Our leadership style in the digital age

October 25, 2011

Charlene Li


In this blog, we are going to plunge into the roles of leadership, communication and social media in the professional setting with Charlene Li’s book Open Leadership: How Social technology can transform the way you can, as the foundation. This is my review and highlights of a great book full of valuable nuggets for everyone.



Leadership is a vital component of our society. I believe that we are leaders in some sort of capacity. Whether it’s at work, home, church, community, family, or government at some point in our lives we are going to serve as leaders.

Exxon Valdez oil spill

Li writes that in previous years, organizational leaders had the “luxury” of remaining concealed in their executive suite opening up only when they felt the need to (pg. xiii). A classic example of this type of leader occurred in the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Thomas Carson and Mary Bonk article titled Exxon Corporation in the Gale Encyclopedia of US Economic history, explains that a drunken Captain of the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck a reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, doing immeasurable damage to the wildlife. Eleven million gallons of oil spilled in the Alaskan harbor. The then Exxon CEO Lawrence G. Rawl chose to speak about the event to the public seven days after the disaster occurred. It took him three weeks before he visited the site.


Now information about companies’ misstep and/or mishaps bleeds out within seconds of the incident occurring over the World Wide Web. The internet has enabled a shift to occur and the three major trends have emerged. The first trend being that there are more people that have access to be online. Secondly, the widespread use of social sites has allowed for an increase of users globally from 27% to 63% between the ages 18 to 54 to interact, according to Li. The third trend is the increase of in a culture of sharing (pgs. 5-6).

Netflix recently experienced the impact these three trends can have on a business and its leader. In the article titled New Business Model in a Digital World by Eric Bargeron and James F. Tidd Jr. in the American Decade, they explain how Netflix built a subscriber base of more than 20 million customers.  As more people are online, Netflix lured their customers by providing them the ability to rent DVD s without having to contend with late fees. They also were not restricted to the number of DVDs they could rent with their monthly subscription. The movies were delivered to the home from their choice on the Netflix account using postage-paid envelopes to return and receive DVDs.  The success of Netflix led to Blockbuster declaring bankruptcy.


On September 2011, Netflix increased their prices and also separated their streaming videos and DVDs. They announced the company was going to split which created Qwikster for the DVD and Netflix will continue with the streaming videos. This plan went south fast for Netflix. The consumers of Netflix were not afraid to voice their opinion online and more than a million subscribers canceled their subscriptions.

With the transparency the internet provides, a new type of leadership style is arising: Open leadership. When looking at being open, it is not easy for humans. Finding a balance in being open and the perceived notion of control creates an internal struggle. In our exploration we are going to examine leadership styles and their effect. We will look at the reasons for losing control, the rules of engagement and understanding your internal structure. This emerging leadership style has also change the ways a message is communicated to the masses.

Before we move forward, we need to the academia thing of clarifying our definition of what leadership and open is. Li states that leadership is defined by the relationship crafted between a leader and the people who decide to follow that person – happily or unhappily (pg. 9). Open is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as being in a position that allows things to pass through or that allows for immediate use.

Barack Obama (Losing Control)

Barack and Michelle Obama

Li states that you are not in control (pg. 8). It’s hard to believe that but your customers, employees and partners have the controls and that is why building relationships becomes vital. In order to be open as an organization and leader, you need to let go of the need to be in control. Skills that would assist include developing the confidence and trust. So that when you let go of control, the people who you pass the power to will act responsibly. Companies are realizing that this new open world customer, employees and partners are taking on roles different from their predecessors.

A great example of this was Barak Obama’s presidential election campaign in 2008. Obama and his team were comfortable with letting go of control because they allocated most of their time to making sure people were aligned not only with goal of get Obama elected but also the underlying values of the campaign. The core values of the campaign were respect and humility. The team realized that they needed to help people get to know Obama as a person, so the created a private social network and also added sites like Facebook to extend the campaign into a personal space. More information was provided on barackobama.com  were they asked friends and family to donate.

