The Engaged Leader: A book review by Bob Morris

Engaged LeaderThe Engaged Leader: A Strategy for Your Digital Transformation
Charlene Li
Wharton Digital Press (2015)

How and why engaged leaders transform themselves so that they can transform their organizations

Recent research by highly reputable firms such as Gallup and Towers Watson indicate that, on average, less than 30% who comprise the workforce in a U.S. company are actively and positively engaged; the others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, doing whatever they can to undermine the success of their company.

Whatever their size and nature may be, all organizations need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. According to Charlene Li, the challenges for leaders today are daunting. “First, power and influence have decoupled from title and pay grade, and many people are at a loss as to how to proceed. The hierarchies developed at the dawn of the industrial age, and which are still common today, were done so to create efficiency and scale…But in our modern, digitally connected world, the need for efficiency pales compared with the need for speed, innovation, and change.”

The situation is exacerbated by traditional middle managers who are resistant to change, demonstrating what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Because middle managers are located below the C-suite and the front lines, “they abhor the new openness. They see top executives going around them to talk with their direct reports. They feel they are losing control, so many fight these changes tooth and nail.”

More often than not, those who defend an organization’s status quo are the same people who challenged the previous status quo and replaced those who defended it. Li then suggests a third challenge, a daunting one indeed: A lack of ownership among leaders struggling to see the upside of the digital landscape. So, “why are so many CEOs and business leaders still trying to figure it out and find the upside? Because many still believe it’s someone else’s job. They don’t think they have the skills or expertise to tap into the digital and social tools. So they back off,” as do their organizations.

Li wrote this book in response to these challenges. Her primary objective is to suggest and explain a strategy for digital transformation that almost any organization can adopt. These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of her coverage:

o Backing Off — It’s Not an Option (Pages 9-13)
o Becoming an Engaged Leader — Strategy Begins with a Plan (18-20)
o A New Mind-Set for Listening, and The Art of Listening (23-28)
o Share to Shape (36-39)
o The Sharing Shift — From Scarcity to Abundance (39-42)
o The Art of Sharing (42-47)
o The Science of Sharing (47-52)
o Why Engagement Transforms Leaders — and Their Organizations (57-59)
o Changing Minds About Engagement (59-61)
o Digital Engagement Strategy: Art and Science Overlap (62-79)
o Change Is a Process (83-92)

To repeat, whatever their size and nature may be, all organizations need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. In other words, leaders who are positively and productively engaged are committed to a never-ending process of transforming their organization so that it can respond much more effectively to challenges such as those Charlene Li identifies.

When asked to explain the extraordinary success of Southwest Airlines, its then chairman and CEO, Herb Kelleher replied, “We take great care of our people, they take great care of our customers, and our customers take great care of our shareholders.”

In a comparable manner, engaged leaders energize a workforce by listening at scale, sharing to shape, and engaging to transform. Then together, in collaboration, they transform their organization. In this context, I am again reminded of my favorite passage in Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

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