Open leadership: How to wrestle a gorilla


Rey Elbo

WHY you think God created Adam before Eve? My 63-year-old neighbor, who used to be a bank vice president until his retirement has continued to mesmerize me with the answer—“To give Adam a chance to speak.” Of course, Tony (not his real name) is always in a joking mood. I remember Tony’s antics when I took the task of visiting several major companies to discover how management is running their day-to-day operations with the active involvement of their workers.

In the course of my visits, I learned that these organizations have continued to promote “employee engagement and involvement” through various programs to help management in searching for new ideas and make boring jobs interesting to people.

As part of the employee’s key performance requirements, there’s even one company that requires their workers to think and submit to management at least three to five ideas a month, that beats Toyota’s local requisite of two ideas a month.

The journalist in me percolates an important question: “Among the employees, who has the most number of idea submissions—Adam or Eve?” I didn’t pursue the answer due to lack of time and for fear that they’re not ready to give an immediate answer. Maybe, I’ll just send a follow-up email later on.

But this is all about the concept of “employee engagement and involvement”—the expanded version of what we know before as “empowerment”—the antonym of “delegation” where people have no choice but to perform their work according to strict standards, step-by-step, and very much in accordance with the letter and spirit of a traditional corporate policy, while ignoring the possibility of doing it in a much better way.

I’m a firm advocate of “empowerment” very much like monogamy in marriage, but I am promiscuous in search of new ideas with the active participation of all people. If you will allow me to play with words, I’d like to call it as “open leadership”—which is similar in intensity to other buzzwords like participative, democratic, consensual, free-rein, or nondirective management.

People managers who use this approach exert very little control over problem-solving and decision-making process done by their employees. Instead, management would provide information about a particular situation and allow their team members (also called as associates or partners, but not rank-and-file workers) to develop strategies and solutions.

In this case, you don’t expect managers to do command-and-control (except in case of an emergency) where they require people to seek approval even for little things like purchasing P300-worth of bond paper or a having a five-day vacation leave. The underlying assumption of this leadership style is that workers will readily accept co-ownership and responsibility for the solutions, goals and strategies that they are empowered to develop, but not within the confines of a rigid standard.

Gary Hamel sums it all up to tell management to rely on its “corporate sperm count.” He says to think of one great idea; you need an army of problem-solvers who can give you hundreds, if not thousands of idea. Besides, management does not have the monopoly of thinking and there’s no one best source for new ideas. And it’s better to try tackling it from as many perspectives as possible.

I’ve been concerned about open leadership in this country for some time, because it is one strategic tool to ensure good governance. This is easier said than done, but not in the case of many Japanese companies. You know what I’m talking about here. Ordinary Japanese workers tend to be far more cooperative, if not downright submissive to their management because it’s part of their culture to do just that—being group-oriented.

For instance, it would be easier to get the entire population of Tokyo to wear matching business suits than to get any two randomly selected Pinoy workers to agree on pizza toppings. But of course, time has changed and I can see a lot of changes happening in today’s corporate world.

In recent years, many enlightened Filipino people managers have embraced open leadership for so many good reasons. One of which is the fact they can make trade unions irrelevant, particularly those that espouses highly radical ideas. Therefore, the best approach is to have a proactive two-way communication strategy with the people—the one that allows them to say what they want and management to reconcile them with what they could offer.

Effective communication is like wrestling a gorilla. If you’re a manager and you’re found wrestling a gorilla, you don’t simply quit when you hear the same old stories from the workers. Rather you quit when the gorilla gets tired. And you can only do this through an open leadership strategy.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to or follow him on Facebook or LinkedIn for his random management thoughts.


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