Friday Five: On ‘Open Leadership’

open-leadership-smallI just finished reading Charlene Li’s book Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead.

The book’s title is apt; there’s no way I could better describe what the book is about. It’s a quick read, and a good resource for anyone leading an organization — or a department within an organization — that is using social networking tools in any way. I obviously came to the book with a bias, having a love for the power of social media, so I’m not sure how people not so enamored with tools like Twitter would view the book and Li’s ideas about openness. But I took away quite a few things from the read. Here are five:

1. Openness can be structured. A lot of us tend to think of the idea of openness as chaotic — no structure, no governance, no rules. But as Li points out in Chapter 5, openness can be structured. In fact, it should be.

2. Think in terms of “covenants,” not policies. In that same chapter about structuring openness, Li introduces the idea of covenants as a means for setting expectations. When I think of that word covenant, my mind’s eye see this image of a wild-eyed, bearded old man stepping down a mountain carrying two stone tablets. But Li has caused me to reconsider that image. “Covenants,” she writes, “are promises that people make with each other, which differ form traditional corporate policies and procedures that dictate how things will operate within organizations. The philosophy behind covenants is more suited to openness strategies, because the promises, bargains, and contracts reflect a real trade-off and transfer of power and responsibility. When leaders open up and give up control, they trust that employees will do what they promise, that customers will respond and engage in a civil manner.” Li talks about “sandbox” covenants, in which an organization first defines the walls of its sandbox — “how big it will be, and what activities do and do not belong there.”

3. Different organizations do openness differently. Institutional culture can be a strong thing, and there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for managing openness in the social media sphere. Li discusses three organizational models — organic, centralized and coordinated — and points out that each has its benefits and drawbacks. For many college and university campuses, a coordinated approach, with strong centralized direction and guidance but with execution at the edges (the various departments and offices), may work better than the centralized approach.

4. I am a (gag) ‘Transparent Evangelist.’ Using the classic two-by-two matrix, Li breaks open leadership styles into four categories: the Cautious Tester (collaborative but pessimistic), Realist Optimist (collaborative and optimistic), Fearful Skeptic (independent and pessimistic) and Transparent Evangelist (independent and optimistic). As you might guess, “the Realist Optimist is the most powerful and effective of the open leader archetypes, somebody who can see the benefits of being open but also understands the barriers.” Fortunately, I have one or two Realist Optimists on my team who can drive our openness strategy. As for my archetype, Li says we “can play an important role in working with external stakeholders, especially customers and partners who are already eager to engage the organization. They can also help identify other optimistic open leaders in the organization, finding the other ‘zealots’ who will help support your open strategy.” I just wish Li hadn’t used that term “evangelist.” I’m so sick of it. Can I get an Amen, anyone?

5. Open Leadership extends beyond social media. Li’s focus with this book is to get leaders to be more open in the world of online communication. But I think many of the lessons of Open Leadership extend beyond that realm. Structured openness within an organization is a good thing, offline as well as on.

Friday Five bonus. Take a look at the table below from Chapter 8 of Open Leadership to see how open leadership (on the right) differs from traditional leadership. Where does the leadership of your organization fall?



Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

4 thoughts on “Friday Five: On ‘Open Leadership’”

  1. Thanks for this write-up – your comments mirror my own reaction to the book (from a higher ed management standpoint), and you saved me the trouble of writing a full length review! (Lazy, I know.)

    To me, point #3 is the most valuable. There’s no single “right” way to pursue openness. This idea, combined with the flexibility of the “sandbox covenants” Li describes, can drive greter understanding of the tools available to organizations online.

    Aside: I also agree with you on the over-use of the phrase “evangelist.” A quick search of LinkedIn shows 19,516 people who use that as a keyword in their profile (including Vint Cerf). I am happy to say that none is closer to me than a 2ns degree connection. I’m OK with the concept, but the word is over-used.

  2. Great review. I love her stuff. Groundswell is one of the most used books in my office. I love #1–I think the idea of openness being uncontrolled chaos scares a lot of leaders from going with it when they probably have a personality for it. Boy–this stuff is a total re-think for most higher ed leaders–how many people do you know that write rules for risk taking instead of conformity and consistency. Hmmm

  3. Andy, Chris – Thanks for sharing your perspectives on this book and on my takeaways.

    Andy – Glad we agree about the overuse of “evangelist.” It’s right up there with “guru,” etc. When will someone coin the term “social media messiah“? :)

    Chris – My problem is I actually tend to lean more toward the uncontrolled chaos side of things, which can get me into trouble. I need to be more structured. But I’m very aware that the opposite attitude prevails in higher ed culture.

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