Leading an Open Archives

Recently, I read an article and book by Charlene Li, an expert on social media and former analyst and vice president at Forrester Research. In the book, Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead, she states that greater openness in organizations is inevitable and is a consequence of the increasing use of social media.

As your customers and employees become more adept at using social and other emerging technologies, they will push you to be more open, urging you to let go in ways in which you may not be comfortable. Your natural inclination may be to fight this trend, to see it as a fad that you hope will fade and simply go away. It won’t. Not only is this trend inevitable, but it also is going to force you and your organization to be more open than you are today.

It’s evident that social media is breaking down barriers to communication and empowering citizens and employees to speak their minds freely. Broadcasting our opinions, views, and expressing our personality, is simple and easy on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Li describes this new reality as a “period of fundamental social change akin to the rise of the automobile or the introduction of television.”

Her prescription for managing this new reality is “open leadership,” which means “having the confidence and humility to give up the need to be in control while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals.”

What does this mean for the National Archives?

As we embrace social media technologies more and more, our work is changing. We’ve been increasing our understanding and use of social media, but now we need to build it into the fabric of the agency. In this new reality, managers and leaders need to understand the power and the limitations of using social media to communicate with employees and the public. Being innovative and agile allows us to respond to the changing environment and to learn new ways of accomplishing our mission at the National Archives.

I encourage each of you to think about this new vision of leadership. Charlene Li describes what’s needed:

Leadership requires a new approach, a new mind-set, and new skills. It isn’t enough to be a good communicator. You must be comfortable with sharing personal perspectives and feelings to develop closer relationships. Negative online comments can’t be avoided or ignored. Instead, you must come to embrace each openness-enabled encounter as an opportunity to learn. And it is not sufficient to just be humble. You need to seek out opportunities to be humbled each and every day – to be touched as much by the people who complain as by those who say “Thank you.”

Throughout this year, we’ve been seeking to strengthen the open government principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration at the National Archives as well as implementing our Open Government Plan.

Embracing open leadership as a new imperative at the National Archives will help us strengthen our commitment to open government. We will be more successful in promoting accountability of the government through access to information (transparency), harnessing the ideas and expertise of employees and the public (participation), as well as encouraging cooperation and partnerships with other institutions and the private sector (collaboration).

I’m currently reviewing recommendations for organizational changes to the National Archives from the Task Force on Agency Transformation. They were charged earlier this year to review and solicit input from employees on changes to align the National Archives to meet the challenges we will face within the next five years. Changes to our structure will be one step, but we will also need to embrace open leadership if we are to be successful in this new reality.

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4 thoughts on “Leading an Open Archives

  1. Thank you so much for sharing all that you are doing. I am especially enjoying your “What I’m Reading” section and thoughts on the transformative powers of social media as they pertain to record collections and leadership.

  2. As a longtime federal employee (37 years service) and someone who worked as a NARA employee with records over which very contentious battles once were fought (the Nixon White House tapes), I have every reason to be wary or cautious about what the National Archives can accomplish. But I like this blog post. It sparks a little hope in me. If you have time, please see what I posted about your post (yes, it’s positive for the most part) to the Archives & Archivists’ list about it.

    The reference within the link at the archives listserv post to John Taylor refers to the former director of the Nixon Birthplace and Library Foundation. (He also served as one of Nixon’s chiefs of staff after he left the Presidency). The Rev. Canon John H. Taylor presently is Vicar at St. John Chrysostom Episcopal Church and School in Rancho Santa Margarita, CA. Although he once referred to my generation of NARA Nixon Project archivists as “junior prosecutors” (we had a legal obligation to identify “the full truth” about “governmental abuses of power” in Nixon’s tapes) and “Hardy Boys,” John now speaks well of my federal archival cohort and of Tim Naftali and his staff. That this is so is due in large part to our getting to know each other through his blog. Indeed, of all the people inside and outside the government with whom we Nixon Project archivists once dealt (some of our experiences were quite harrowing), I now find John Taylor one of the most approachable. That he and I developed such understanding and rapport is truly a blogging success story.

    Given that, I do think you are on the right track, if you are thinking as a change agent about issues as you describe in this post. Well done! More on that at the link above.

    Maarja Krusten
    Historian and former NARA Nixon Presidential Materials Project Archivist (1976-1990)

  3. Thank you for writing on this subject.
    I believe that for the public it is a particularly humbling experience (at least it was for me) to see the AOTUS recognize how social media change the nature of his leadership and how he strives to do so.
    I also believe that people will become more inclined to participate and contribute their knowledge once they know that they are being taken seriously and that their comments are -somehow- incorporated into the archival record.

    And as the previous commenter noted, thank you also very much for the “What I’m Reading” section.

  4. social media is becoming such a huge part of our culture, to try to be a leader of the future without using these technologies would be foolish. Nice article.

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