Leading by Letting Go – Charlene Li with Gary Hamel

The introduction into the workplace of social media tools and other technologies that make communication easier, broader, and faster, tend to underscore a lesson that most managers used to take many years to learn: that we lead not by controlling but by inspiring.


Gary Hamel: We’re here with Charlene Li, who’s written a wonderful new book, Open Leadership. Thanks very much, Charlene, for being here. I really want to start by asking the question, by writing a book on open leadership, it’s implicitly saying a lot of companies don’t have a very open leadership model. We’ve had tons of books written on leadership over the years, so what have people missed here? What’s wrong with the way companies are thinking about leadership today or have been thinking about leadership over the last few years?

Charlene Li: I think the way you think about leadership is the the definition of who that leader is. If you think about where history has come from, people like Peter Drucker have been talking about leadership and the fact that companies like GM were having problems back in the 1950s. It was very hierarchical, and he was saying that’s not going to stead well for the long term, for their competitiveness.

And so there’s always been this tug of war in leadership between having power centered in one person versus the power of responsibility going out to the people in the field who actually get the work done. So how do you go back and forth between this command-and-control kind of philosophy, especially for first-time leaders? They really come in and say, “I’m going to micromanage everything, command everything.”

Yet, the more mature leaders, the people who have experience realize very quickly over time that I have to let go of control. In fact, I don’t really control anything. I lead because I have credibility, because I have faith, I have relationships. So what if you started leadership from that premise, that is not about control, but giving it up, being more open about the information you share and how you make decisions?

Gary Hamel: So at some point as you go up in a company — and I have to say not every leader has this epiphany — but I guess many, as you go up in a company and deal with the complexity, you one day realize that actually I’m not really in control here. I can shape, I can mentor, I can mobilize. But you’re saying maybe it’s better just to start out with that realization, recognize that the world has become too complex, things are moving too fast.

The other question I want to ask you is: What is changing in the environment that is making open leadership not merely an option, but something that’s just gonna be essential? Is this something whose time has come because of other things that are going on in the world?

Charlene Li: Yeah, and I think in particular the fact that people have wanted flatter hierarchies, they’ve wanted to be able to go out there. But the complexity of running a business required these funnels because the costs of communications, the costs of better information sharing, the costs of making sure the right decisions are taking place and being made in the organization were too high. But then this wonderful thing came along, technologies that really lowered the cost of sharing to basically zero. And when you have that environment where you can really enable this new type of leadership and feel very comfortable with it, it gives you huge advantage. You can get so much more work done because of these social technologies, because of these collaborative technologies. It’s really enabled that vision of that flattened hierarchy that Peter Drucker talked about 60 years ago. It’s actually possible today.

Gary Hamel: Finally becoming possible. You know, I guess before these social technologies were connecting people together, if I had a problem with my boss or a decision and I went to that individual, they could disagree, shut me down, and it was very hard for me to ever know whether anybody else in the company had that same thought. But now suddenly when we’re all connected horizontally, suddenly we can all glom together. And maybe we all think this decision sucks, or we all think that we should be going in a different way. So, in a sense, it’s not only about sharing, but it’s about, you know, people coming together and opinions being able to coalesce and kind of creating a counter pressure to the top-down, command-and-control system.

Charlene Li: Absolutely, and this is the main reason why leaders are really thrown for a curve around this because they can be countermanded. I mean, that’s really insecure. Before, your word was the law. I f you decided something was going to happen, it was great. Now you have to check in with everyone, make sure everyone’s agreed, and it’s not very comfortable for a lot of traditional leaders.

Gary Hamel: Yeah, I guess there was a reason in the Soviet Union, they didn’t want copiers and that in any coup, you first of all take over the television station because you actually don’t want those opinions to coalesce. But now you really can’t stop it in organizations.

Charlene Li: Right. And look what happened with Egypt. They tried to stop that collaboration from happening and they realized very quickly, can’t do anything. And that’s, I think, when they realized they truly could not stay in control anymore. And so they moved from trying to stop this revolution from happening to accepting it and saying how do we transition in an orderly way?

The only choice you have is whether you choose to engage or not. And I like to say you’re not in control, but how do you get back in command? Command is about getting things done. It’s not about controlling things. It’s having that relationship with people so that when you ask for something to be done, they’re inspired, they follow you, they trust you, that you are given the right decisions. And that’s traditionally where leadership comes from, that right to be able to command, it’s a right.

Gary Hamel: You know, in– in most languages, if you go to the thesaurus and you look at the synonym for the word “manage,” the number one synonym is “control.” And you are making this distinction between command and control. Now, usually we use those words together, right? They’re like synonyms. So pull those apart a little bit more. You have to admit that maybe you’re not in control, but you can command. Can you really command, or do you influence? What’s the distinction there in your mind?

Charlene Li: Well, command says that, when you say charge up that hill, people will actually do it. In the end, that soldier has to make those legs move in the face of tremendous risk and fear. And the only way they will do that is they believe in you. They really, truly believe in you. And some soldiers will say, I’m less afraid of charging up that hill than of getting my head chopped off by the sergeant. But the best soldiers will be the ones who believe that you are leading them in the right direction.

So I look at it this way: In the end, who are you going to follow? Somebody who you are really inspired by, who you trust and you have that relationship and the ones that you want to spend the time and investment, the personal investment going above and beyond. Is that the kind of relationship you want with the employees? I think so.

Source: Management Innovation Exchange

Gary Hamel




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