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Open Leadership Edit

Effective leaders, these days, have to be open in several respects. Organisations have to be more open to the world beyond them, their suppliers and partners, but also to ideas that comes from beyond their walls. They will have to be more open in the way they work, providing greater transparency for shareholders, regulators, stakeholders and the public. Routes to leadership will have to become open to a wider range of people. In the past leadership positions have largely been closed to women and ethnic minorities. Most important for innovation, leaders will have to be open to challenge and question: they will have to be curious and inquisitive. They cannot afford to be intellectually closed. They will have to be accessible to the people they lead, visible and part of the conversation at work, rather than cut off in the executive suite. Leadership will not longer be the preserve of the people at the top of the organisation: it needs to be exercised in large and small way by many people at all levels. If innovation is going to come from all over the organisation, then so too will leadership.

This desire for more open styles leadership is not confined to a handful of trendy, Californian companies, employing creative types. In 2003 I was asked by a leading consulting firm to write a report on the views of emerging young corporate leaders in Korean, Brazil, Germany, the UK and the US. Their message was remarkably consistent. Heroic top down leadership did not work anymore: it was too clumsy and too slow. People were no longer willing to be told what to do and potential leaders were no longer willing to sacrifice everything else in their life, including their families, for their jobs. The shift from more closed to more open and democratic forms of leadership will not happen without a struggle, however. That struggle is going on from politics to business as new generations of leaders, with new values and styles, attempt to fashion more open approaches to leadership in fields used to older, closed models. One of the key tests in whether the open styles of leadership deployed by the likes of Wales and Torvalds will work in other fields, especially perhaps in politics and government. Which is where Howard Dean comes in.

Zephyr Teachout was never much interested in the Internet, nor technology, until 2002, when enraged at the war in Iraq she auctioned off her possessions and plunged into Vermont governor Howard Dean’s ill-fated campaign to become US president. From what passed for Dean’s headquarters in Burlington Vermont, Teachout and a group of other volunteers, orchestrated by Joe Trippi, campaign director and Silicon Valley drop out, improvised what could eventually inspire a complete change in approaches to political campaigning and leadership. Trippi, Teachout and their collaborators instinctively used the principles employed by open, community based organisations such as, Wikipedia, Linux and eBay. Like them, the Dean campaign had to innovate because it had no resources. It could not afford to run a traditional top-down campaign that mainly served up messages to voters via television. The only way it could succeed was to turn people from spectators into supporters and then into participants and contributors. By its end the Dean campaign had mobilised not just $60m in donations but hundreds of thousands of political player-developers – people who wanted to be part of the action not just bystanders. Imagine a political campaign run a bit like a multi-user computer game like the Sims: the central campaign team played the role of Electronic Arts, the supporters became player-developers, enriching the game, extending its life, adding new energy. At least that’s how it worked, for a while.

Accounts differ as to what went right and wrong with the Dean campaign. But most agree it did not start with the Internet. Dean and many of his closest advises were sceptical and it seems barely computer literate. The campaign started without even a computer database of supporters. The Dean campaign and the Internet found one another, almost by accident. Teachout started by expanding the campaign’s capacity to send out email marketing shots to thousands of people who had contacted the campaign’s websites. The next step was to make available tools that supporters could use to create their own campaign materials – flyers, posters, press releases and the like. Then almost by chance the Dean campaign hooked up with a fledgling internet service called Meetup.com, which allows people with similar interests in a locality to arrange to meet up – often in a Starbucks – to talk about their shared passions. When this tool was introduced to the Dean support base it blossomed (and Meet.up now enables thousands of local groups in the US). Within weeks thousands of people were attending regular Dean meet-ups. These self-organising cells became the Lego building blocks of the campaign. Deaniacs did not see themselves as merely marching behind a leader. The Dean campaign encouraged people to engage with one another, to be part of the conversation. By the end of the campaign more than 500,000 people were involved in local groups which generated ideas for television ads, posters and donations.

The Dean campaign had many of the traits of open communities such as Linux and Wikipedia. It was easy for people to join in. Contributors could pick up lots of simple to use tools to allow them to get working without asking for central direction or even permission. The Meetup software allowed contributors to get together really easily to form groups. People were encouraged to make any kind of contribution they could, no matter how small. The campaign added all these mini-contributions together. And so from the margins – no endorsements, database nor money – the Dean campaign took off and headed for the mainstream.

Dean was swimming against a very powerful tide. Over the last few years party politics has become professionalized and media conscious. Beset by often hostile media coverage politicians have little option, it seems, but to manage their carefully targeted media campaigns down to the last detail. The aim for politicians and their media advisers is to deliver messages, down the pipeline, to waiting viewers, listeners and readers. If they are not ultra-controlled they get torn to shreds. That is perhaps why Dean fell to earth with his screaming speech following his defeat in the Iowa primaries. His partisan, irascible, rough-edged style , which worked so well with his supporters on the Internet, did not appeal to undecided middle American, television watching voters. Middle American voters wanted to be charmed and reassured not enraged. A campaign and a leader that emerged from the open, self-organising power of the Internet ran into a brick wall when it met the closed, power of old media and old politics.

Yet even in his spectacular failure Dean may have opened up a new approach to how political leaders emerge and even perhaps what it means to govern. As Joe Trippi put it in his memoir of the campaign: “Power is shifting from institutions that have always been run top down, hoarding information at the top, telling us how to run out lives, to a new paradigm of power that is democratically distributed and shared by us all.” Increasingly people will not wait to be fed information they will go and find it themselves. They will not be content to be told what happened: they will question official accounts. People will learn from one another as much, if not more, than from figures of authority. They will expect the people who claim to be their leaders to take part in these conversations, as equals, and to use their authentic voice when they do so. They will want leaders who engage them as participants and contributors rather than talk down to them.

Dean needed to be good at leading in the old style – for television and its audience - as well as the new style - for the political player-developers on the net. He could not bridge the two. But soon a political leader who has grown up with both television and the Internet will bridge these worlds. The leadership style they deploy will be quite different from the kinds of political leaders we are used to. The era of open innovation will need open leaders, not just in politics but in all organisations. Already many large businesses are trying to adapt some of the lessons of open leadership to traditional organisations.


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