The campaign used technology to reach out and create a relationship where there wasn’t one before by welcoming people closest to the front lines who were previously disenfranchised in the political process. The opposing party Democrats was still using “traditional” ways of campaigning. By the time they realized the power and advantage of social media, it was very late in the game to be useful. Obama actively campaigned in states traditional republicans took. As the Election Day drew closer, his opponent, John McCain thought he would get the votes he needed as the underdog to win. During his campaign trail, Obama illustrates the new rules of open leadership (pgs. 14-15):

  1. Respect that your customers and employees have power – Obama’s case voters
  2. Share constantly to build trust
  3. Nurture curiosity and humility
  4. Hold openness accountable
  5. Forgive failure

Jacqueline Mayfield and Milton Mayfield wrote in their article the effects of leader communication on worker innovation that organization’s competitive advantage depends on human capital, especially on knowledge workers who innovate, intellectual goods. Obama’s campaign and open leadership style illustrated that good leadership with good workers got the underdog candidate the presidency. The campaign style developed during the 2008 campaign trail worked so well that now in his 2012 bid for presidency he is revisiting the relationships he built during his first run in the political rodeo for support. Obama’s 2008 campaign modified and modernized the political campaigning process.

Facebook (Advantages of being Open)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg


Li writes the organizations can be open and closed at the same time. Some of the open elements that support in achieving this include Explaining, Updating, Conversing, Open Mic, Crowdsourcing, Platforms (pgs. 21-43).

Explaining: creating buy-in: the purpose of this type of information sharing is to inform people about the a decision, direction or strategy with the goal of getting recipients (employees, associates, distributor and other) to buy into the idea of working towards the same goal. Li writes about Jim Mullen founder of Mullen Communication said that the most important thing he had learned was that “the more power you give away, the more power you ultimately have.” “If you shared information you actually created a trust and the more you shared the greater trust you created with people.” The evidence of this becomes applicable when looking at new companies like Facebook.

Facebook’s Mission  is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”. This is part of creating the buy-in. Facebook evolved from being a closed social network for college students (that’s when I go my account) to one that allows developers and companies to the collect data on their site plus create money-making businesses that are worth money like Zynga.

Li writes that internally CEO Mark Zuckerberg practices open book management holding a public question and answer session for the entire company every Friday for an hour (pg. 24).  Li has been covering Facebook for a number of years and has found that there is very little amount of information leaking (pg. 24).

Updating: capturing knowledge and actions: technology has made it possible to extend the reach of information in cooperation’s. New web publishing tools like blogs, and collaboration platforms allow for individuals in a company to disseminate information quickly and efficiently (pg.26). With every person having access to the updates, this has led to increase in product development.  Facebook not only has an internal but also an external blog to share changes.

Conversing: improving operations: this is when you utilize the community in your area.  The community is a body that not only serves as support but also as a way to receive feedback for new products and services (pg. 28).  Collaboration platforms provide structure for conversations and updates in real time. Twitter  is considered a collaboration platform.  Facebook on Twitter allows them to provided information to the community about changes and development on their site. They inform their audience instead of talking at them. This way has shown to better serves you.

Open Mic: encouraging participation: captures the concept of a different type of shared information. Everyone is welcome to come forward and participate with no preconditions (pg. 31). This becomes a valid style in permitting your audience to provide information. An example of this is CNN’s iReport a place where “your voice, together with other iReporters, helps shape how and what CNN covers every day.”  The welcome to iReport states that “the stories in this section are not edited, fact-checked or screened before they post.” This is a very fascinating idea as this makes their views active journalist in areas where CNN would not report on. CNN is actively engaging and empowering its views to not only watch but be the correspondent in their town, city or state.

Platforms: setting standards and sharing data:  the goal behind open platforms is to create standards, protocols and rules govern how organization and people interact. There are primarily two types: open architecture and open data access (pg. 34). Open architecture looks at how organization can work with each other.

Facebook opens their doors to collaborate with others to develop applications. The reason why Facebook has chosen this way is because they have limited developer resources and wouldn’t be able to create many features their users would want.  Facebook now has developed relationship by opening up their platform to outsiders to experience Facebook leadership style and serve to meet their user’s needs. Applications like FarmVille who has more than 28 million monthly users and Mafia Wars who has more than 3 million monthly users have been were both created by Zynga. Facebook has allowed others to prosper especially when looking at online advertising with each application having the potential to bringing in revenue with millions of users visiting the site monthly.

Open data access looks at how information within rich company warehouse of data is requested and delivered to the interested party.  A social technology tool that proves this type of service is twitter. People can experience Twitter completely off its site. They can go through mobile phones, or third party software like TweetDeck or Hootsuite. The major communication advantage for any business or organization in utilizing Twitter is that information can be customized in the widespread dispersion.

Kohl’s (Rules of Engagement)


At the core of any marketing and communication is to build relationships but the key is in knowing how to do it in a way that feels relevant and authentic to someone.

