Now Reading: Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead

Even though “Open Leadership” touches on health care tangentially (Kaiser Permanente’s social media approach is discussed, as is a reference to Paul Levy’s work),  Charlene Li has clearly spent time in the organizations we work in or resemble the organizations we work in. This includes organizations that are risk tolerant, risk averse, have jumped in full force, who are waiting to jump into the world of being open. I actually met Charlene when she came to Kaiser Permanente as it was getting ready to jump in; her advice has been influential in developments since then.

I admit, I am pre-programmed to endorse the concepts in this book based on my own journey and affinity toward generational changes in leadership happening in society. As Li says, open is about about “letting go of control at the right time, in the right place, and in the right amount,” and that

..the act of engaging with people, of accepting that they have power, can actually put you in a position to counter negative behavior. In fact, it’s really the only chance you have of being able to influence the outcome.

I see many analogies here to health care and specifically to the way we interact with patients. Replace the words “negative behavior” with “poor health,” in the first quote above and see if you agree with me.

Beyond our relationship with patients, I see the importance of this approach to recruiting today’s and tomorrow’s nurses, doctors, and other health professionals. It’s likely that the most successful organizations will be the ones that attract the generation of staff who are drawn to this approach to leadership

if you’re a young person just starting out and looking for a job, which would you gravitate toward: a company that blocks and shuns social technologies, or a company like Sodexo that embraces them as a way to built initial relationships?

What does open mean and how do you do it?

Li defines open leadership as

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

I like the use of the concept of  “covenants” rather than “polices” and “contracts” which indicate that openness is about trade-offs and exchanges of power, not free-for all sharing of everything, which is the thing that a lot of people not familiar with communication technologies think is happening (it’s not).

On that note, I also like the meaning of “transparency” as making information and processes “visible,” and I agree this is what the best open leader do. It is creating visibility to say that there’s no information on a topic, after all.

A business leadership book, not a technology book

As I mentioned above, this work is less about which technology a person/organization should try and more about the value of transforming leadership. There’s a nice discussion of metrics, including the Net Promoter Score (NPS) which it sounds like is well established in the business world, but new to this physician, so glad for the overview.

An extension called the “New Customer Lifetime Value Calculation” is introduced to incorporate the data coming from the social web world. There’s also recent discussion of Total Social Customer Value on Li partner Jeremiah Owyag’s blog. The point of these is that reasonable metrics can be applied to the use of these media beyond twitter follower counts.

There are also several/many useful case studies, both from the usual suspect organizations like Facebook, Best Buy, and Google, but also organizations like State Bank of India and the US State Department, and Cisco, which has been doing a lot of work in this area that I wasn’t aware of.

The world belongs to optimists

This leadership trait is given a lot of credit, which I of course appreciate. Li talks about the most powerful and effective open leader archetype being the “Realist Optimist,” who can see the benefits of being open but also understands the barriers.

Interestingly, when I searched for the phrase “world belongs to optimists” on this blog, I came to this 2007 entitled “Why a blog…” and it struck me how what I wrote then is structured around optimism (why this is good for health care and society) along with the guard rails (what is not useful to share and why).

Everyone isn’t an optimist, so I like the pairings she suggests between this archetype and others that are less developed in the open leadership capacity (e.g. “Worried Skeptics” and “Cautious Testers”). A lot of people have probably met the fourth archetype, the “Transparent Evangelist,” which I agree has a downside in transforming organizations, because their optimism for the technology is not paired with an understanding of how to coordinate and collaborate with others who are not “there” yet.

People like me probably drift into Transparent Evangelist on occasion but actively focus on maintaining a realist optimist posture externally, I’ll ask my colleagues to comment on whether I am successful at this all the time.

A new era of book reading

This is also the first book I have read on an iPad – I used the Barnes and Noble reader app because the book hadn’t yet appeared on the Kindle when I went to get it. It is still not on Apple’s iBookstore. Luckily there is more than one way to get electronic books these days. The experience is definitely value-added – it’s really easy to skip to endnotes, and check out web sites that are referred to in the book. This part will be particularly good when the iPad gets multitasking. I like to highlight and add notes, and this is also doable. The Barnes and Noble crashed occasionally but I never lost anything. Knock on glass and metal.

A good conversation starter beyond “how do I Tweet”

As I have talked to lots of people from within my organization and outside of it who ask how they can work in an open kind of way, I was thinking about whether this book is a good starting point, and I think it is.

Li has a tremendous amount of credibility in this space and she includes enough examples and thinking that will stimulate useful discussion, and specifically in a “Realist Optimist” kind of way. In other words, people reading this book will not be encouraged to start a blog, twitterfeed, wiki for the sake of doing these things. Li has never been about that, anyway.

As I read about the differences between leaders who are “open” and those who are not, I came to realize that most people actually aspire to be open, sharing, collaborative and supportive, they may not know how, or know how to leverage social technologies to support this desire. This book is a useful adjunct to that discussion. Give it a try.


Ted Eytan, MD