Why we need open leaders more than ever

Changing social and cultural conditions are giving rise to open leadership.
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Leadership is power. More specifically, leadership is the power to influence the actions of others. The mythology of leadership can certainly conjure images of not only the romantic but also the sinister side of the human condition. How we ultimately decide to engage in leadership determines its true nature.

Many modern understandings of leadership are born out of warfare, where leadership is the skillful execution of command-and-control thinking. For most of the modern era of business, then, we engaged leadership as some great man or woman arriving at the pinnacle of power and exerting this power through position. Such traditional leadership relies heavily on formal lines of authority through hierarchies and reporting relationships. Authority in these structures flows down through the vertical hierarchy and exists along formal lines in the chain of command.

Open leaders quickly discover that leadership is not about the power we exert to influence progress, but the power and confidence we distribute among the members of the organization.

However, in the late 20th century, something began to change. New technologies opened doors to globalism and thus more dispersed teams. The way we engaged human capital began to shift, forever changing the way people communicate with each other. People inside organizations began to feel empowered, and they demanded a sense of ownership of their successes (and failures). Leaders were no longer the sole owners of power. The 21st century leader leading the 21st century organization began to understand empowerment, collaboration, accountability, and clear communication were the essence of a new kind of power. These new leaders began sharing that power—and they implicitly trusted their followers.

As organizations continue becoming more open, even individuals without "leadership" titles feel empowered to drive change. These organizations remove the chains of hierarchy and untether workers to do their jobs in the ways they best see fit. History has exposed 20th century leaders' tendencies to strangle agility through unilateral decision-making and unidirectional information flows. But the new century's leader best defines an organization by the number of individuals it empowers to get something done. There's power in numbers—and, frankly, one leader cannot be in all places at all times, making all the decisions.

So leaders are becoming open, too.


Where the leaders of old are focused on command-and-control positional power, an open leader cedes organizational control to others via new forms of organizational governance, new technologies, and other means of reducing friction, thereby enabling collective action in a more efficient manner. These leaders understand the power of trust, and believe followers will always show initiative, engagement, and independence. And this new brand of leadership requires a shift in tactics—from telling people what to do to showing them what to do and coaching them along the way. Open leaders quickly discover that leadership is not about the power we exert to influence progress, but the power and confidence we distribute among the members of the organization. The 21st century leader is focused on community and the edification of others. In the end, the open leader is not focused on self but is selfless.


The 20th century leader hordes and controls the flow of information throughout the organization. The open leader, however, seeks to engage an organization by sharing information and context (as well as authority) with members of a team. These leaders destroy fiefdoms, walk humbly, and share power like never before. The collective empowerment and engaged collaboration they inspire create agility, shared responsibility, ownership—and, above all, happiness. When members of an organization are empowered to do their jobs, they're happier (and thus more productive) than their hierarchical counterparts.


Open leaders embrace uncertainty and trust their followers to do the right thing at the right time. They possess an ability to engage human capital at a higher level of efficiency than their traditional counterparts. Again: They don't operate as command-and-control micromanagers. Elevating transparency, they don't operate in hiding, and they do their best to keep decisions and actions out in the open, explaining the basis on which decisions get made and assuming employees have a high level grasp of situations within the organization. Open leaders operate from the premise that the organization's human capital is more than capable of achieving success without their constant intervention.


Where the powerful command-and-control 20th century leader is focused on some position of power, an open leader is more interested in the actual role an individual plays within the organization. When a leader is focused on an individual, they're better able to coach and mentor members of a team. From this perspective, an open leader is focused on modeling behaviors and actions that are congruent with the organization's vision and mission. In the end, an open leader is very much seen as a member of the team rather than the head of the team. This does not mean the leader abdicates a position of authority, but rather understates it in an effort to share power and empower individuals through autonomy to create results.


Open leaders are focused on granting authority to members of an organization. This process acknowledges the skills, abilities, and trust the leader has in the organization's human capital, and thereby creates positive motivation and willingness for the entire team to take risks. Empowerment, in the end, is about helping followers believe in their own abilities. Followers who believe that they have personal power are more likely to undertake initiatives, set and achieve higher goals, and persist in the face of difficult circumstances. Ultimately the concept of an open organization is about inclusivity, where everyone belongs and individuality and differing opinions are essential to success. An open organization and its open leaders offer a sense of community, and members are motivated by the organization's mission or purpose. This creates a sense of belonging to something bigger than the individual. Individuality creates happiness and job satisfaction among its members. In turn, higher degrees of efficiency and success are achieved.

We should all strive for the openness the 21st century leader requires. This requires self-examination, curiosity—and, above all, it's ongoing process of change. Through new attitudes and habits, we move toward the discovery of what an open leader really is and does, and hopefully we begin to take on those ideals as we adapt our leadership styles to the 21st century.

Yes, leadership is power. How we use that power determines the success or failure of our organizations. Those who abuse power don't last, but those who share power and celebrate others do. By reading this book, you are beginning to play an important role in the ongoing conversation of the open organization and its leadership. And at the conclusion of this volume, you'll find additional resources and opportunities to connect with the open organization community, so that you too can chat, think, and grow with us. Welcome to the conversation—welcome to the journey!

This article originally appeared as the introduction to The Open Organization Leaders Manual, now available from Opensource.com.

Dr. Philip Foster
Dr. Philip A. Foster is a leadership/business consultant and Business Professor. He is a noted Thought Leader in Business Operations, Organizational Development, Foresight, Strategic Leadership and the Future of Business. He holds a Masters in Organizational Leadership and a Doctorate of Strategic Leadership.


I think that the notion of open leadership is a lot older than you think. Take, for example, the preamble to the U.S. Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

There are others that are even older but this is probably the best known historical example.

That doesn't invalidate your argument, btw. It simply reinforces the fact that more open and transparent organizations have been developing for centuries.

I do agree with you that there has been an evolution toward more open organizations. Unfortunately we still have the human condition that presses us toward command and control.

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The nature of work is changing. So the way we lead must change with it.