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