3 types of leadership for open organizations

Servant leaders, quiet leaders, and open leaders have traits useful to open organizations.
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a big flag flying in a sea of other flags, teamwork


In the classic movie Born Yesterday, a crime boss repeatedly demonstrates his leadership style by bellowing, "Do what I'm tellin' ya!" in a loud, threatening voice. It's entertaining in a comedy, but it would be a recipe for failure and getting ignored in an open organization.

In this article, I review forms of leadership that can be effective in an open organization. Remember that these leadership forms do not exist in a vacuum or silos. To be an effective manager, you want to mix and match techniques from each leadership style based on the requirements of a situation.

These three approaches to leadership are helpful for open organizations.

Servant leadership

There is a saying that politicians want to get elected either to be something or to do something. This adage applies to any type of leader. Some leaders simply want to be in command. While all leaders are ambitious, for this type of leader, satisfying their ambition is the primary goal. The acquisition of power is an end unto itself; once they have it, they may be uninterested in using it to solve problems or build something. Anything that the organization achieves looks like a personal triumph to them.

By contrast, when you're a servant leader, you see your leadership role as a means to serve people. In the political world, you would view public service as not a cliche but as an opportunity to help the public. As a servant leader, you work to improve things for the people you lead and are primarily concerned about the welfare of those around you.

Servant leadership is also contagious. By focusing on the welfare and development of the people you lead, you're growing the next generation of servant leaders. As a servant leader, you're not interested in taking all the credit. For example, when legendary baseball manager Casey Stengel was congratulated for winning a league championship, he famously remarked, "I couldn't have done it without my players." One of his greatest skills as a manager was maximizing each player's contributions to benefit the whole team.

Quiet leadership

For the past several years, we've been living in the age of the celebrity CEO. They are easy to recognize: They are brash and loud, they promote themselves constantly, and they act as if they know the answer to every problem. They attempt to dominate every interaction, want to be the center of attention, and often lead by telling others what to do. Alice Roosevelt Longworth described her father, US President Theodore Roosevelt, as someone who "wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding, and the baby at every christening." Roosevelt was an effective leader who did extraordinary things, such as starting the US National Park Service and building the Panama Canal, but he was anything but quiet.

In contrast, when you're a quiet leader, you lead by example. You don't fixate on problems; instead, you maintain a positive attitude and let your actions speak for themselves. You focus on what can be done. You lead by solving problems and by providing an example to your team. When faced with unexpected issues, the quiet leader doesn't spend time complaining but looks for solutions and implements them.

Open leadership

As a servant leader, you work to assist the members of your organization in growing into leaders. Quiet leaders lead by example. Servant leaders and quiet leaders do not act in an autocratic manner. Open leaders combine many of these characteristics.

An open leader is also not a top-down autocratic leader. As an open leader, you succeed by creating organizations in which teams can thrive. In other words, as an open leader, you create a framework or environment in which your organization can achieve the following goals according to The Open Organization Definition:

  • Greater agility: In an open organization, all team members have a clear understanding of the organization's goals and can, therefore, better work together to achieve those goals.
  • Faster innovation: In an open organization, ideas are heard (and reviewed and argued over) regardless of their origin. Ideas are not imposed on the organization by its leaders.
  • Increased engagement: Because members of the organization can contribute to decisions about the organization's direction, they have a sense of ownership for the team's goals.

The Open Organization defines the following five characteristics as basic tenants of open organizations:

  • Transparency: The organization's decision-making process is open, as are all supporting project resources. The team is never surprised by decisions made in isolation.
  • Inclusivity: All team members are included in discussions and reviews. Rules and protocols are established to ensure that all viewpoints are reviewed and respected.
  • Adaptability: Feedback is requested and accepted on an ongoing basis. The team continually adjusts its future actions based on results and inputs.
  • Collaboration: Team members work together from the start of a project or task. Work is not performed in isolation or in silos and then presented to the rest of the team for input.
  • Community: Team members have shared values regarding how the organization functions. Team leaders model these values. All team members are encouraged to make contributions to the team.

Putting leadership styles to work

How can you, as an open leader, incorporate the characteristics of servant and quiet leadership?

In an open organization, to support an inclusive community, you function as a mentor. Just as a servant leader acts to teach and cultivate future servant leaders, you must walk the walk, leading by example, ensuring transparency and collaboration, and operating according to shared values.

How can a quiet leader contribute to an open organization? Open organizations tend to be, for lack of a better word, noisy. Communication and collaboration in an open organization are constant and can sometimes be overwhelming to people not accustomed to it. The ownership felt by members of open organizations can result in contentious and passionate discussions and disagreements.

Quiet leaders with a positive outlook tend to see paths forward through seemingly contradictory viewpoints. Amid these discussions, a quiet leader cuts through the noise. As a calming influence on an open organization, a quiet leader can help people get past differences while driving solutions.

Further resources

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Len is happily employed at Red Hat in the Boston, Massachusetts (USA) area and concentrates on quality for open source middleware and cloud products. Len is also a avid writer and blogger and photographer.

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