Open Source Leadership: a Women Grow Business Interview with Leadership Consultant and Editor Claire Meany

by Jill Foster on August 11, 2009

Changing times often call for a change in leadership styles.

And the book Engaging Leadership: Three Agendas for Sustaining Achievement advocates that the rapid pace of business and technology requires “open source” leaders. It offers fresh insight on leadership in the new millennium, in an easily digestible 130 pages rich in storytelling, data and useful advice.

I recently sat down with Claire Meany, contributing editor, to discuss some of these concepts.

Why Open Source Leadership?
To understand what Claire and her co-contributors mean by open source (or “engaging”) leadership, it’s helpful to know what came before it. Below is a summary of leadership styles over the past 50 years:

  • Paternalistic (1945-75): Lead by experience and seniority; top down commands; take orders and don’t question authority
  • Data-driven (1980-2000): Lead by intellect and data; graduates from MBA programs; comfortable with spreadsheets but not people or rapid change
  • Open source (2001-present): Lead by collaboration; encourage experimentation; use empathy and listening skills to harness internal potential

(Image Listen Up by Mouis, Creative Commons)

With that context in mind
Our interview unfolds below with my questions (noted by initials ‘KK’) preceding Claire’s commentary.

KK: You advocate “open source” leadership. How can business owners benefit from adopting this style?

CM: It’s about engagement. If you’re leading in that way [open source], you’re creating maximum engagement in all parts of the organization.

And, the more engagement you’re creating the more results you’ll see.

It requires changing fast to accommodate external conditions and the ability to lead when you don’t know the answers. The more you can tap into the minds and smart thinking of the people around you, the better chance you have of creating maximum engagement. This requires a specific skill set.

We must be good listeners, politically savvy, capable of handling criticism and conflict, and we must own our incompetence.

KK: In your experience, what style do entrepreneurs tend to favor?

CM: Entrepreneurs are typically high on the control agenda [paternalistic style]. They tend to fall into that trap automatically. What I’ve seen in successful entrepreneurs is a willingness to surround themselves with people who are more open source in nature. Open source employees can help by redirecting the energy of a CEO from the micromanagement of day-to-day tasks back to areas where he/she can be more helpful: building the business, being a spokesperson for the company, and marketing their services.

KK: Do you have any personal examples of open source leadership?

CM: I spend a lot of time volunteering and watching leadership either happen or not happen. My most recent example is in baseball. I have two sons: 8 and 10 years old. Both play baseball in the same league. Two teams were picked and one would assume that the talent pool is about the same on each. Having one son on each team, I’ve seen the impact the two coaches have to either increase or inhibit the performance of their team.

The kids on my 8 year old’s team have such an energy about them. You feel it watching them — whether they’re losing, winning or learning.

The coach has an engagement process and strategy with the kids. He constantly gathers them and tells stories about when he was an 8 year old.

He includes the parents in the team and regularly solicits feedback. He’s also helped the kids to understand the notion of failure. In baseball failure is the norm — 2/3rds of the time at bat players fail. When faced with failure, he encourages them to think: “I’ll get it the next time.”

As a result of his coaching, the team made it to the Maryland state championship. The team excelled, making it all the way to the final round. In the end, they lost by 2 runs. After the game, the coach took time to celebrate his team’s effort. Spotlighting all 13 children, he named something that every single kid did to contribute to their success. The best highlight he had was the final game, when the kids all had their rally caps on chanting “2 out rally” up until the last minute of the game. They never lost hope.

This is an example of how engagement drives success. You’re going to win more often than not when you teach people how to deal with failure. Because it’s what you do after the failure that defines you.

KK: How can leaders in the workplace empower their employees to take risks and learn from failure?

CM: When people fail they’re very vulnerable. They may think, “If I fail, I will get fired.” And if people are afraid of failure, they will have a hard time taking risks. They become complacent. Leaders need to let their people know what safety nets exist if faced with failure. It’s also never about just one person. People should feel they’re part of a team effort that shares responsibility for success and failure.

KK: Any additional advice for Women Grow Business readers?
CM: Don’t underestimate the power of being yourself and helping people understand who that is. You can’t lead people if you aren’t authentic and real. People will do a lot more for you when they feel a real connection with you.

For additional advice, stories and strategies, check out Engaging Leadership: Three Agendas for Sustaining Achievement. You can reach Claire Meany at Transformation Strategies, Inc., where she is vice president and director of training.


Guest post and interview conducted by Katie Kemple, producer of the Women Grow Business leadership series. With an extensive background in radio, television, and communications, she holds an Executive Master’s in Leadership from Georgetown University. Katie believes in the power of positive thinking (plus embracing failure as a path to success). She can be reached via Twitter @kkemple and on her blog Love Your Layoff.

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