“I’m about to loose control, and I think I like it.”
Pointer Sisters – “I’m So Excited” (by Dave Gibson)
In the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union began a process of reforms lead by Mikhail Gorbachev that becomes popularly know as perestroika. The word perestroika means restructuring, which Gorbachev hoped to bring to the political and economic systems of his empire. On the political side, Gorbachev introduced the idea of “openness” or transparency, which came to be known as glasnost. This new openness was breathtaking, as the Communist Party held monolithic power for over seventy years, keeping the tightest reigns on information and governance. To suggest the need for reform was anathema for most Communist leaders. The Soviet leadership was ignorant of the consequences of opening this door, that it might invite actual criticism and the possible loss of control. What followed was not gradual reform and genial discussions across the Soviet empire, but a massive tsunami of protest that swept Communist out of power and brought the collapse of the Soviet Union. Little did Gorbachev understand the power and consequences of open leadership.
What Gorbachev failed to understand was that glasnost or openness meant a lose of absolute control. I believe this is why China today keeps a tight reign on the Internet and why church leaders avoid giving voice to their parishioners and businesses a voice to their customers. It is believed that allowing people access to information and an opportunity to voice their concerns will ultimately undercut a leader’s ability to control and maintain their system or their position. In other words, totalitarianism and openness cannot coexist. For this reason, many people today in business and throughout society struggle with the technological advances of the Internet, because this new ability to connect, relate with and respond to the masses brings fear to leaders who wish to keep total control.
Charlene Li’s Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead is a helpful guide into this new world of instantaneous information and feedback. From business to non-profits, it is clear that there is today the possibility to connect with and engage people more quickly and get feed back almost immediately. To survive and compete in today’s world requires that one enter into this new world of cyber connectivity. But, this comes with many dangers. For many, they see the issue as: “I’m responsible so I have to have control…if you’re telling me to give up control, how can I manage the discrepancy between control and results?”[i] Their fear is to end up like Gorbachev, an ex-leader of a defunct empire! I have found that for many pastors in churches, founders of organizations and leaders in non-profits, there is that fear of letting go, of creating that crack in the wall that would allow for openness and honest feedback from staff and members, because that would indeed result in the lose of control of information and image, and might require change. And without control, how can one guarantee outcomes?
What Li sets out is a new paradigm for leaders to navigate through these perilous technological seas. It requires a leadership based on inspiring commitment rather than on control. She states it this way:
“What’s changed today is that new technologies allow us to let go of control and still be in command, because better, cheaper communication tools give us the ability to be intimately familiar with what is happening with both customers and employees. The result of these new relationships is open leadership, which I define as: having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals.”[ii]
Today we have the unprecedented ability to learn what people are thinking; to communicate with costumers and clients and receive immediate feedback, providing real guidance for leaders to make decisions. But, to actually obtain and use this information requires both humility and confidence. “At the center of the problem is confidence. When you open up and let go, you have to have faith that the people to whom you pass power will act responsibly. This also requires a heavy does of humility, which is the understanding that there are equally capable—or actually more capable—people who can do this things that you do.”[iii] Without humility and confidence, opening this door is only going to lead to hardship. Openness will bring about unwelcomed information and will spotlight bad practices that will have to be addressed. It will require change. It will further highlight the need to network and rely on others. But to lose control doesn’t necessarily mean losing the ability to guide and direct. Open leadership requires the leader to lead by “inspiration.” Leading through developing commitment, loyalty, a sense of ownership and participation is the natural outgrowth of this process of give and take, replacing dictatorial leadership with partnership and cooperation.
Herein lies, I believe, the biggest hindrance for most leaders. It is easier to lead by control than by inspiration. We see this in dying churches, where the ineffective leaders turns a deaf ear to those who end up leaving the church. We see this in failing organizations because the leader stubbornly holds to her old ways. To open the door to the customer, the congregant, to the masses, will require change…sometimes, massive change that will require the leader to begin to lead by encouraging commitment and loyalty to their cause, and by humbly heeding the advice and input of others.
The Soviet leaders were stuck in their ways and had no real desire to change, and they definitely didn’t want to lose control of the powerful position. However, they were blindsided by the fact that if you crack open the door to allow people a voice, change will happen. They weren’t ready for this massive swell of voices that rose up, and they were swept out of power. Openness and humility, confidence and commitment building, go hand-in-hand. This is the world we now live in and cannot ignore, or we too will be left behind.
[i] Charlene Li, Open Leadership: How Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead (San Francisco, CA: Jossy-Bass, 2010), p. 13.
[ii] Ibid., 14.
[iii] Ibid., 18.