I have a friend who, whenever we get together, almost always says, “Tell me a story, Julie Dodge. I need a story.” I love a good story. I think stories bring us together; they remind us of our common humanity. And interestingly enough, if we are paying attention, there is usually a good story to be told.
For example, I own a duplex, which makes me a landlord. My best friend lives upstairs with her wife. A week or two ago she came to me saying that her refrigerator was leaking water. She had wiped it up, and it had re-appeared the next day. Now, my friend Tina is not always known for her subtle detective skills. So I went to investigate, with perhaps a bit of financial fear in my heart. After all, the refrigerator is only a couple of years old and things are a little tight right now. But off I went with my trusty flashlight. I got on the floor, looked under the frig, checked the water heater (which is right next to it), pulled everything out. Nothing. Until I picked up the Swiffer mop, stored between the frig and the water heater. If you are familiar with the Swiffer, it’s a long handle with a flat, mop “head” to which you affix an absorbent pad that is a bit like a rectangular diaper for floors. Attached to the handle is a bottle of floor cleaner, which sprays ahead of the mop-pad-thing when you are cleaning. I realized that the Swiffer was surrounded by liquid, and upon closer examination discovered that somehow the floor cleaner bottle had gotten a small puncture which was slowly leaking. Crisis averted. And Tina made me promise not to tell anyone that she had called the landlord to fix the Swiffer. To which I simply could not agree (to the not telling part).
If you are paying attention, you can spot the humanity in so very many things. Tina was actually quite anxious for me, fearing that the refrigerator needed fixing. I was anxious about the very same thing. And then Tina was extremely embarrassed about having missed such a little thing and getting so stressed and for asking for help to address an issue that she could have easily resolved herself. I, however, thought it was hysterical that the “crisis” was a leaky cleaning bottle.
So what on earth does a story about a leaky Swiffer have to do with “Open Leadership”?  It’s about story and fear. One of the things that social service agencies notoriously struggle with is marketing. Far too often I have heard a non-profit leader talk about how they are the best kept secret in town. But I don’t think being a secret is a good thing. A restaurant would never want to be the best kept secret in town – they would go bankrupt. And people who are seeking social services get frustrated trying to find the secret access code that unveils the wealth of resources in our community. Far too many social service providers put their heads down and focus on providing good services while missing the point that telling our story increases visibility, increases funding opportunities, and increases client access. Under the false guise of being humble, they miss the mark.
Author Charlene Li addresses how in our current world, social media and technology are keys to the success of business. It can transform business. Social media is an affordable, personal, and effective way to tell our story. We can shape our story. We can engage with our customers. We can communicate helpful information that supports healing and health. Which leads me to the fear part of my story.
Social service agencies have also been notoriously slow to embrace technology. At my first job after grad school, I brought my own computer in to my office because the agency didn’t have one. I remember when we first started using email and how hard it was to get people to check their email, even once a week. There are always reasons why we resist technology. We need to maintain professional boundaries with our clients. We need to protect client confidentiality. It’s not personal. It’s, it’s, it’s… Today most non-profits have web sites, but they typically include information only and are not interactive. Most fear Twitter, texting, Facebook, and Flikr for various reasons, but often because they simply don’t think they can control it. I find it ironic. These agencies whose very missions are to build relationship to support healing and health and meet basic needs are missing the opportunity to build relationships with their customers. Perhaps this is because it is not in the format that the traditional providers view as genuine relationship. Genuine relationship is personal and face to face. But I would propose that we need to change our definition of relationship.
My favorite section in Li’s book was her discussion of failure. She embraces it and encourages it. It is inevitable (pp. 222-230). When I moved back to Oregon in the mid-nineties, I was hired by an agency that was small, but merged with another, larger organization. That organization grew and grew. I was afforded great opportunity, and together we grew a small program of ten staff members into a large service division of over 60 team members. I was allowed to experiment, to innovate, to fail, and to try again. I often reflect upon this period as one of the more meaningful times in my career. I had a strong attachment to my workplace, and I felt trusted. I extended that same trust to my team members, and we did some truly wonderful things. But as the organization grew, it moved from a collaborative leadership model, to more of a command and control model. The organization considered three models of organizational growth as part of its strategic planning: innovation, service, and efficiency. I had a bias toward innovation. My team had a bias toward excellence in service. And the organization adopted an efficiency model. By the time I left the agency, through the efficiency model it had developed a very stable financial base, but this also had led to increased command and control. The trust was gone and the openness had been managed.
Open leadership takes courage. It requires leaders to collaborate and not control; to trust and also build appropriate safeguards; to be authentic and transparent and realistic. If I were in charge of the world, I would hope to lead in such a way that embraces the technology of the times, and learn to use it to build relationship and communication with both customers and employees. I would want to use it to tell our stories in ways that increase access, increase relationship, and models integrity.
 Charlene Li, “Open Leadership: How Social Technology can Transform the Way You Lead”, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.