While managing people can be described as assigning and monitoring tasks, leading people is based on a relationship of influence that is built upon trust and respect for the leader. Demonstration by the leader of strong, positive character traits is what establishes trust and respect. One of the key traits of effective leadership is openness. American scholar and author Warren Bennis, considered by many to be the pioneer of leadership, describes openness as the ability to listen to ideas that are outside of one’s current mental models, and then be able to suspend judgment until after one has heard the ideas of others. Openness can also be described as the willingness to consider every element of “what is”.
Openness indicates an inclination to accept input from various sources and to make decisions or to make changes based on that input. Establishing openness as a character trait requires the demonstration over time of this willingness to hear, understand, evaluate, and take appropriate action based on input from sources outside ourselves. The full process must be consistently demonstrated. It is not difficult to hear input from others, but properly evaluating and changing course based on the input of others can often stretch us.
Openness keeps us and the organizations that we lead from getting stuck in a well-worn rut. It counters the NIH (not invented here) attitude. It breaks down barriers and sparks innovation and energy.
There are some human tendencies that make openness difficult, and some are especially so for personality types that tend to be leaders. Some of these tendencies are:
- The fear of not being right. We grow up in a system of “right” and “wrong” answers and tend to believe that we always have the right answer.
- The fear of risk or failure. Success is good and failure is bad. We tend to believe that being in control avoids potential failure.
- A need for order and rules. People value routines, traditions, and established practice. Openness requires the ability to embrace doing things differently.
- A reliance on logic and realism. People make sense of the logical. Sometimes openness requires examining what may on the surface appear illogical.
- A limit on human relationships. Being busy doing business often means focusing on numbers and processes. Openness requires that we step away from the processes and increase our human interactions.
We can think of openness in three dimensions, all of which the best leaders exhibit. First, we can demonstrate openness about ourselves. Secondly is the ability to accept and even seek diverse input from the people around us. Finally, the third dimension of openness is seeking input from the external environment.
The first dimension, openness about ourselves, requires a strong level of both self-awareness and self-acceptance that tells us where we have the capacity or need to change some part of our character. This input might come from self-examination or from other people. Those with openness about themselves are not only able to accept input from others, but they actively seek feedback. Open leaders want to know how they are perceived and how their communication is received. When open leaders receive personal input, they consider how they can build appropriate change into their character.
The second dimension of openness is the ability to accept input from others regarding organizational direction and decisions. This openness gives team members the ability to freely voice their opinions and to provide any relevant input. Rather than people wondering “which way the wind blows” before speaking up, they know that their input will be accepted and valued.
The third dimension of openness is seeking input from the external environment. This refers to seeking information from a wide range of sources and being creative in making the connections to potential impact or implications for the organization. This requires open eyes and an open mind to recognize important input.
While there are those human tendencies that make some people struggle with openness, effective leaders are naturally open because of the other character traits they possess. If you desire to be more open, the best way to grow openness is to work on improving these other traits in yourself.
- Be people-oriented. Before we can value ideas from other people we must first value those people.
- Be curious. An open mind is a curious mind; look for information and seek input and opinions.
- Be forward thinking. The closed mind dwells in the past. The open mind ponders the future and its possibilities.
- Be engaging. Openness draws others into an exchange of ideas.
- Be inspiring. Expressing the desire for and the value of the thoughts of others makes them feel respected and lifts them up.
- Be credible. Seeking the best input from all available sources and not just relying on our own thoughts gives confidence to the team that we are able to lead them to a positive future.
- Be engaging. Openness infers a frank exchange of ideas that requires a dialogue of exploration and evaluation.
- Be responsive. Expressing the value of the ideas and appreciation for them demonstrates the open mind and open heart of a leader.
Openness is a process as well as a choice, requiring a level of both confidence and vulnerability. It often necessitates some transformational growth. It also requires consistent practice to build an environment in which people recognize and are willing to step into the openness. It is a choice because it requires stepping out of a leader’s comfort zone. In the busy flow of business, it requires that one take time to seek input, to weigh its value, and to appropriately change course.
The culture of an organization generally reflects the character of its leadership. Openness on the part of the leader demonstrated over time develops into openness in the organization. As this openness is woven into the fabric of the organization’s culture, it breaks down barriers and encourages collaboration. The best ideas from within the organization then surface to improve products and processes. As they do so, the organization becomes a more satisfying place to work.
Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.