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May 06, 2010

Should you buy into "Open Leadership"?

by Josh Bernoff

Open leadership Charlene Li, my coauthor on Groundswell, former Forrester analyst, and founder of Altimeter Group, has written a new book, Open Leadership. You should read it.

As much as I hate to start any post or book review with a disclaimer, the backstory on what you are about to read in this post is so complicated that I must. So: no one reading this should be under any illusions as to this being an "unbiased" review. From our very close work together, I know Charlene's mind and ways of thinking extremely well. Now, of course, we compete for the attention of clients thinking about social strategy, which complicates our relationship. Plus, I am the coauthor of Empowered, coming out in September, a book that bears on many of the same topics as Open Leadership.

Anyone reading this should know, first, what you are reading is my personal opinion, not the position of Forrester Research. And second, if you need data, research, or consulting on strategy or tactics for social applications of any kind, I fervently believe you should come to us.

So, what is there to recommend Open Leadership? Charlene starts out with this thesis: 

Open leadership is having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals.

This is not just a paean to openness. First of all, Charlene makes the case that social technology gives customers and employees access to all sorts of power and information now, and more openness is the only response. And second, the book includes tools to help you, for example, assess your own level of openness and what your organization can tolerate.

I found some parts of the book a lot more useful or interesting than others. Here are three good parts.

  1. Sandbox covenants. These are the rules organizations set up to determine what sorts of limits and conventions there are on openness. The book includes a link to social media policies of a bunch of corporations, not yet live, but I am looking forward to seeing that. This discussion, in Chapter 5, goes a long way to helping bridge the gap between social media backers within companies and corporate policymakers.
  2. Organizational models for openness. Charlene describes three types of organization: organic, centralized, and coordinated, and shows when each one makes sense. Given all the questions I get these days about organization for social, this is quite relevant.
  3. Leadership mindsets and traits. Chapter 7 classifies leaders according to whether they are optimistic or pessimistic, and whether they are independent or collaborative. Anyone who has ever had a boss will find this instructive. This is a fascinating way to look at leadership.

I did not love everything about this book. The biggest question in my mind is, who is the audience? CEOs can benefit, and there are leaders throughout organizations, but the challenge is for the millions of workers in the trenches in management, customer service, and elsewhere in companies. Transforming an organization to become more open is a huge task, and there is a lot here about what companies should do, but not enough about how to get there and how ordinary employees can participate.

I also experienced some confusion around the central idea of the book. If you are a social technology strategist or participant, this will read a lot like a book on social technology -- a sequel to Groundswell. At a recent event, I asked Charlene about how social relates to open, and she clarified that social creates the need to be open. But the book slips back and forth between the two concepts of social and openness without enough explicit attention to this difference. 

If you are a social media wiz (that is, if you've already read Groundswell), you'll find the four objectives described here awfully similar to the the five objectives in Groundswell, and the concept of "socialgraphics" highly parallel to our Social Technographics. There are new cases studies in the sections on social technology, but some will seem very familiar to people who've been paying attention to the social world in the last two years.

In person and in this book, Charlene is one of the most upbeat and optimistic people I know. This is quite a contrast to the dark and sardonic side that I personally have, and the dynamic between those two poles made Groundswell better. Open Leadership is a relentlessly optimistic book for the most part. Even so, my favorite part was the chapter on failure, and how to embrace it and learn from it. Stories about failure inspire me. These were the best case studies in the book.

As for how Open Leadership relates to Empowered: Open Leadership is more about the high-level philosophy of leadership in a social world. Empowered, first of all, will address more than just social technology, looking also at video, cloud, and mobile technology. And Empowered is designed to deliver practical strategy advice to people at all levels and departments of an organization, including marketing, customer service, IT, and senior leadership.

I wish you could buy both books right now. But get your copy of Open Leadership later this month, and hang on for our book a few months later. If social technology has got you thinking harder about how your organization runs, the ideas about to be on offer from its creators will, I hope, advance your thinking.


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Joe McCarthy

Interesting review, and it's helpful to have all the background context. Regarding your notes about failure, inspiration and learning, I'll share two of my favorite quotes from the Web 2.0 Expo conference in San Francisco this week.

The first was by Eric Ries during his Tuesday talk "The Lean Startup: Innovation Through Experimentation. Not Just for Startups Anymore", in which we warned against what he called "achieving failure: successfully executing a plan that takes you over a cliff."

The second was by Stewart Butterfield, during today's talk with Cal Henderson on "A Web Nerd's Approach to Building a Massively-Multiplayer Game":

"We have an excellent chance of success because we already failed."

Matthew Mezey

'Open Leadership + Enterprise 2.0: the practices that can make them real'

Hi Josh,

I can't review Charlene's new book, as I've only heard her give a keynote about it, not actually read it...

But I did wonder about some important practices that might be missing from her book, in a new blog post 'Open Leadership + Enterprise 2.0: the practices that can make them real' here:

I also really wanted to make the links to current research on open and vulnerable leadership, which I don't think Charlene makes.

Any thoughts?

Matthew Mezey
(Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals)

Email Advertising

I think this book would be very interesting for me. I've worked for several bosses who were really into micro-management and each time it resulted in a miserable work experience for me. The section which deals on the different types of leader would likely be the most interesting section for me.

maplestory mesos

Classic exposition, I have also mentioned it in my blog article. But it is a pity that almost no frienddiscussed it with me. I am very happy to see your article.

Matthew Mezey

Charlene Li has just now made a thoughtful and detailed response to the think-piece I mentioned above on 'Open Leadership + Enterprise 2.0: the practices that can make them real'.

Take a look:


Barbara French

Josh, I'm reading an advance copy of Charlene's book now. So far, I'm finding it speaks easily to all layers of management and those who aspire to consult on social strategy. And so far, it's linking practical actions to each of the big ideas it introduces.

I expect your next book will address the same broad audience and employ the same actionable approach, based on your presentation with Augie Ray at the Forrester Marketing Forum last month. Look forward to reading it.

Internet Advertising | James

Very interesting things come up when two people who are friends begin to work and compete against each other...

Sherri Maxson

I would definitely recommend Open Leadership. I just finished my read and think its full of great examples, case studies and questions to get leaders inspired to change the way they lead. My review is here: http://theartofsocialmedia.blogspot.com/2010/05/open-leadership.html

Todd Nilson

Josh, thanks for the review. I had a question about your book, though. You said, "Empowered, first of all, will address more than just social technology, looking also at video, cloud, and mobile technology."

I'd like to hear more about the distinction you are making here between the social technology category and video, cloud, and mobile.

Video, it seems to me, is certainly a category of social technology, taken in the context of YouTube, Vimeo and their ilk. I suppose you could argue that cloud and mobile are something different, but they do seem to be tightly related to social technologies. Maybe you see them as enablers? Cloud, after all, on one level allows employees to collaborate more fluidly. And mobile technologies improve the immediacy of interactions in a variety of "live" contexts.

What are your thoughts?

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