Kohl’s has more than 5 million fans on Facebook. On their “Wall”, you would find typical brands and sales information. Looking on their post and you would see:


Ellen: K-cup sale + 30% off coupon + Kohl’s cash = the best coffee stock up ever!

Kohl’s: Sounds like those are some caffeinated savings, Ellen! What’s your favorite K-cup flavor?

Ellen: Green Mountain Nantucket, but they were out so I got Donut House, which I also like. And a special 48 pack of “Holiday” flavors like Gingerbread and French Toast. Looking forward to trying them!

Kohl’s: Such great choices! It’s a difficult decision, but I do believe that the French Toast flavor is my all time favorite. MMMmmm!

They have a person who dialogs with their customers. It takes one person at Kohl’s takes a few minutes a day to reply back to a dozen or more people. This kind of dialog is changing the nature of relations. Understanding who has influence and who influences whom assists with the development of relationships and sales.  The diagram below show the Engagement Pyramid (pg. 59): 

  • Watching is the lowest level of engagement. People passively read blogs, listen to podcast or watch video content about a topic. I would be considered a watcher for Kohl’s. I receive their emails, occasionally I watch their commercials and I visit their stores about once a month.
  • Sharing is the next level in which the information gathered from watching is revealed to someone. What made me start shopping at Kohl’s was hearing about my friends experience at the store. I like the clothing styles and they were at a reasonable price. My friends would be the sharing level as they are more engaged in the process of telling me and others about Kohl’s.
  • Commenting is done after some sort of action. In Ellen’s case, it’s commenting on Kohl’s Facebook after she went to Kohl’s and stocked up on her coffee and then shared her experience.
  • Producing is the process of creating blogs, podcast or YouTube videos to interact with those who are seeking more information from you. These also serve as a way to continue encourage and continue the engagement.
  • Curating is a person who is active in the brand or organization. They maintain organizing and managing information discussion boards on company’s site. On Kohl’s Facebook page, this would be the person who replies to the post on behalf of the company.They spend countless hours on community and discussion board monitoring and being the editor of information about the organization or brand.

Li write that people engage with your company or brand whether you want them to or not (pg. 62). Primarily methodology chosen by people is online and they may not be communicating your website. I have been taught that if a dialog is already occurring about you it would be wise for you to be a part of it. I believe that every business needs to understand the power of communication whether it is through traditional methods such as newspapers or through social media. The saying of knowledge is power is true.

These five levels of engagement let companies or brands see and understand their consumer. Concentrating on how you can get people to move from being passive watchers to sharers by making posts on Facebook or tweeting about you. Once you have opened dialogs make sure that internally you have the right support in place to assist in the continuum development of these relationships.


For the first time in this semester, I actually have an issue that I have a lot to talk about and not enough time or words to explain it all.  I hope so far that you had a good read about the points I thought would be best to highlight.

The definition for open leadership that I have gleam is the relationship developed by a leader who is willing to allow information to be shared and the people who choose to follow that person. This gave me a personal revelation about how communication and leadership have a relationship which you cannot have one without the other.  In order to communicate you need to understand what your leadership style is and that of your organization.

As organizations, individuals and future leaders, we should not be afraid to fail. Failure is part of who we are and how we grow. I realize that we need not worry about being perfect but strive to do the best we can with the ever growing resources we have. This change has affected every kind of organization and is important for everyone to understand.


One Response to “Our leadership style in the digital age”

  1. Amy Renee Leiker said

    This was a great, thorough post, Twambi. Thanks for sharing! You laid out an in-depth look at Charlene Li’s book AND included some real-life examples to give your ideas dimension and color.

    It’s perfect to know that Mark Zuckerberg has an open leadership style. Considering the field he works in, it’s a perfect strategy. What better way to have a successful business based on information sharing than to practice what you’re “selling” in-house with your employees. Do you think this works with parenting, too? Ha!

    I also like that you pointed out how, in just a few minutes a day, one person at Kohl’s can really up the interaction with the company’s customer base. This is fast becoming a fundamental tactic that makes or breaks a company’s marketing strategy. One of the things we’re learned in the class is how important engagement is — not only for businesses but for individuals, too, looking for successful careers in social media. That idea applies to leadership, too.

    Thanks for your thoughts and this overview of Li’s book! 🙂

    — Amy Renee Leiker, http://www.amyreneeleiker.com

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