What it means to be an open source leader

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Being an open leader means creating the context others need to do their best work.

That's a relatively short sentence, but for anyone wishing to lead a group in the 21st century, its implications are enormous. And if you're hoping to be one of those people—if you're hoping to have a career leading an open organization—then you must not only understand what it means, but also recognize ways you can put it into practice, so you can build a culture that creates a strategic, competitive advantage for your organization.

Context shapes culture

Culture is something management gurus are increasingly taking more seriously. "Culture eats strategy for breakfast," I've heard people say. But I'm not sure that all of those folks truly understand why this is the case.

Despite depictions in popular media, a great company culture isn't simply the result of workplace perks and ping pong tables. Culture is the result of sufficient context—a shared set of values, a shared purpose, and shared meanings.

Being a leader in an open organization, then, means making connections: It involves doing the work of linking people both to each other and to some larger, shared picture. It's helping people understand how they can contribute to a collective effort in meaningful ways.

As a leader, you create context when you help everyone in the organization understand its whole mission: the vision, the values—all the elements that define your very reason for existing. An open leader also helps people recognize the vast sum of interactions taking place that make an organization what it is—the aims, goals, and passions that push individuals to work together.

So when we talk about "creating context," we're really talking about bringing these two facets of organizational life together in exciting and productive ways. An open leader aligns passion with purpose, action with vision. And that creates a culture where people feel inspired, motivated, and empowered to do their very best work.

Shaping that culture begins with an emphasis on sharing.

Learn to share

In conventional organizations, "knowledge is power." But in open organizations, that well-worn adage can be a destructive and downright disastrous guiding principle.

Some leaders believe that extending trust and operating transparently will somehow diminish their power. In reality, however, leaders should be sharing as much as they can with their organizations. Sharing information is how leaders begin to build the context that people in an organization need to forge connections between their passions and the organization's mission. Open leaders are honest about the problems they face, the worries they carry, and the limits they possess—because, in the end, the problems leaders face are the problems everyone faces. Shared knowledge is power.

The problems leaders hear about from customers—the things that keep them up at night—that's the information we need to share with our entire organization. Because when we provide that context and share those problems, we inspire and empower people to help us overcome them. In The Open Organization, for instance, I describe how sharing my priority of making Red Hat more customer-focused—and thereby inviting others to help me achieve it—generated unique, creative, and valuable insights from people across the organization.

I've met people who believe "sharing more" actually means "delegating more." But that's not necessarily the case. In the traditional sense, "delegation" involves sharing responsibility for implementing a solution the leader has already dreamed up and settled on. What I'm talking about is different: sharing the work of actually developing those solutions, so associates have genuine influence over both the course their work will take and the purpose it will serve.

If this sounds hard, that's because it is. At Red Hat, we put a lot of effort behind hiring for and developing these kinds of leadership capabilities. We take the time to explain them to people, to coach people on what it takes to connect, to be transparent, and to extend trust.

We even talk about what overuse and underuse of these capabilities looks like. For example, we've found that it's important to explain that transparency isn't an excuse for rude behavior, nor does it mean you disclose confidential information about associates or our business. Trust doesn't mean you give people assignments without any direction or context, or that you fail to verify that work they've completed.

Develop your EQ

In an open organization, leaders must be sensitive to nuances—knowing how to share and how to invite collaboration in ways that keep an organization from dissolving into chaos. A leader's mandate to help people do their best work involves not just an understanding of leadership capabilities like connection, trust, and transparency, but also a certain familiarity with—and sensitivity to—the feelings, emotions, and passions of the people that leader is trying to help.

In The Open Organization, for example, I discuss the need for leaders to share half-baked ideas with their organizations, to bring plans or concepts to the table before they're fully developed, in order to receive productive feedback sooner. The best leaders can pinpoint precisely when to present a half-baked idea—not so early as to distract people with an idea that may not play out, but not so late as to preclude any opportunity for productive discussion.

Spotting those opportune moments—really sensing them—requires leaders to be in tune with their organizations' emotional atmospheres.

Think about it this way: Great leaders give people enough structure to know they're marching up the right hill, but those leaders don't want to prescribe a single road north, because they need the people making the journey to feel empowered to control that journey. This way, they don't exhaust themselves trying to climb over a massive rock in their way, and instead devise a smarter method for getting around it.

The trick for leaders is providing enough clarity of purpose—enough context—that people are able to help an organization accomplish its goals, but not so much that they're impeded from exercising their creativity and initiative in the process.

Information overload doesn't create context. Distraction doesn't create context. Strong emotional intelligence helps leaders avoid both.

Be a catalyst, not a commander

Deciding to share (and determining how to share) drives open leaders to an important conclusion: a group is always going to produce a better solution than an individual.

Leaders of conventional organizations are commanders. They dictate and prescribe both means and ends, then monitor people to make sure they use the former to achieve the latter.

Leaders of open organizations are catalysts.

Chemistry tells us that a catalyst is an agent that, when added to a mixture, sparks a productive change. This is precisely the role leaders play in open organizations. They create context that invites people into relationships with new (even surprising) results. And they do this because they believe, truly and deeply, that the groups they help form will develop better solutions than the leader could alone.

I won't deny it: Being a leader means constantly being tempted to step in, to force decisions, to command. Commanders generally consider collaborative dialogue a grueling waste of time ("I just need to tell people what to do," they say). Sure, they may go so far as to hold meetings about, invite comments on, and ask for feedback regarding their ideas. But in the end, those are empty gestures, because they've already decided that they know what's best.

Catalysts, on the other hand, believe that if they get the right conversations going—if they spark the right kinds of collaboration—then their organizations will realize better results. Leaders can only become catalysts when they let go of the assumption that, categorically, they know best.

Without a doubt, being a catalyst is actually more difficult than being a commander. Since open organizations tend to be meritocracies, in which reputation and a long history of concrete contributions trump job titles as markers of organizational power and influence, leaders must be constantly balancing the skills, personalities, and cultural capital they see in their colleagues. Far from dictating, they need to master the art of making appropriate connections—producing the proper combinations—that ignite the most influential innovations.

Yet being a catalyst is also more rewarding than being a commander. Parents, consider this: Did you feel more proud when you graduated from college, or when your kids graduated from college? If you're like me, the answer is: your kids. Catalysts experience that same sense of pride parents do when they watch those they've helped succeed.

A checklist

So here's a checklist for those hoping to make a career leading an open organization. Being an open leader requires:

  • Willingness to extend trust and share information
  • Appreciation for transparency and collaboration whenever possible
  • Sensitivity to the moods, emotions, and passions of the people that make up an organization
  • Knowledge of not only what to share, but how to share it
  • Belief that groups will consistently outperform individuals working in isolation
  • Trust in those groups to drive necessary change

Master all this, and you're well on your way to creating the most important thing a leader can provide: the context for people to do their best work.

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Jim Whitehurst is President and Chief Executive Officer of Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open source enterprise IT products and services. With a background in business development, finance, and global operations, Whitehurst has proven expertise in helping companies flourish—even in the most challenging economic and business environments.


With respect to emotional intelligence, one of the results obtained by Google's own study of their most productive teams is those whose members displayed empathy to one another. As an open leader or a member of a productive team, staying in tune with feelings in the workplace is a good thing.

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