Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Authenticity, Transparency and the Failure Imperative

Written by: on November 16, 2017

This week we have been reading Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead by

Even the best leaders and organizations will ‘fail’ sometimes.

Charlene Li,.  Open Leadership is a very popular business leadership book that is, ostensibly about how to integrate the burgeoning world of social media successfully into your business and into the way you lead in your company, in a (you guessed it) more ‘open’ fashion.  While the book definitely has many practical, workbook style, elements to it, if you simply look at this as a social media integration manual, I think you will have missed much of the value of this book.

Particularly as a church leader, a lot of the nuts and bolts of the the social media strategy are not necessarily directly applicable.  We are the place where every church ‘needs’ a social media presence, and following Li’s steps to creating your strategy will likely prove beneficial.

I think, though that the greater value in Li’s work is laid out pretty clearly in the introductory chapter of the book.  Li states that ‘Open Leadership’ is about how leaders must let go to succeed (Li, xi).  Just two pages later, she puts this phrase in bold, enlarged letters: Greater Openness is Inevitable (Li, xiii).  Whether Li is there only referring to social media or not doesn’t matter (I don’t think she was being exclusive), because that insight is, I believe, one of most important things for any 21st century leaders to grapple with and understand.

The temptation to hold tightly to what we think we can control might be natural, but whether we like it or not, whether we are ready or not, change and an ever increasing amount of openness is where the world is going – no amount of tilting at windmills is going to stop the flow of life and information towards openness.

Li states right at the beginning that ‘Being open is hard’ and she gives an analogy that many of us will relate to that illustrates both the difficulty in open leadership and its promise:

The struggle in balancing openness and control is a universal, human problem.  As a parent of growing children, I sometimes long for the days when I could simply strap a discontented toddler into a car seat and drive off to my destination.  Just as children grow and develop their own voices that need to be heard, our customers, employees, and partners want to be brought into the inner sanctum of the organization as well.   (Li, xvii)

While this book is very clearly aimed at the business world and in someways, really, leaders in larger organizations specifically, the connections and applications to the church and leading in the church were clear – perhaps because the church was a ‘social network’

before it was cool.   While that was said with my tongue in my cheek, there is an element of truth to the statement – the power and influence that social media can bring to a single person or a small group of people parallels with the way that politics and relationships (for good and for ill) have always played a central part in churches.

So, Openness is coming – like it or not – and beyond social media it is critically important for us as church leaders to be prepared for the change that is at hand and the changes that are coming.   This is what Li refers to as the ‘Leaders dilemma’ – The open leader that willingly relinquishes control  in some areas, may end up relinquishing the position of leader itself….. however, if the leader holds on too tightly to that control it ensures that you eventually lose it, and likely not on your own terms (Li, 12).

When faced with increasing openness, Li asserts that many leaders fail because they ask the wrong questions, asking ‘how can I manage the discrepancy between control and results’ when they should be asking ‘How do I develop the kind of new, open, engaged relationships I need to get things done (Li, 14)?’ 

I  have served with pastors that, despite all of their best intentions, and all of their many gifts have run into significant problems and found themselves unable to become open leaders, because they were stuck searching for answers to all the wrong problems.   The answer, at least in part, to the question that open leadership asks has something to do with living into the 8 ‘new rules’ that Li proposes.

Of these new rules, the one that stood out most clearly to me was #5, ‘Forgive Failure’ (Li, 15).   The ability to receive forgiveness for our failures is the great blessing of openness.  Leading in such a way that you foster an environment that is forgiving of failure is not only life giving for the leader and those working with her, but it also can often unleash the power of creativity and imagination in some really wonderful ways.   Li Says:

But I’m convinced that a key part of being an open leader is the ability to effectively deal with failure, because even with the best structures and planning in place, things go wrong.  By mastering failure, you create an environment in which risk taking is encouraged and recovery from failure becomes a skill that everyone in the organization possesses (Li, 217).  

Building an organization that can forgive failure and encourage openness, honesty and creativity begins with two words that are incredibly overused in our world.  Authenticity and Transparency.  Li makes the astute observation that Authenticity isn’t really in our control, as it is something that people evaluate within us.  But Li also highlights the critical skill for a successful open leaders: ‘Open leaders have the ability and skill to pull the relevant parts of their authentic selves into the conversation, to innately know which parts of their identity and personalities to show to whom, and when (Li, 191).

Li’s take on the overused synonym for openness – Transparency – is, I think, worth the cost of the book alone.  Li argues that it isn’t really about making things ‘transparent’, but rather about making them visible (Li, 194).  I really love this, in large part because it is, well open (honest, transparent).  We can’t, nor should we be completely transparent in all of our leadership, but at the same time our motivations, goals and challenges should all be visible and clear to all that we are seeking to lead.

