Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform The Way You Lead by Charlene Li is an excellent text that does exactly what it says it will do in its title. The book explores how social technology has paved the way for leaders to be more open in their leadership style and with organization functioning. As well, this open leadership approach applies not only to for-profit business, but really to any organization.
Li offers lots of strategies and case studies to underscore them throughout the book. However, one of the most important pieces that I found in the book was her recognition of the fact that open policies need open leaders. It will come as no surprise to virtually anyone that personnel who are charged with various aspects of the implementation of company growth/marketing strategies have found themselves stymied in the past (and currently) by upper-level management who find it difficult and/or are unwilling to let go of control/privacy (however detrimental and/or illusory) even as their intransigence harms company morale and fiscal bottom-line.
Li’s book adroitly and even presciently names some of the issues that leaders are having with the idea of an open leadership oriented company strategy. For instance, she notes that “empowered people and organizations are stressing out today’s leaders.” I agree with this. However, we typically think of empowerment as a fully positive word. Yet, in the case of this sentence, I would at least like to note on behalf of leaders that there are some “empowered” unhealthy people whose voices have been given a proverbial bullhorn magnifying the impact of their inanity. Of course, as I agreed at first, there are also some companies led by less than salutary leaders who need a calling-out by a healthy populace that is empowered.
Yet, this stress the leaders are experiencing is partly because they have admirably said “yes” to the idea of open engagement in various forms. But then the thought and question becomes for leaders, “I am responsible, so I have to have control. But if you are telling me to be open and give up control, then what is my role?” Li responds,
“This is the crux of the problem: these new relationships are forcing leaders to rethink how they lead and how to get people to follow…Leadership requires a new approach, new mind-set, and new skills. It isn’t enough to be a good communicator. You must be comfortable sharing personal perspectives and feelings to develop closer relationships…And it is not sufficient to just be humble. You need to seek out opportunities to be humbled each and every day—to be touched as much by the people who complain as by those who say ‘Thank you.’”
This all leads back to an earlier statement from Li, “So put aside the calls to be more transparent, authentic and—my favorite— to be ‘real.’ The question isn’t whether you will be authentic, transparent, and real, but rather, how much will you let go and be open in the face of new technologies. Transparency, authenticity, and the sense that you are being real are the by-products of your decision to be open.” That is, Li is saying to some extent to worry less about what your role will be; this will become apparent as you step into the decision to more widely engage with your constituency. And in case you were wondering if you still have a choice whether or not to engage in such “open leadership,” Li has a whole piece on “Greater Openness is Inevitable.” In many senses it is less about the what and more about the how. How to move into these new changes as healthily as possible. This is what much of Li’s book engages.
I would like to leave this discussion of the idea of open leadership as being promoted through social technology with something similar it reminds me of, open leadership as being promoted through a very old theology.
Many years ago, 1978 to be exact, Lesslie Newbigin wrote a book called The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. In this text, Newbigin – who had spent from 1936-1974 in India as a missionary – calls for an open, dialogical engagement with others who do not consider themselves followers of Christ.
Offering an extended quote, Newbigin writes,
“The Christian confession of Jesus as Lord does not involve any attempt to deny to deny the reality of the work of God in the lives and thoughts and prayers of men and women outside of the Christian church. On the contrary, it ought to involve an eager expectation of, a looking for, and a rejoicing in the evidence of that work. There is something deeply wrong when Christians imagine that loyalty to Jesus requires them to belittle the manifest presence of the light in the lives of men and women who do not acknowledge him, to seek out points of weakness, to ferret out hidden sins and deceptions as a means of commending the gospel. If we love the light and walk in the light we will also rejoice in the light wherever we find it— even the smallest gleams of it…Christians then in their dealings with men and women who do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord, will meet them and share with them in a common life, not as strangers but as those who live by the same life-giving Word, and in whom the same life-giving light shines. They will recognize and rejoice in the evidences they find of a response to the same God from whom alone light and life come. They will join with their non-Christian neighbors in all that serves life against death and light against darkness. They will expect to learn as well as to teach, to receive as well as to give, in this common human enterprise of living and building up a common life. They will not be eager to have their particular contributions to the common human task separately labeled as “Christian.” They will be happy only if what they can do can serve the reign and righteousness of the Father of Jesus who loves all, gives life to all, and purposes the blessing of all.”
There is much more overlap to the two books by Li and Newbigin. But suffice it to say that in an age of hypermarketing, faith and business have quite a lot in common. As with anything else, let us all work to make sure the commonalities are healthier rather than troublesome.
 Charlene Li, Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform The Way You Lead (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), xvi.
 Ibid., xiii.
 Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978/1995).
 Ibid., 175-176.