Disruptive Leadership Demands Openness. Why?

I’ll never forget this question from a client: “I get it,” he said. “I need to be open and authentic to lead. But how open and authentic do I need to be?”

I hear this question all the time. You know you need to be transparent and vulnerable to be a leader. But do you need to be 100% open about everything? How do you decide what to share and what to keep private?

Why Leadership Demands Openness

Leadership is a relationship between people who aspire to create change, and people who are inspired to follow them to make that change happen.

Relationships are built on trust. And trust requires openness! It’s only when we are authentic and vulnerable with others that we can develop connections that inspire team members, employees, and customers, and more to follow us into the jungle of disruptive change.

But I’m not suggesting you open up about everything for its own sake. There need to be boundaries. As my client rightly asked, how open do you need to be?

Openness Needs Structure 

It might sound simple to “be more open,” but it’s actually hard — especially for leaders who are taught not to be open, not to share, and to act like you’re in confident control at all times.

Transitioning from that mindset to openness can be overwhelming. Where do you start?

You start with intention. You’re sharing to deepen relationships and build trust. Consider what you will and won’t share, and most importantly, why. Will sharing this detail make your employees feel connected, or uncomfortable? Will sharing that experience resonate, or alienate?

These boundaries will guide you to be genuinely open without oversharing. As for what this can look like in practice, I discovered ten elements of openness when I was researching my book Open Leadership:

Defining Openness: The Ten Open Elements by Charlene Li

In my livestream last week, I go into detail and provide examples of each of these elements. You can mix and match and experiment with each element to discover which is the right one for your communication style, your organization, or the project at hand.

5 Principles of Open Leadership

If you still feel uncertain, you’re not alone! It’s normal to feel a little daunted, because openness can be uncomfortable. But when you take the risk to extend yourself, that’s when the magic happens.

If you feel a bit queasy, if your hands are a little sweaty, then you know you’re doing it right. These 5 principles of open leadership will pave the way:

  1. Have structure. What accountability or procedures are in place to ensure access to information or confidentiality? It’s easy to say, “let’s be more open,” but are you being open in a way that moves relationships forward?
  2. Respect that your employees and customers have power. They have power, you have power, and you can share and bolster each other’s power by building trust-based relationships.
  3. Share to build trust. Sharing information and decision-making builds trust and relationships. Many leaders were taught to keep everything close to the vest — which is a recipe for maintaining the status quo. You must have trust to do the disruptive work you set out to do.
  4. Nurture curiosity and humility. These two characteristics are absolutely essential for leaders. When you have curiosity and humility, it makes you interested in other people. And when you’re interested in other people you begin having conversations and connections that deepen your relationship.
  5. Look at failure through a new lens. Did someone overshare? Undershare? What matters is learning from these inevitable mistakes. Rather than assigning blame, talk through the learning. If we learn from failure, we not only prevent it from happening again but we can also use it as a catapult to make even better mistakes in the future. If you’re not making mistakes then you’re not growing.

I can promise you this: when you are open, people will respond. They’ll think, wow, my leader is sharing something from the heart. I want to listen to this. You’ll capture their attention, and create a pathway to understand what’s going well, what’s not, and what disruptive ideas need attention.

There’s no “secret formula” to openness for leaders. It’s a journey to discover how courageously open you can be to have relationships that are rich, deep and filled with trust. Because that’s what openness does: it creates relationships between two people. And leadership is fundamentally about people.

I think you’ll know when you’re doing it right. 😉

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