The Idea of Open Leadership

I have not read Charlene Li’s book, bearing the title Open Leadership. It is on my (getting-longer-by-the-day) list of books to read for 2011. Until I have read the book, perhaps I should hold fire from posting on this area because:

  1. It may amount to a complete load of twaddle (by me and not Charlene!);
  2. I may decide that there is nothing of the sort;
  3. I may not be qualified to express a view; or
  4. It doesn’t apply to professional practice.

But, without wishing to appear presumptuous, I suspect that the book will only reinforce my view that professional practice is missing a trick by not tapping into the depth of talent, sentiment and passion that exists within a firm (“the talent pool”). And it is how, bottom up, this cohort could influence the direction and decision-making of the firm and be given a meaningful voice.

The idea of Open Leadership would be like having an orchestra without a conductor. This is not new and the Camerta Bern have been running this “experiment” since 1963 ( Or you may want to consider the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra mentioned in William C Taylor’s most recent book, Practically Radical (see Chapter 7).

This may not properly express the idea of Open Leadership but my point is this. Rather than worrying that someone may come along with a better idea than those in charge or openly criticise the chosen leaders, the talent pool should be embraced, rewarded and encouraged to develop new (workable) ideas so as to increase profit and provide a shining light for the future of the firm. This is not to say that leaders (partners, members or directors) are bereft of ideas but rather the ideas depository that lies dormant in the talent pool is not being exploited.

But of course it would carry risk (“mutiny” I hear you cry), but not to the extent that it was unworkable. The obvious glitch is dissent in the leadership camp: the person or persons has/have earned their stripes, endured many years of graft, gone through a leadership election and there is absolutely no way they are going to allow one person let alone a unelected body to rule the roost. But if you accept the notion that a group is likely to know as much about an issue and likely more, then the leader/follower issue should not be an insuperable one.

Why would firms bother or even need to change? They don’t. But for those who will have to move through an intense period of transition, where more and more firms will begin to look inwards at their business model, what have they got to lose by asking their people “What do you think” and then acting on their advice. Or better still empowering them to do so.

One of the problems for leaders is that they do not always get a straight answer to a straight question. People are too fearful of saying what they really think.

The classic one in professional practice is:

Leader: “How is it going? Busy?”

Follower: “It’s fine. It could be busier but I/we have lots of non-chargeable stuff on at the moment”.

This is BS for:

“It sucks around here and we are desperate to see some good work.”

They are also so removed from the day to day operation that they often don’t see the opportunities or threats as quickly as those in the thick of the action.

A lot of people may be very uncomfortable in stepping up to the plate and even putting their name forward and that is perfectly understandable. Career suicide right now would probably not be a great motivator. However, if firms were remotely serious about this paradigm shift then they would have to demonstrate that the listening and acting approach is not going to result in the “Can we have a word conversation” meaning “you have gone too far and …”.

As trite as it may sound, I am a passionate believer that the greatest asset of a firm is its people. Many firms espouse this but few actually go out of their way, no different to a lot of businesses, to make sure that every person could say that they were the most of anything.

Not everyone would want a say. They would be content to leave it to others providing they understood their role in the firm. But for those people, and you know who I mean, who are always first to complain and criticize your repost might be: “OK so what would you do?” Now you may be doing this already but are you acting on what they say?

There may be some firms that are already running their firm along the lines of Open Leadership. This may be the case with virtual firms and I would be really interested to hear your thoughts on how it has worked or is working for you.

For everyone else, I don’t expect this issue to receive any uptake sometime soon but it won’t stop me on this blog from exploring the idea of open ‘something’ where the complete talent pool is embraced, developed and deployed.