Openness is hard.  Open leadership is hard.  But with authenticity, visibility and a culture of forgiving failure it can most certainly be worth it.

About the Author

Chip Stapleton

Follower of Jesus Christ. Husband to Traci. Dad to Charlie, Jack, Ian and Henry. Preacher of Sermons, eater of ice cream, supporter of Arsenal. I love to talk about what God is doing in the world & in and through us & create space and opportunity for others to use their gifts to serve God and God's people.

8 responses to “Authenticity, Transparency and the Failure Imperative”

  1. Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Thought-provoking and enjoyable post Chip. Forgiving failure…. easier said than done. Especially when the failure is moral. People struggle to reconcile this and often question the integrity of the whole church when moral failure happens.
    I can also appreciate how challenging it is for pastors to operate with open leadership when the general population expects pastors to be “beyond reproach” and miniature demi-gods. They need safe places and safe people to open up to where they can be forgiven for their failures. I have worked with many pastors, and it saddens me to see the loneliness and rejection they navigate on a regular basis. Pastoring is not for the faint of heart. I wonder how we can create a more open church environment for pastors to heal in and be safe to make mistakes?

    • Jennifer, I really do think ‘openness’ does hold some of the key here. Some of the best advice I received was this: ‘You are going to mess up. More often than you would like or likely can imagine. When it happens, as soon as it happens, admit it publicly. Take full responsibility as soon as you can, own up to your mistake and ask for forgiveness.’
      The pastor that gave me that advice told me that when you do that, the congregation will almost always be more ready, willing and quick to forgive than you can imagine.
      There are, of course, toxic situations sometimes. But outside of those, I have found this to be true in both my own life and the life of other pastors…..from little, non-consequential things to big, moral failures, the key to forgiveness and restored relationship for the leader is quick and complete openness and honesty about whatever the particular failing is.
      When the leader is open about small mistakes and the congregation is forgiving – and vice versa – then trust is built and that trust is crucial to healthy, sustainable ministry and growth together.

  2. Mary says:

    Yes, Chip I agree. “The ability to receive forgiveness for our failures is the great blessing of openness.” As you point out, Li wrote this for the business world but the applications to church are so obvious.
    Knowing that people are ready to forgive should give us courage to admit our mistakes right away. I try to imagine it with the shoe on the other foot. I know I admire and trust the other person when they own up to it and ask for forgiveness. I want them to trust me too. No room for false pride here.
    You pastors really have a tough job because you are under the microscope. You often can’t hide out like us lay people. God bless you and have a Happy Thanksgiving.

  3. Kristin Hamilton says:

    You know, Chip, no matter how much better I have gotten at being transparent, I still suck at receiving forgiveness. I think Li’s message to me is that it gets easier to receive as you relinquish the need to control. This is hard to do because each one of us feel as if the buck stops with us.
    In the 90s, every worship leadership conference we went to hailed the rally cry of “authenticity and transparency” to the point where it became a joke to most of us who planned worship. There is a steep price to be paid for these characteristics when in church leadership, even when the senior pastor and board/session encourage and support this kind of vulnerability and openness. I wonder why I feel like this would be easier for me in the corporate setting than in church leadership?

  4. Katy Drage Lines says:

    “tilting at windmills”… thanks Cervantes Stapleton. But seriously… part of being a leader open to openness is recognizing when a windmill is a giant and a giant a windmill– that is, making things appropriately visible, as you mention. And being willing to admit that that which we thought was a dangerous giant was merely a windmill– recognition of our faults and failures.

  5. Lynda Gittens says:

    Your statement “Openness is hard. Open leadership is hard. But with authenticity, visibility and a culture of forgiving failure it can most certainly be worth it,” I found interesting. Openness I believe would not be hard, if it is what you do in your personal life. It is how we respond to others response may be the key to our success. We are supposed to have a forgiving presence but it is challenging at times.
    What are your thoughts on those who would be successful in this area of openness are those who possess it personally or can those who do not possess it personally will not succeed?

  6. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Chip no organization is ready to deal with failure. Charlene Li helps all leaders process what are the ways we can support our leader in how they perceive their role in opening up to social networking as a means of openness. It is also hard for organizations to realize that what they deemed as dangerous was actually not a third world war 🙂

  7. Stu Cocanougher says:

    Li argues that it isn’t really about making things ‘transparent’, but rather about making them visible (Li, 194).

    I was one of the few who actually enjoyed the movie THE CIRCLE, which flopped in the theaters.

    This film asked the question “How far is too far?” when it comes to transparency. Li does a great job of giving leaders choices when it comes to transparency. I appreciated that.


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