Book Review: Open Leadership – How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead


Title: Open Leadership – How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead
Author: Charlene Li
Publication: San Francisco, A Wiley Imprint, 2010
Edition: 1st
Number of pages: 311
Cost: $33.95 CAD



The world was never connected before the way it is connected now through various social media technologies. Ideas, promotions and information flow faster and as a result consumers trust more on the feedback of other consumers than the information provided by organizations. Business leaders need to continuously revise their social media strategies where consumers broadcast their experience at run time which is shared multi fold before even leaders get the time to react.  The book “Open Leadership” is all about how to exploit social media technologies for better decision making and be open while maintaining control.


I was fortunate to loan an electronic copy of “Open Leadership – How Social Technology can transform the way you lead” authored by Charlene Li from UBC Library for 14 days and just finished reading the book on my Adobe Digital Editions 4.5 App. I think this book is a must read for internet marketing enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, marketing executives and strategists. In this article, I will provide a review of the book and its main highlights.

The book beautify explains how social media is changing the consumer behaviour and what leaders need to do to address new business challenges thrown by fast adoption of social media. The evolution of social media is a paradigm shift in how consumers and prospects communicate with each other and with organisations. The book provides a wonderful framework for developing a social media strategy in this connected word. Li says:

“Problems that once were resolved through private channels like phone calls and emails are now played out in public. You never could control what people said over their backyard fences about your brand, you company, or your management style, but until recently the public impact tended to be minimal.”

Li had quoted stories from many companies across the globe and redefines the word “Openness”. The openness is not about the transparency in the organization. She defines openness as leadership strategy to giving up control while still maintaining control within boundaries. She starts the book with an example of how saving $1200 costed United Airlines over 7 million negative reviews on youTube. A musician’s guitar broke during unloading of luggage in United Airlines and when after 7 months of pursuing, Airlines refused to compensate, he composed a music video and uploaded on YouTube. To do the damage control, United Airlines had to revise their social media strategy. It’s a famous case widely discussed in top business schools. Prof. Julio Viskovich of Sauder School of Business says “Paid media is Jester, owned media is queen but earned media is the King when he quotes the example of United Airlines.

The author explains that companies need to realize that they need to give up control as with the evolution of social technologies, the power has shifted to consumers where they have ability to broadcast their views to the world because of three trends. The online presence of people is growing, all internet users use social sites and there is a rise in culture of sharing as sharing online is getting faster, cheaper and easier. She advises that the biggest indicator of success has been an open mind-set — The ability to let go control at the right time, in the right place, and in the right amount. By letting go the control, you can actually regain some semblance of control. The act of engaging with people, of accepting that they have power, can actually put you in a position to counter negative behaviour.

The book is beautifully structured into three sections. Section one talks about why giving up control is inevitable and what are ten characteristics of being open. Section two explains how to create strategies of openness, what the benefits are and how to measure the value of being open. Part three talks about the skills leaders need to develop for openness and how organizations like Dell have transformed by openness.

What I liked the most about this book is that it is packed with solid case studies from for profit and not for profit organizations. It doesn’t just provide you a plain theory about management strategy but gives you solid frameworks to build your own strategy and then check-lists and questionnaire so that you can evaluate your openness and then guides you through the action plan. The real stories presented in the book emphasize the importance of the feedback loop between entities and stakeholders in a business.

Most leaders think that social media strategy means creating a Facebook and twitter page, start promotions and flow of information. Li emphasizes that Social strategy includes internal business transformation at the functional level. Organizations need a quick access to information and response to people outside the organization at a speed which can match the speed of information flow. This is not possible without internal efficiencies and openness.

Li introduces the concept of Structuring openness with “Sandbox Covenants”. She derived the term from playground sandbox metaphor. On one hand, there are clearly defined boundaries to the sandbox and within those boundaries, it’s a safe place to play. She urges to put in place the policies, processes, and procedures that will help in managing openness so that openness doesn’t feel risky. Different teams will have bigger or smaller sandboxes depending on what they are trying to accomplish and the roles people play inside of the team. She supported her framework with the examples of sandboxes of companies like Microsoft and Zappos.

Li delineates the result of new relationships in 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”

Following are five rules of Open Leadership:

  1. Respect that your customers and employees have power
  2. Share constantly to build trust
  3. Nurture curiosity and humility
  4. Hold openness accountable
  5. Forgive failure

The book doesn’t only guides through step by step strategies for social media through well defined framework but also demonstrates how to calculate the ROI from social media activities and presents three popular organizational models of openness. However its difficult to summarize the review of such a thoughtful book in one page, I think this book is a must read for C-suite executives as this can definitely enable them to see if their social media strategy and internal structure is aligned with the values of their organization.

Additional Resources:

  1. Charlene Li

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