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What Makes an Open Leader?

Open leaders are inherently curious about the world and have an insatiable need to seek out opportunities to improve themselves and the world around them. They are curious about customers, about their employees, about industry trends, and the wider world.
Written Mar 24, 2010, read 2868 times since then.


Leadership is about relationships, and because social technologies are changing relationships, leadership needs to change. Empowered customers and employees are loath to sit by the sidelines and accept business as usual. Systemic changes are also causing leadership to change; the recent economic recession has seen a marked decline in business confidence, causing company CEOs to promise greater transparency in operations and company financials to build customer and investor trust.

All of this leads to a critical juncture in leadership. Yet many of the executives I speak with refuse to acknowledge that any change is needed; they believe that in times of crisis and transition, a firm hand at the top is needed. They insist on sticking with their traditional command-and-control leadership style of limiting information sharing and decision making. Good luck to them.

One reason leaders fear greater openness is the concern that they will lose all semblance of control. Yet open leadership requires forethought, planning, and structure. It requires a leader be both open and in control. An open leader is not simply warm, fuzzy, authentic, transparent, or “real.” It’s a mixture of mind-set, temperament, learned behaviors, and skills that build on and amplify good leadership skills.

In my research and interviews, I have found two mind-sets that determine how open you are—or can be—as a leader. The first is your view of people. In general, are you optimistic or pessimistic about people’s intentions? No one is completely optimistic nor completely pessimistic—and this often depends on the situation at hand. But in general, open leaders believe in “win-win” situations, in which people acting in their self-interest are also acting in the organization’s best interest.

A pessimistic mind-set believes that greater openness, sharing, and collaboration cannot come to a good end—that there is an inherent give-and-take, and that the risk to the organization of being open is too great.

Optimism allows open leaders to be more open with information, both in sharing it with a larger audience and in gathering it from different sources. If a key component of your open strategy involves more open information sharing, then you will need leaders who are more optimistic than pessimistic.

The second mind-set is your view of your successes: you feel they come primarily from your efforts as an individual or from the efforts of the team. A good leader always embraces both views, but in tough times, where do you draw your strength from as a leader—yourself or the people around you? Open leaders recognize their limitations and are quick to collaborate with others, whereas individualistic leaders turn inward and rely first on their own strength and ability to prevail.

The problem is that as a society we do not value, teach, or encourage collaboration—it’s simply not part of most leaders’ DNA until fairly late in their careers. For the most part, students are graded on their individual achievement, and it often isn’t until they reach the business world that they are required to work on a team. Leaders I interview tell me that collaboration was a hard skill for them to learn and that the practices that made them successful in the past were not necessarily the skills and mind-set that will allow them to be successful in the future. They learned they had to include others in the process because they do not know everything they need to be successful.

Open leaders are inherently curious about the world and have an insatiable need to seek out opportunities to improve themselves and the world around them. They are curious about customers, about their employees, about suppliers, about industry trends, and about the wider world. Most intelligent leaders are open to what they don’t know, but open leaders are driven by a deeper quest to learn constantly.

Being curious isn’t enough, of course; you can be a constant learner but not change your view of the world. You also need humility. It allows open leaders to accept that their views on something may need to shift because of new information. In a sense, humility gives them the self-awareness and confidence to admit when they are wrong or need help.

I believe this is the crux of open leadership—having the confidence to let go of total control, to be more open, and to still get things done. What you’re letting go of, however, is your need to be personally involved in the decision-making process, not necessarily all your rights to have a say. By setting up the right structures, you can feel comfortable that the right decisions are being made by the right people in the right way. Thus open leaders set a clear strategy and behavior parameters, ensuring that everyone is headed in the same direction.

Learn more about the author, Charlene Li.

Comment on this article

  • Environmental Health Sanitarian 
Euless, Texas 
Luay  Rahil
    Posted by Luay Rahil, Euless, Texas | Mar 29, 2010

    It seems that a lot of leaders are not aware of their surrounding; Society has changed forever, so change is a must. In order to be able to impact his/her organization, a leader shall be able to create more leaders, knowledge is not power anymore, using the knowledge and communicating the knowledge to others is the power. I worked with leaders, who like to hold the information and not sharing it fearing that I will replace them, but the time has changed, Google will always know more information than anybody, if somebody does not want to tell me something, I will look it up. Leadership is about creating leaders, it is about impacting society and not only the workplaces, to be a good leader, do not depend on your knowledge but your people's skill which it is becoming the corner stone of any leader success.

    Find me on Twitter @LuayRahil

  • SEO Consultant 
Jersey City, New Jersey 
Elvis Arias
    Posted by Elvis Arias, Jersey City, New Jersey | Feb 02, 2011

    thanks for sharing, very timely