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Published: November 23, 2010
 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61

 
 

Best Business Books 2010: Leadership

With lots of real-world examples, some better digested than others, Li explores the effect of these new connective technologies on leadership. She considers them in two not always carefully distinguished senses: What does it take to be a leading company in this emerging era of hyper-openness? And what’s required of a leader in the face of these demanding new realities? One executive she quotes, Ron Ricci of Cisco Systems, provides an elegant summary of the underlying challenge: “Shared goals require trust. Trust requires behavior. And guess what technology does? It exposes behavior.”

To her credit, Li tackles head-on the biggest fear that companies register at the prospect of their people blogging, tweeting, or responding to those who do: “Aren’t we going to” — sharp intake of breath here — “lose control of what is said about us, on our behalf, or of what we let our customers or competitors know?” Li sensibly points out that embracing social technology doesn’t automatically mean “letting it all hang out,” as a pre-Facebook generation used to put it. No, a company still gets to make choices, as for example Apple does in being open about a few things, such as its platform, but mostly clammed-up about everything else. (The author does allow that you may have to be as successful as Apple to get away with clamming up in the brave new world.)

As for what the new transparency means to individual executives, Li builds on the work of others, such as Warren Bennis’s observation that to be a leader you have to display qualities that cause people to trust you. “You may be comfortable being authentic and transparent with people within physical shouting distance, but that’s not sufficient in this new environment,” Li argues. “To develop new open relationships, you’ll have to scale your authenticity and transparency.” A necessary first step is learning to use the technologies yourself. If you find your skin crawling at the prospect of sharing a few inner thoughts with anonymous legions out there in the electronic ether, you may need to look for a different line of work.

For decades now, firebrands like Tom Peters and Henry Mintzberg have been preaching that leadership should be demystified and parceled out within organizations. With the rise of the celebrity CEO, not to mention the installation of employee relationship management software, it has sometimes seemed that they were getting nowhere. Li’s book inspired me with the happy thought that the likes of Facebook and Twitter just might end up forcing the change that some of us have been waiting for all these years. To survive the transition, high-ranking corporate types will have to pick up the subtlety ascribed to one of Li’s heroes, Om Bhatt, who as chairman helped revolutionize the State Bank of India, in part through online communication. “Bhatt did not give up control,” an admirer observed. “He let go of control.”

Contemplating Catastrophe

As recent events have made clear, there may be one area in which you will want to ratchet up the control level. This would be in anticipating and if possible averting disaster. For any executive worried that his or her organization might be overtaken by low-probability, high-consequence events, like a credit default swap implosion or a deepwater drilling fiasco, Learning from Catastrophes: Strategies for Reaction and Response could be the first step toward sleeping better at night.

This book is hardly beach reading (unless perhaps you’re standing on a beach wondering what to do about a huge oil spill). It’s a collection of 15 scholarly monographs bearing titles such as “Acting in Time against Disasters: A Comprehensive Risk-Management Framework” and “Dealing with Pandemics: Global Security, Risk Analysis, and Science Policy.” The tome’s editors, Wharton professors Howard Kunreuther and Michael Useem, contribute essays at the beginning and end to frame the discussion and bring it squarely into the province of leadership studies.

 
 
 
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