DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Open Leadership: Leading By Letting Go

Written by: on November 20, 2014

“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.

About the Author

mm

John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

10 responses to “Open Leadership: Leading By Letting Go”

  1. Ashley says:

    Okay, John, so I have to tell you. I know the Pointer Sisters song, “I’m so excited…” because…wait for it…they sang it on Saved By The Bell! Now I’m showing my age 🙂

    Your thoughts here are brilliant:

    “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.”

    Isn’t that the truth? Isn’t also easier to “just do it myself” than to train and empower others? Control is easier. Control is manageable. But I also believe control is reactive. If we learn open leadership correctly, perhaps it can be proactive. Don’t you think?

    Interesting thoughts for sure! One thing I do know… I’m so excited! And I just can’t hide it! 🙂 Hugs, John.

  2. mm John Woodward says:

    Ashley – Saved by Bell! Oh, that is good…and such big hair! Yes, yes, yes! We can be proactive. I did campus ministry for 23 years…college young people are ready to work, serve and make a difference. The worse thing I could do was to treat them like children and tell them what to do. The second worse thing would be let them run wild…so, letting them lead and give input and take ownership while gently guiding and directing them was all important to make it work. But it is a dance…a process of give and take…but it allows that sense of working together as a community, which i think is how the church should run! Isn’t that how Jesus works with us? Thanks for your thoughts…and blessings to you for a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  3. mm Deve Persad says:

    Well, it is a musical start to my blog reading – between Ashley and your contribution, John. You have well documented the dangers of being open in leadership without having some shared guardrails or common goals established. As I consider your comment: “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.” – this aspect of engendering a culture of commitment and and loyalty toward a common goal would be the biggest challenge of my leadership learning. There are times when we feel like we’re just saying the same things over and over again – surely people should understand it by now. However, as I was reminded just this past week, every conversation is an opportunity for the “light” to come on in someone else’s mind. Certainly, when it comes to church leadership, my observation has been that we are constantly in dialogue helping people to be outwardly “mission” focused rather than inwardly “social club” focused, knowing that this is what God has called us to. Openness in this regard has proven valuable but nonetheless difficult. I appreciate you sharing your experiences in Campus ministry (in your comments to Ashley), I think as those in church leadership we can learn a lot from recognizing the contributions that each person has to offer and the importance of creating context for that involvement.

  4. John, You are so right in that allowing people access to information and an opportunity to voice concerns will ultimately undercut a leader’s ability to control and maintain the system they have in place and maintain their position of absolute control. Li testifies to how she has to work in assisting leaders to rediscover what their “new” position of leadership looks like in this now open arena of business. If the leader is no longer in absolute control then what does a leader do. As you rightly surmised, totalitarianism and opens cannot coexist. In reading Telilie’s post I got the idea that the current Ethiopian government is much like Russia was prior to Gorbachev’s perestroika and new desire for glasnost.

    You nailed it when you say that at the center of the problem is confidence. Leaders (for that matter, whole governments) who lack confidence in themselves will be those who hinder and holdback from this openness idea. But as Li points out, both halves of the definition to her open leadership have to be functioning. It is no just letting go but also inspiring commitment form people. One can not do the first without the second. I believe that is what Gorbachev failed to do. He was overwhelmed and caught in the middle between the old and the new and the wave washed over him and took him down. So true as you stated, it is much easier to lead by control than to lead by inspiration. I believe Jesus again gives us the best model. He inspired and continues to inspire us to serve and follow Him even if threatened by death itself. Amazing how He released control, “You are my witnesses.” and inspired us to “Go therefore and make disciples!” He was an open leader indeed!

    Great Post! One of your best! You are growing my friend! I was in our hotel where you and I stayed last September when we first met. See my post this week. Great memories with you and new memories with my wife. Bless you my friend!
    Mitch

  5. John,

    This is a brilliant post; in my opinion, it is the best one of the week. Thanks so much for sharing.

    I come from a Russian-immigrant background. My great-grandparents came came to the U.S. is 1916 carrying their possessions on their backs. My great-grandfather was a tough guy. Nothing would stop him; he was amazing. My grandfather was much gentler. He was my inspiration for life and for leadership. He was a humble but very competent man. He was a man who maintained deep relationships. His loss was huge for me; I am still grieving and it has been over 20 years since he died.

    But the stereotypical Russian genes re-emerged in my father. To this day, my 82-year-old father has to be in charge, in control. He calls the shots — or thinks he does. One thing for certain — he is not is open to growing. He has been in a time warp for decades. He has not changed one iota. And he is miserable. But since he has to keep up the facade of being strong and “in control” nothing deep happens. At best, his relationships are superficial; at worst, they are adversarial. In a nutshell, he is terrified of what would happen if he let go of the control he thinks he has. This is one of the saddest and most unfortunate situations I have ever had to deal with.

