knock. knock.

by smb on October 4, 2008

One of the hallmarks of modern management theory is the concept of the ‘open door’ – essentially, that any manager or leader should be accessible to any member of their organization. Designed to promote communication and idea exchange, open door policies were hopefully  make leaders more accessible to those below them in the chain of command and responsibilities.

Ultimately, open doors morphed into open work spaces (Michael Bloomberg being an example of a ceo/leader who routinely works in shared ‘bullpen’). Not always universally loved, cubicles – the most common element of open space design – became the target of humor and ridicule.

The high tech industry, in particular, embraced the trend of openness and transparency both in terms of the physical design of spaces, as well as the more ground breaking move to open source technologies. In that manner,  ideas inspire form which inspires ideas.

But is all that accessibility a good thing?

Let me be clear.  No leader should be holed up in a bunker.  Connection to your employees, customers and peers is essential, and impossible to replace.  I would never suggest that it is either good or useful to assume you know as much as you need to, that you shouldn’t be open to new ideas, or that there isn’t extraordinary benefits to be gained from talking to any member of your organization.  Leaders always benefit from more information, and not less.

But what I wonder is – does your staff benefit from that much exposure to you, or more specifically your humanity?

Is it good for your staff to see you uncertain?  Again, not undecided – but uncertain.

Does it help morale when everyone hears your frustration?

Does it impact your ability to lead when your confidence visibly falters?

If you look at the US election coverage, there is an enormous emphasis placed on “looking presidential“.  This phrase seems to connote a kind of professionalism, intelligence and smoothness.  Counter to that, there is also a desire to have a leader who voters could have a connection to, and is likable.  Whole political careers are made and unmade attempting to achieve this delicate balance. Voters seem to want intelligent leadership, but not distant or academic.  They also seem want to be represented by people who remind them of themselves, without any of the foibles or bad habits.

And that same tension exists for leaders.  Being too remote risks losing touch with the pulse of the workplace and doesn’t necessarily engender loyalty.  Being too accessible may reveal too many personal shortcomings and vulnerabilities that might make it difficult to trust that leaders decisions or direction.

Of course, you could argue that transparency can act as some sort of ‘invisible hand’ that would ensure that good leaders stay in, and the poor ones are replaced.  But I wonder if transparency scales like that.  Does a moment of indecision enough to justify a referendum of competence?  Or are a thousand mediocre moments justified by one brilliant idea?

Can leadership be open source?  Or does there always have to be a little bit of mystery to keep the romance alive?


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rahul October 6, 2008 at 12:38 am

Very interesting -

Leadership is also required to shelter the followers from pressure and unreasonable expectations – while keeping the team just out of comfort zone.

Colin Powell says Art of leadership is to be able to achieve more than what science of management says is possible.

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