Book review: Open Leadership, by Charlene Li

While the author makes a good case for the importance of social media to business, she hasn't quite produced a book of use to corporate leaders, says Roger Parry.

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Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

Open Leadership: How social technology can transform the way you lead
Charlene Li
Jossey-Bass £18.99

There is surely no dispute that social media is the current 'big thing'. The impact of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter et al on business, politics, education and science is manifest and growing. An increasing percentage of the population live their lives online and managers need to understand and make use of this powerful new technology.

A couple of years ago, two executives at the highly respected Forrester Research wrote a book called Groundswell, which analysed the social media phenomenon and its potential in the context of marketing to and engaging with consumers. The book was widely praised and became a bestseller. Now one of the authors, Charlene Li, is back with another take on the Zeitgeist. This time it is Open Leadership and it seeks to apply the lessons of social media to managing businesses more effectively.

Li is an established expert with something to sell and has founded her own consulting firm, Altimeter. She has a website, open-leadership.com, which notes that she is a 'much sought-after keynote speaker'. Groundswell was a real groundbreaker in introducing social media. But in Open Leadership, the claims being made for social technology as the basis of a radical management philosophy are pushed a bit too far.

The book is clearly written and features numerous case studies from the likes of Cisco and Dell - the visit to the bridge of the USS Nimitz is certainly worth reading. But, as a thesis on how to manage, it comes over as a manifesto by a committed new media evangelist rather than a practical guide. It is relentlessly enthusiastic about leader-ship by inspiration and is in parts a bit preachy.

The exhortations to engage more openly with staff and customers are convincing but were recognised as best practice long before Mark Zuckerburg dreamed up Facebook.

Li states: 'Open Leadership is about how leaders must let go to succeed' and goes on to define it as 'having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals'. But much of this message has been heard before. Breaking down barriers and ending command and control are not new concepts.

Li places great store on leaders being 'authentic and transparent'. But these attributes were desirable long before Twitter. They emerged from the democratisation of business and the empowerment of consumers that started in the 1960s.

When it comes to examples of how to use social media, Li is at her most helpful: 'Information is the lubricant of any organisation', she says, 'without it the company comes to a screaming halt'. She cites convincing examples of improving performance by sharing information, such as Best Buy, which engages with consumer electronics enthusiasts to enhance the service and product range in its stores. And she shows how products can be made better with crowd-sourcing, citing catering giant Sodexo, which uses social technology to advance its recruitment efforts.

It is not clear who the audience is for this book. The title implies it's aimed at CEOs but it's full of how-to-do lists which may be of more use to HR professionals. It would be easy, and unfair, to dismiss Open Leadership for having too much consulting jargon. But for those who don't like it, be warned - there is a lot. You have 'sandbox covenants', 'openness audits', an 'engagement pyramid' and a four-box matrix of leadership archetypes. This suggests that, based on their degree of optimism and independence, managers are classified as 'cautious testers'; 'worried sceptics'; 'realist optimists' or 'transparent evangelists'. This is an interesting parlour game but doesn't translate into any convincing actions.

Social media is transforming the relationship between customers, corporations and employees. Open Leadership does illuminate this profound phenomenon. It makes the case for more collaborative problem solving.

What it does not do is convince readers that social media is a management panacea. Managers cannot ignore social media. It would be like saying 'we are a company that does not use the telephone' but whether reading this book is the best way to harness this new technology is open to question.

If you think social media is a fad you can afford to let pass you by you should read Open Leadership to realise that it isn't. But if you are looking for the silver bullet for enhanced corporate performance you won't find it here.

So in summary this book is a valuable guide to social media thinking, written by a genuine expert with real skill.

There is no doubt all organisations - public and private - need to become more open to thrive. But Open Leadership feels more like a slick sales brochure than a robust management blueprint.

Those who realise they must come to grips with the topic might be better off buying Groundswell as a primer or jump to what one suspects is the ultimate goal of the book and sign up Charlene Li and Altimeter to do a seminar.

- Roger Parry is chairman of several companies including Future, Media Square and YouGov.

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