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

Open Leadership and the Power of Servanthood

Written by: on November 16, 2017

Open Leadership is having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals.[1]

The old days are gone. CEO’s can no longer sit up in their top-floor, glamorous offices leading by fiat decrees, while ignoring the changes in technology going on all around them. Employees, customers, and partners are increasingly using social media often in ways that directly affect businesses. The trend to more widespread use of social media is here to stay. Leaders will need to be more “open” in leadership and get on top of it.

In Open Leadership, Charlene Li stresses the balance between control and openness. Leaders do not give up all control; they give up their need for control. They let others share in the responsibilities. With today’s technology open leadership should not be feared but embraced as an exciting tool to be used for success.

Li helps the reader understand this by using the concept of the Sandbox Covenant. In a sandbox there are boundaries where everyone is safe and free to build their own project. But there are rules; no throwing sand or taking someone else’s truck. This concept appears over and over in the book and relates to the transformation of the organization to a more open one. It is just one of Li’s many effective illustrations.

Dr. Li lays out the path to the open style of leadership by defining what it means to be open, laying out the nuts and bolts of creating and managing the open strategy, and explaining the characteristics that leaders will need to have to be effective in the open organization.

Each step on the path has ‘checkpoints’ where the reader can stop and reflect on what they have learned. The exercises help the leader to construct their Action Plan toward an open leadership. At the end of the section on defining open leadership for example, there is an “Openness Audit”. This gives the leader an idea of where her organization is open and where it is not. Throughout the rest of the book, the leader will build her own strategy and learn how to have the Open Mind-set with the help of these assessment tools and eventually put them into practice.

Case studies help the reader to understand how other companies have dealt with the change toward Open Leadership. Li does not sugar-coat anyone’s experience; failures are used as examples of how to learn from mistakes and move on.

In fact, dealing with failure is a key part of being an open leader. No matter how well things are going, there will always be some mistakes. Li sees it as essential for leaders to master failure and “create an environment in which risk taking is encouraged and recovery from failure becomes a skill that everyone in the organization possesses.”[3]

Li’s book also seems to be a summary of the many leadership concepts we have been studying in LGP. One concept that persistently shows up is the trait of humility.


Jesus Christ: It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant. (Matthew 20:26)

Robert K. Greenleaf:  The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.[2]     The only thing I would like to question is whether or not ‘servanthood’ is a natural feeling. I would say that it is very unnatural in today’s selfish world. Only someone highly motivated or filled with the Holy Spirit really desires to serve.

Max De Pree: The art of leadership is “liberating people to do what is required of them in the most effective and humane way possible. The leader is the “‘servant’ of his followers in that he removes the obstacles that prevent them for doing their jobs. In short, the true leader enables his or her followers to realize their full potential.”[4]

David Livermore: “The challenge for us as leaders is to see our existence not only in terms of our own interests but ultimately about things larger than us.”[5]

Jim Collins: A “Level 5” leader channels her ego needs away from herself and into the larger purpose of the foundation. Great, Level 5 leaders will be modest but determined; humble but fearless in pursuing the goals of the organization. Leadership qualities are displayed that all of the other members of the organization can emulate.[6]

Edwin H. Friedman: The characteristics of the self-differentiated leader include “integrity, concern for the growth of others, adventurous enough to seek change, ability to give voice to all members of the group, separate but detached in a healthy way, shows no display of anxiety herself.”[7]

Manfred Kets De Vries: The leader of the future will have the following characteristics – self-management, ability to manage cognitive complexity, cultural relativity (ethnocentricity has no role in this world), an action orientation, generativity, team-building skills, impression management, task-relevant knowledge, and ability to inspire trust in subordinates and maintain that trust throughout the growth of the organization. Wise, humble leaders might also cultivate a friend or associate as a ‘fool’ or ‘truth teller’ as a foil for herself.[8]

Charlene Li: “In the context of open leadership, humility plays a special role – it allows open leaders to accept that their views on something may need to shift because of what their curious explorations expose. … humility gives them the self-awareness and confidence to admit when they are wrong or need help.”[9] To the above traits Li would add transparency and authenticity.