    In reality, when one becomes open to change is when good things can happen. Yes, it is risky. But the fruit of healthy relationships and walking into the light of truth is well worth the risk. I can attest to this since I am not like my father at all anymore. Thirty-three years of therapy has helped! I pray that at some point my dad would see that there is something better. We will see what happens.

  6. John…
    I now officially have the Pointer Sister song stuck in my head! Did you know it is hard to think, much less write with a song stuck in your head. Therefore any typos should be understood! 😉

    I had several different thoughts as I read your post. First in writing about the Soviet Union, there were completely unexpected consequences to Gorbachev actions. And then I began thinking about the association of power, command and control. Do you think that Li has intentionally brought us around to think about control and command in a new light? Or is it that Li recognizes the ability (power) of social technologies to shift power, something perhaps the Church is slower to do? Is that the starting place for our engagement in social technology — considering broader issues – like worship and relationship?

    And then you wrote this, “Herein lies, I believe, the biggest hindrance for most leaders. It is easier to lead by control than by inspiration.” (Yep I know others have mentioned it). It just jumps at you, because as I was reading Li and you reminded me, a critical component in releasing “control” is the company’s vision and purpose. It’s why Microsoft isn’t worried about what people are blogging, it is also why people are onboard with the sandbox covenants. They are in essence disciples of their organizations mission and purpose. They are vested in the product. Gosh this might reframe some of our conversations in church (for instance).

    Thanks John for bringing your needed and important perspective to our conversation … Blessings.

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Carol, apologies for the music reference…I had to use it as it was stuck in my mind! Your question is a good one about whether “Li has intentionally brought us around to think about control and command in a new light? Or is it that Li recognizes the ability (power) of social technologies to shift power, something perhaps the Church is slower to do?” I think she really is talking about the elephant in the room – that in our modern connected world that we can no longer do business as usual…that we live in an open social milieu. If we don’t face that, we will end up like Gorbachev and the USSR. Sadly, the church is slow in getting this…but for the church, I would say it is really not about waking up to the new social realities but really a return to its roots. I would suggest that the early church was about “open leadership” – which might be another way of saying “a community” or family (now there is an example of an open situation), where there was a willingness to listen and learn from all members. I too think that the church has not been very responsive to listening to those outside of the church…taking on a more defensive posture. So, yes, here are a lot the church can learn or relearn from how we are communicating with one another today!
      Thanks for your kind words and wonderful insights!

  7. Richard Volzke says:

    John,
    Well-written post! Your statement, “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.” I think this hoarding of information and knowledge may be some of the root cause of problems in the church today. Pastor’s and church leaders are leading (ruling in some cases) the church out of fear of what they may lose. (i.e. if people know xyz, they may not donate, they may quit coming, they may vote me out, etc.) I’ve seen the fear range from pastor’s worrying about losing their jobs or fear that the church can’t handle change. We need to stop leading by fear and start leading by Christ direction…and let the rest sort itself out.
    Richard

  8. Michael Badriaki says:

    John, I really enjoyed reading your post! It is a called to let go of control and be a participant in a life. Holding onto the past and power only serves to increase insecurities and lack of growth. You also easy us into the thought of letting go through nice music which brings the point home.
    You sentence, “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.” Inspire or you will be left behind!

    Great stuff

  9. mm rhbaker275 says:

    John,
    Your post demonstrates an excellent grasp of Li’s book and the concepts and processes needed to allow open leadership in organizations. Your application of openness to the reforms in the Soviet Union that led to the fall of of communism in that country is brilliant. Like you, I wonder about Mikhail Gorbachev’s involvement and what he understood or anticipated – I might need to read a biography or some history … very inspiring.

    You reference the fact that giving up control is not the easy path. Li emphases the point in the statement, “Being open requires more—not less—rigor and effort than being in control.”A great part of the effort, as is show throughout the book, is the need to define how open leadership works in any organization and implementing the guidelines necessary for success.

    I personally believe that there are many additional issues involved with social technology that do not center on matters of control. Certainly, as so clearly articulated by Li, any organization that will be successful and effective in incorporate the positive advantages of social technology must address the downside issues – something that Li does a good job presenting and you have clearly summarized in your post.

    We have read a number of books in our studies that have helped to understand the importance of having a public voice – both the hazards and the rewards. It is something that will be an on-going challenge for me and church leadership in particular in assessing the role in our society. Great read and great post!

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