Charlene Li’s ‘The Engaged Leader’ Tells Executives How To Lead Without Fearing Social Technology

Technology can be a scary thing. No matter whether you’re trying to figure out ephemeral messaging apps like Snapchat, why you’d want to use a live-streaming service like Meerkat, or simply what’s your return on using Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. But imagine how difficult it could be for corporate executives who want to try and control the message and maintain the status quo? With the rapidly growing rate of new technology being thrust at companies, it can be overwhelming for executives and leaders to figure out which ones to use to engage with not only their customers, but also employees.

The Engaged Leader, a new book by Altimeter Group founder and principal analyst Charlene Li, aims to be that consoling voice for leaders to tell them to simply relax and not be overwhelmed by all the different tools at their disposal. This 93-page publication guides you through a process by which you can become a more engaged (a-ha!) leader by focusing on the communication and not on the tool you’re using.

What’s interesting about The Engaged Leader is that it’s specifically focused on the corporate executive/leader, but makes its case from multiple perspectives. Most of the book is directed towards the CEO or president of the company while the last chapter is intended to give support to employees and team members to encourage their leaders to grow. The book offers three key steps that Li says leaders should take to “successfully hasten their digital transformation”:

  • Listen at scale
  • Share to shape
  • Engage to transform

In a way, it almost reads like leaders need to be rehabilitated so that they can fully embrace the evolution of the business world. No longer is the status quo of leaders being viewed on a pedestal or revered as if they are a living god, corporations are having to deal with the fact that the world is more conversational and that not only are customers talking back, but also employees. But instead of figuring out the best ways to respond, Li wants leaders to instead focus on the “why” aspect.


To accomplish this, Li created a worksheet that leaders can use to facilitate their transformation. I’ve recreated a sample shown above, but the basic tenets that you need to address are shown in the left column, specifically what are your goals, how will you measure success (what’s the ROI?) and then the three key parts to engagement from the top person, namely how will you listen, share, and engage?

The Engaged Leader is filled with anecdotes from leaders in some of the top companies in the world, but if you’re a startup CEO or in a small business, you might think it’s not pertinent to you. To that point, Li says that the concept holds true regardless, but the only difference is in terms of scale. She writes in an FAQ that “leaders in large enterprises simply have more employees, more business units, and geographies to worry about. This doesn’t make your job as a leader any easier — in fact, your engagement is even more essential because coherent engaged leader strategy has greater potential impact on a smaller organization.” When I asked her about why she didn’t address it specifically in her book, Li said that she debated about it but ultimately left it out as then the book. However, she added that it’s easier if leaders were engaged earlier on in the company’s history instead of when they get too big.

Li makes a good point: The Engaged Leader isn’t an average sized book. In fact, it’s only 93 pages, which makes it easy for any leader to digest sometime in their busy schedule. And if startups and small businesses have an easier time with establishing an engaged leader in their culture, then the book wouldn’t really benefit them, right? So Li has targeted the one with the most to gain from this practice.

Admittedly, when I read the book, I immediately thought much of what Li wrote was common sense. Face it, when you read the following, you may think that this isn’t really new thinking:

Engaged leadership in the digital era means not chasing the latest apps and gadgets. Being an engaged leader in the digital era means knowing what your goals are and what tools to use to achieve them. It also means being brave and bold enough to step into the fray: listen to followers, share yourself with them, and engage them directly in new and amazing ways.

However, remember the audience: The Engaged Leader does quite a bit of hand-holding for leaders to reassure them that the proverbial water is fine and that they need to think about technology as just a tool and not something that requires a PhD to use. To help break things down even further, Li describes the art and science of what it takes to be transformed into a new kind of leader. What’s the difference? The art is how you listen, share, and engage while the science is why it’s important that you do it this way and the methodology by which you can become successful.

And Li has experience knowing what she’s talking about. She’s written two successful books on the topic of leadership: Groundswell and Open Leadership. There is a deep connection between the latter and The Engaged Leader, but the difference is that while executives became aware of social business technology in Open Leadership, Li makes it clear that now is the time for leaders to step up and build better relationships with not only their peers, but also employees and customers using all technology available like normal people. Don’t be afraid, the water’s just fine.

The Engaged Leader is available now for sale on Amazon, Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, and at bookstores. It was published by Wharton Digital Press.

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