Posted by: bevmeldrum | December 10, 2009

Open communication can be risky

Leaders in social enterprises, and any other organisations or community, have a choice of how they choose to communicate with those they are leading.

Those that choose a more open form of communication will find they have taken a riskier route than those who try to limit the flow the information shared with those they are leading, but the benefits f the first are greater.

On one extreme take a community leader who chooses to use an open model of communication. What does this mean? It means that the leader keeps the community up to date on what is happening. Stories of success and stories of the challenges the community face are told.

Notices are given, emails are sent, newsletters created, websites updated. Blogs and tweets keep members of the community up to date on what is going on in near real time.

When things are going well the leader allows the community to share in the successes, in fact often they attribute the successes to the community itself, rather than themselves. It’s all about the growth and development of the community they are leading, not for their own glory.

When things go wrong what does this leader do? This leader will admit challenges that are being faced within the community,  or problems that the leadership are facing. They won’t go into details – there’s no need to. But they will admit when there are things that need to be addressed. They will take the approach that the community together will address the challenges they are facing.

Standing up and saying ‘there is a problem, and we are working together to address’ is a gutsy thing for any leader to do but the benefits are substantial.

A leader that chooses an open approach to communication finds that those they are leading commit to them, are loyal and follow them for who they are – rather than just the position they fill. They feel part of the community, part of what is going on, valued and respected.They will follow the leader wherever they go. These leaders are referred to as Level 5 Leaders by the author and researcher Jim Collins.

On the other end of the scale is the leader that tries to restrict communication to those things that make them and the organisation look good and only allows communication with the community to come through them.

These leaders often don’t see a need to communicate what is happening in the community to its members. They will pass on the basic information – dates and times of events and meetings, but little more – even this communication will be managed carefully. Even on long-term community projects minimal updates are given. When successes are achieved if they are communicated they are often done so in a way that focus on the success of the leader, rather than the wider community.

The problem with this approach is that members of the community feel disconnected. They will often respect the position of the leader, but won’t commit to the person.

When issues arise in the community and nothing is communicated gossip starts. Gossip that could easily be stopped by a more open approach to communication. Simple really. Trust is lost in the leader.

If you want to be a Level 5 leader, one willing to act with humility and honesty, focused on the success of the community rather than your own success it takes guts. It also takes a willingness to address your own issues, however painful that might be. For the sake of the communities you are leading, this is your responsibility. As a leader you will be held to a higher standard – if you choose to be a leader, you choose this life.

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