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How to Lead by Giving Up Control

Posted by Charlene Li on Sep 9, 2011 11:06:38 AM


At one time, rulers, generals and CEOs believed that the only effective way to organize and manage was through a system of command-and-control. The king/general/boss gave the orders; everyone below did what they were told.

The system contained hidden assumptions: First, the boss knew more than anyone else. Second, workers could be trained — or threatened — to follow orders unquestioningly. Third, any other system was inefficient and slow to react to threats and change.

Today, probably thousands — perhaps millions — of rulers, generals and executives still believe that command-and-control is the only way to run things. Meanwhile, social media is rapidly undermining that approach to management. Leaders are seeing the old, ordered world they know and understand crumbling as citizens, customers, employees and partners become empowered by new tools that were almost unimaginable 15 years ago.

The Good, the Bad and the New Realities

Since writing my book, Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead, (Jossey-Bass, 2010), social technologies have mushroomed. They are clearly giving employees new ways to collaborate with each other — and that’s a good thing. They have also unleashed new opportunities for employees to grumble publicly about their jobs — a not-so-good thing. Problems that once were resolved through private channels such as phone calls and emails are now publicly exposed.

The truth is, many IT leaders are terrified by the power of social technologies, but they are also intrigued and excited about the opportunities. While some organizations have taken steps to embrace social technologies and are doing well, others have failed. My new research shows the biggest indicator of social media management success has been an open mind — the ability of leaders to let go of total control at the right time, in the right place and to the right degree.

The first step is recognizing that you are not in control; your customers, employees and partners are. Then, the key is to think of letting go as a relationship issue. After all, leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow. At a time when employees are redefining how they make and maintain relationships via social technologies, business leaders — especially in IT— need to rethink the foundations of organizational relationships.

Redefining IT Leadership

As an IT leader, your role is shifting from “controlling” IT to enabling the safe adoption of these new open technologies. This means establishing the policies, processes and procedures that will help you manage openness. Put another way, you have to plan how, in effect, to control openness.

Openness needs structure and prioritization to offset risks. You have to determine what you will and will not be open about and what you will and will not permit. There must be limits — otherwise, chaos will ensue. Don’t be shy; make the rules and involve your employees in writing what I call the “sandbox covenant” to govern how you enter into these new, social media-driven relationships.

A sandbox has clearly defined boundaries within which it’s safe to play. On the other hand, the sandbox still has rules: no throwing sand at other players, no taking someone’s truck without permission.

A key part of a covenant is accountability — spelling out what happens if either party doesn’t keep its side of the bargain. If employees don’t act responsibly with the new freedom, it will be taken away. And employees can also hold leaders accountable if they haven’t acted in a way they have promised. Think of it as providing the guardrails within which being open can take place. Unless you clearly define what the limitations are — and every in the first place. organization has limits to how open they can and want to be — people will not have the trust and confidence to be open

We are in a period of fundamental social change akin to the rise of the automobile or the introduction of television. A generation that has always known the Internet and believes that openness is as natural as breathing is coming to work. Tomorrow’s leaders will align their strategies with that openness, and they will establish policies that make explicit how open the organization will or won’t be. The time to take your first step toward that future is now.



Charlene Li is the founder of Altimeter Group in San Mateo, Calif. This post is adapted from portions of her book, Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead. She is also a member of Smart Enterprise Exchange and can be reached on the site.





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