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It's time to face the facts—social technologies are no longer bright shiny objects that you can comfortably ignore. In February, Facebook surpassed Yahoo! in terms of monthly unique visitors, according to Compete.com. The adoption of services like Facebook, the commonality of blogs and YouTube, and the advent of Twitter have resulted in a culture of sharing that simply didn't exist two years ago. The result is that now it's easy for customers to compare prices and services, for employees to share news and opinion—and managers who believe they can ignore this—or worse, think they can stop it—are, I believe, on the wrong side of history.
This discomfort of not being in control is the reason why I wrote Open Leadership. It's my attempt to help leaders understand how the rules have changed and how they need to adjust. At the core, leaders have to acknowledge that they are not in control and probably never really were. Instead, leadership is about establishing a relationship, and social technologies are redefining how relationships are formed, grown, and supported. In this new world, the most effective leaders embrace what I call Open Leadership. They let go of the need to be in control. At the same time they develop the confidence—and the mechanisms—that when they do relinquish control, the people to whom they pass the power act responsibly.
If leaders give lip service to openness, transparency, and distributed decision-making, their associates will not trust them. No trust, no leadership. At the same time, leaders must have policies in place to encourage their associates to use their authority to use social media responsibly.
One person who has moved his leadership style from command-and-control to open leadership is John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems. After the 2001 downturn, Chambers wanted to make Cisco more flexible and responsive to changing marketplace opportunities. He realized that the only way to do that was to push decision making down into the organization. But it wasn't until 2007 when Cisco aggressively deployed social and collaboration tools that change accelerated. That year, only 100 executives were involved in strategic decisions but just two years later, 750 were being tapped.
The results were astounding. In a short 45 day period toward the end of 2009, Cisco announced four major acquisitions, held two major customer and partner conferences, announced quarterly earnings, issued a $5 billion debt offering, and Chambers himself met with 125 customers. As Chambers relayed this story to me, he smiled and said, "And I'm working less now than I was two years ago."
What Chambers was able to do was to slowly, surely, and with great determination, transform Cisco into a more open organization. This is not about being warm, fuzzy, or "real." It's more than sharing anecdotes from your personal life or tidbits from professional meetings. Rather, it's grounding your open strategy by aligning it closely with your strategic goals.
One the biggest barriers to being open has been a systemic and cultural aversion to failure. But a key part of being an open leader is the ability to deal with failure because even with the best structures and planning in place, things go wrong. By mastering failure, you create an environment where risk-taking is encouraged and recovery from failure becomes a skill everyone in the organization possesses. Ideally, it's a culture where people have such trust in each other they know they can safely take risks.
As an open leader how you deal with failure is as important as how well you deal with success. Can you accept the fact that people will make mistakes? That products will fail in the market? That decisions will have unintended—and sometimes unhappy—consequences? If you cannot be open to mistakes and failures, your colleagues will be afraid to step out or to speak up, stifling innovation and improvement.
Open leadership is about building a new kind of relationship with your employees, customers, and partners. In any relationship, things go wrong, mistakes are made, ups are followed by downs. The strength of a relationship is how resiliently it deals with the unavoidable downs. With the advent of social technologies, there are new ways to form those bonds and relationships.