As leaders move their companies toward success while utilizing the new technology, they still set the strategy and learn the skills necessary to make the needed changes in the organization as they move toward more openness. Leaders will still manage their companies but they may change the way they have been doing it. New strategies of dealing with social technology while crafting open policies will be needed especially as the world becomes more global.

[1] Charlene Li. Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead (New Delhi, India: Wiley India Pvt. Ltd., 2010). 14.

[2] The article, “The Servant as Leader” may be found at: https://www.essr.net/~jafundo/mestrado_material_itgjkhnld/IV/Lideranças/The%20Servant%20as%20Leader.pdf,  page 6.

[3] Li. 217.

[4] Max De Pree. Leadership is an Art (Crown Business: New York), xxii.

[5] David Livermore. Leading with Cultural Intelligence: The Real Secret to Success (New York: American Management Association, 2015). 63.

[6] Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors (Boulder, CO, Jim Collins, 2005). 210.

[7] Edwin H. Friedman. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2017). 245.

[8] Manfred Kets De Vries. The Leadership Mystique: Leading Behavior in the Human Enterprise. (New York, NY: Prentice Hall, 2006). 257.

[9] Li. 169.

About the Author

Mary Walker

7 responses to “Open Leadership and the Power of Servanthood”

  1. Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    So true Mary – leaders no longer have the luxury to burrow away in some upper plush office. Their organization, leadership, and accomplishments are posted for all the world to see.
    I love all the quotes you took out of the books on humility. So good and also reminded me how many times we were instructed how humility is a key ingredient for a healthy leader. Any ideas on how to teach humility to leaders? I’ve often pondered this. One of my favorite definitions of humility is, “Shining bright in what you’re good at, but showing awareness of what you’re weak in.” This gives a humble person permission to be their best while still showing insight into where and how they may need some assistance. How does one stay humble when great success is achieved?

  2. Jim Sabella says:

    Mary, you make a good point when you highlight the usefulness of failure in helping the leader and the organization be more open. “Dealing with failure is a key part of being an open leader. No matter how well things are going, there will always be some mistakes.” This is probably one of the greatest reasons leaders feel the need for control and the reason it’s so hard to give up even a bit of control. Enjoyed your posts and appreciate your insight.

  3. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Thank you, Mary, for pointing out the role humility plays in excellent leadership and how all of these texts highlight this truth! I love this statement: “Leaders do not give up all control; they give up their need for control. They let others share in the responsibilities.” Humility is the characteristic that allows us to give up that need for control. Sometimes it is so hard to remember that. I love that you pointed out that we don’t necessarily give up all control, but that we relax into our leadership and let humility reign. I am grateful for your insights here.

  4. Katy Drage Lines says:

    Nice connection between our multiple authors on the characteristic of humility. Perhaps if we keep listening, that will eventually sink in. 😉

    “Leaders do not give up all control; they give up their need for control. They let others share in the responsibilities. With today’s technology open leadership should not be feared but embraced”– this is a great distinction, Mary. I would add that it isn’t just due to shifts in technology that we need to be open, but shifts in what we value in relationships and in our leaders. We used to look highly upon leaders who could tell us the right way to do things, who’d studied and had the right credentials. Now, however, we value leaders who’ve “been there”, who can say, “I know what you mean” and be open and vulnerable about their humanity.

  5. Lynda Gittens says:

    Bravo Mary Bravo

    You have outdone yourself! I love the way you ended your post.

    Her audit system on if you have exercised the open leadership is intense it really focuses you to identify any issues.

  6. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Mary I love how you called out a leaders need for control. It is not a simple task to admit and give up but openness is not about giving up control it is about being responsive to a new way of connecting and relating. Leaders will still have a responsibility to lead. However, they will lead in a new way 🙂

  7. Mary,
    Great ‘catch’ that Humility is a key trait…. As I reflect on both our readings and my own experience and history, I think it is often humility that separates a charismatic person (not in the religious sense) who is put in a leadership position because people will follow them and a genuine leader that is able to move an organization and it’s people forward.
    Thanks again!

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