growing concern for businesses is the rise of social media according to Li. Social technologies have, she argues, made it easier for employees and customers to share their experiences, forcing companies to adopt a more open leadership style.

Practical Relevance: Tools, Useful Models and Examples
One of the most useful aspects of this book was the suggestion that before you start down a path of using social media, you need to define the strategic objectives of your company and then set out what you want to accomplish with social media that can contribute to your strategic objectives.

At an early stage in the book, I completed a questionnaire how much is my organisation is using social media to be open. The results made me seriously question whether we were going to be left behind without a tweet! Many readers could feel the same way. Before you decide to read this book you should be open to changing how your company uses social media. If not, you might as well sit on thumbtacks since the book will result in pain if you read it only to learn how little you are doing or what you are doing wrong.

While all leaders won’t gravitate to blogging or maintaining a presence on Facebook, Charlene gives two good examples of how some businesses have worked around this. She tells the story about Bill Marriott, the CEO of hotel chain Marriott International who started blogging in 2007. But Marriott wasn’t comfortable with using the technology and couldn’t even type so a member of the communications staff records what he wants to say, transcribes it, and posts the text and audio file on his blog. John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, was concerned that blogging wouldn’t be a good fit for him so instead he tried a video blog.

The book has very good diagnostic exercises, checklists, rich examples, and a systematic approach to open leadership so that any leader with an open mindset can follow her advice and get results. There are a lot of questionnaires, audits, and checklists both in the book and available on Open Leadership Self-Assessment tools are provided so leaders can determine where they fall in the spectrum. The book also includes useful Action Plans and Open Strategy Checklists. These tools can be very useful to stimulate discussion in your organisation and to use as a benchmark for your organisation.

Li provides a number of useful concepts for social media practice and policy. For example, she describes the value of a ‘sandbox covenant’, a mutual agreement between employer and employee that social tools will be used responsibly. She argues that trusting employees with a certain degree of freedom will be met with respect and thoughtful social media use. She also provides a good guide on how to help write a social media policy and examples which can be downloaded from her website.

Li also presents a return-on-investment model for the various objectives of openness. These models are based on so many assumptions that it is debatable how useful they will be. But they show how benefits might be calculated for social technologies and provide a start a company can improve upon.

Throughout the book there are plenty of examples of how leaders find a way to communicate as openly as they can, and how this comes more easily for some than others. The book profiles not just private sector firms, but global charities (The Red Cross) and key government agencies (the US Navy and State Department) responsible for some of the world’s most important and dangerous work. This underscores the emphasis on open leadership broadly – not just for firms selling products and services, but for all kinds of organizations and institutions.

The last chapter of the book, “How Openness Transforms Organizations” includes seven recommendations: 1) create a sense of urgency with information sharing, 2) identify the values that will carry you through the transformation, 3) lead by example, 4) encourage risk taking; reward risks taken, 5) start small to win big, 6) institutionalize systems and structures, 7) be patient. These provide some guidance in managing toward an effective social media and are similar to the steps described in change management programs.

Limitations of this Book
Like many business books, this verges on pop psychology in parts, for example when Li presents four ‘archetypes’ of open leadership – ‘the realist optimist’, ‘the fearful sceptic’, ‘the cautious tester’ and ‘the transparent evangelist’ – although she acknowledges that this is more of an awareness raiser than a description of underlying truths.
Another concern is that a lot of case studies come from IT companies, such as IBM and Cisco. The concept of openness is attractive to the IT industry, whose culture values openness because it has so often been challenged by this in the past. Cynics might question whether the IT companies profiled in this book are as committed to true openness as they are to the image of openness.

Li presents the example of consumer electronics maker Apple as an exception. The iconic vendor is not at all open, Li writes, but that is a luxury afforded by its phenomenal success, not a determinant of that success. Less fortunate companies, such as Dell whose IdeaStorm portal allows customers to suggest new products and features, need to use these tools if they are to inspire the kind of loyalty that comes naturally for Apple.

This book is so full with ideas and examples, I was overwhelmed at one point thinking about everything my company could do but wasn’t. I felt I either needed to borrow $10 million to do social media right or retire – but both are unaffordable. The book does provide some hope by suggesting that you should start small and provides a lot ideas and tools to do this.
While the upside of the book is its examples, tools, questionnaires, and information including access to Charlene Li’s company, at times I felt I was being sold to and there was a marketing agenda for Altimeter, Li’s company. The book seemed to be written to a formula that sells books and the consulting company behind it. A good formula, but a formula no less.

In Conclusion
The purpose of Open Leadership is to open the minds of leaders to see that the balance of power is shifting to employee and customer relationships as a result of social media. For leaders this book can provide a way for this shift to be exciting and id managed well can lead to a company maintaining control in its openness. I had the feeling as a CEO of a business that if I ignored the advice given, my business could suffer consequences of being left behind or left out.

Open Leadership provides is no grand theory about social media but shows that it is an important part of what is shaping relationships between companies, their employees and customers and describes a great number of company and leadership examples. It is, however, Li’s own experience that is the valuable part of this book. Her work with clients has seen her develop real-world best practices and policies for using social media to promote openness and customer engagement, and Open Leadership gives an introduction to how this is done.

With many valuable examples, models and tools available in the book or as a download, Open Leadership will have a useful place on the real and electronic book shelves of leaders who want to make a substantial contribution to a fast changing and technologically advanced virtual world.

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