Book Review – Open Leadership by Charlene Li


I’m not a fan of “leader as hero”, which was my initial apprehension when picking up Open Leadership. The sub-title, How social technology can transform the way you lead, also conjures up the image of CEOs issuing moral boosting messages to their staff in 140 characters or posting on their subordinates’ Facebook wall.

Luckily this book isn’t really about that, so don’t let my first impressions put you off.

Li explains in chapter 4 that the title of the book was the result of a simple crowd sourcing exercise – she picked the most popular title voted by people in her social network. Personally, open strategy or open management might be a better description for the subject matter of this book. “Giving up control is inevitable” is the title of the first chapter, but in fact this book is all about control, just using a different kind of management style and business strategy (at Headshift | Dachis Group, we call it Social Business).

The book is divided into three parts. The first part sets out the case for change. The second part, which is described as strategic, is actually a combination of strategy planning and tactical implementation. The final section really starts to focus on issues of leadership and managers related to those following an open strategy.

Through out the book you will find lots of dot point action plans, tests, check lists and also pointers to a set of free resources available on the site that accompanies the book.

From an implementation perspective, I found the section in chapter 6 discussing Organisational Models for Openness particularly interesting. This is something I’ve talked about before and also discussed in the online engagement guidelines I helped to develop for the Australian Gov 2.0 Taskforce. Li cuts this problem slightly differently with three models:

  • Organic;
  • Centralised; and
  • Co-ordinated.

Li quite rightly doesn’t recommend one model over another and instead explains the key issues around choosing a model. This leads into a more practical discussion about roles, responsibilities, training and incentives. This chapter, along with Chapter 5 which focuses on guidelines, could almost be read as stand alone pieces and provide some good implementation advice.

To back this up the last chapter contains case studies. While the majority of the cases follow a well worn path of well known brand names, the inclusion of the State Bank of India was a refreshing inclusion. The US Department of State on the other hand was slightly ironic in the era of Cablegate. However. all the case studies are well written and hit the mark on providing informative stories about the journey to “open leadership” and covering the socio-technical issues involved in each example.

Putting aside the case studies chapter, the final section of the book in chapters 7, 8 and 9 really start to get into the issue of dealing with the managers who are responsible for the top -down change required to move to an open strategy. I suspect that the intended targets of this book are unlikely to read and self-analyse their own behaviour and attitudes unless they have already made a step towards making that change. In other words, Open Leadership isn’t the social business version of Who Moved My Cheese.

Instead, what these chapters present is an fantastic field guide for people inside organisations who are agitating for change or who are responsible for implementing an open strategy across their organisation.

Re-reading my review and flicking back through the pages of Open Leadership, I’m suddenly struck by the thought that this book is like the grown up, better experienced and more refined sibling of The Cluetrain Manifesto. The idea of organisations pursing an open strategy really has grown up and the technologies that support it continue to mature. This books sets the scene for management and how to start thinking about dealing with it.

If you are interested in discussing open strategy, the challenges of open leadership and becoming a social business then please join us at the Headshift | Dachis Group Social Business Summit – Over 4 weeks – across 4 continents – 4 Summits will be convened. Sydney,  2 March –  Austin, 10 March –  London, 24 March – Singapore, 6 April.