Book Review: Open Leadership by Charlene Li

 OpenLeadership

At South by Southwest, one of my many serendipitous reactions was with Charlene Li, who I knew well when she was with Forrester. This was perhaps the first time I saw her in person since she foudned the Altimeter Group, and she had a present for me: a galley of her forthcoming book Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead.

For those who've been to SXSW or anything remotely like it, needing to carry a book around all night where I was likely to hit another three bars or clubs in the subsequent five hours or so would normally be a chore. But these is Charlene, coauthor of Groundswell, which I called in 2008 "the best book on social media I've ever read." Groundswell still is, and few others have made it to my recommendation list. So when Charlene handed me a sneak preview, I unflinchingly accepted. Note that my comments below are all based on the galley, an uncorrected proof that's subject to change, so accept that some of the quotes may be fine-tuned between now and the book's release.

Now, I'll be totally honest. Her new book, Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead, is not Groundswell. It's as well written and structured – you can Charlene out of Forrester but you can't take the Forrester out of Charlene. Yet Groundswell had something going for it that few other books do: universality. Groundswell's a book I still give or lend to people when they're just starting to get into the social media field, and I recommend it to people who are experienced practioners (though most in the latter camp have already read it). It's a data and case study driven field manual for social media.

Open Leadership is something else – no worse, just more focused. If you're not leading a business, a lot of the book won't apply to you. If you're aspiring to be in such a leadership position, it will be fairly relevant. If that's not your focus or won't be some time, you can skip over the better part of the book without regret.

Those leading organizations, however, will find a lot of ways to be inspired by the book. It's no manifesto for openness. In her Organizational Models for Openness, she describes several approaches:

  • Organic: developing without much direction and often without oversight
  • Centralized: top-down from executive management
  • Coordinated: starts with some kind of executive direction but then takes its own forms at the department level on down

She also describes four types of decision-making: Centralized, Democratic, Consensus, and Distributed. What's telling is that she's not judging what's the best approach for every organization. Different forms of openness will benefit different companies and structures in different ways.

She does pass judgment on the traits of open leaders themselves, noting which are more effective. For instance, she writes, "The Realist Optimist is the most powerful and effective of the open leader archetypes, somebody who can see the benefits of being open but also understands the barriers." She constrasts this archetype with others such as the Transparent Archetype, "optimitic and individualistic," a believer "in the ability of new technologies to transform people and organizations," and yet "they don't understand who technology needs to be coordinated or collaborated inside the organization to make things happen effectively."

One of my favorite axioms in the book is one of those paradoxes that constantly fascinates me: "The reason to get proactive about giving up control is that by doing so you can actually regain some semblance of control." It speaks to a classic fear many marketers have with social media. But yet the only way to get any control over how your brand or organization plays in the conversations and sharing that are happening is to have your own stake in it and get your own voice out.

The section on measurement is also one of my favorites, and one of the more broadly useful for marketers. I've already been quoting one line on the book regarding the return on investment concerns. In my favorite metaphor of the book, she writes, "As you try to measure the benefits and 'ROI' of a deeper dialog and relationship with customers, you must realize that you can't even begin to calculate the benefit of protecting your organization in a real time communication world. Another way to frame the issue is to ask what is the ROI on your fire insruance policy? Going without can't even be contemplated!"

There's plenty more to say on this one, and I still have to make sense of all of my notes on it. You can read more at Charlene's site on Open Leadership, If enough of this seems relevant to you and you wind up picking up a copy, share your thoughts in the comments. 

One thought on “Book Review: Open Leadership by Charlene Li

  1. David: Thanks for the review — you nailed the key difference of Open Leadership, which is that it’s written for people in leadership positions who are threatened by the new social realities of our world. In particular, I’m glad you liked the measurement chapter — it was one of the most cited benefits of “Groundswell” so I wanted to devote an entire chapter to this much discussed (and misunderstood) topic.

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