Are you ready for Open Leadership?

Are you ready for Open Leadership? That’s the question that Charlene Li asks in her book, Open Leadership: How social technology can transform the way you lead. A major theme in the book is that leadership is about relationships, and because social technologies are changing relationships, leadership also needs to change. And while most executives understand the importance of listening and drawing out the best from their people, a majority of leaders are still focused on maintaining control.

One of the biggest reasons why open leadership is feared and avoided is a concern that open leadership may lead to a lack of control. But in her book, Li explains that openness and control are not an either/or proposition. In fact, it requires a leader be both open and in command.

To help leaders get started with this, Li recommends evaluating where you stand on two important dimensions; Optimism versus Pessimism; and Individuality versus Collaboration. By assessing yourself in these two areas you can begin to understand your starting point on the journey to being a more open leader.

Optimism vs. Pessimism

The first dimension is optimism versus pessimism.  On this scale, Li asks leaders to evaluate their basic assumptions about people. In Li’s model, pessimistic leaders tend to see people as needing to be controlled because people can be harmful, negative, and untrustworthy with information. Optimists, on the other hand, believe that if given the opportunity, people will be positive and constructive, will do the right thing, and can be trusted with confidential information.

Key question: Where do you stand on this first important dimension?

Individually Focused vs. Collaboratively Focused

The second dimension is whether a leader is more individually or collaboratively focused. Individually focused leaders will believe in involving fewer, more knowledgeable people, and in relying on personal initiative—both in themselves and others. These leaders prefer to limit decision-making authority to people who have the knowledge and responsibility for that function in the organization. Collaborative leaders will believe more in the collective wisdom of the group, will tend to depend on others when times are tough, and will personally point to collaboration with others as a key reason for their own success.

Key question: Where would you put yourself on this continuum?

Changing your mindset

An open leadership strategy requires you and your organization’s leadership to be more open and collaborative. But transforming existing mindsets requires time, patience, and repeated small successes to build confidence. To help you get started, Li recommends four strategies: 

  • Develop guidelines around the sharing of information. When you share information or push down decision-making, what are your expectations about what will be done with this power? What responsibilities do you want employees to take on? 
  • Partner with others who are optimistic and collaborative. Seek out other leaders in your organization whom you regard as an optimistic and open leader. Sit down with this person understand his or her perspective and outlook on the world. What does this person do to ensure being in control while opening up? How does this person make openness work in your organization? 
  • Examine your beliefs. As Li explains, Your mindset is developed through crucial personal experiences, so talk with people who know you well on a personal level. Every person harbors some optimism, so turn to the people whom you trust to help you find that starting point where you will feel comfortable engaging with people.” 
  • Start small and build.  Personal change is difficult and old habits die hard. You can’t simply announce, “From today forward I will be collaborative; I will be optimistic.”  It takes time to shift the mindset, and it happens only with repeated successes.

For leaders looking to be more open, Li recommends taking it one step at a time.  In doing so, you can build confidence in sharing information and collaborative decision-making with an ever widening circle of people.  To learn more about Charlene Li and her thoughts on open leadership, check out her book here, or visit  You’ll find a host of great resources that can help you in your journey.

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