Network Leadership

May 9, 2012 Leave a comment

As I prepare to do a couple of trainings for leadership in multi-stakeholder networks in the New England region (focus being on the skills of facilitation, process design, and managing decision-making), I intend to frame our conversations with some exploration of the differences between traditional organizational leadership and what is required to steward networks towards positive impact.  I begin with the presumption that network form and function are chosen strategically for the ability to accomplish something that could not be done at all or as well through other approaches.  Whether trying to develop a food system to eliminate food insecurity or change an educational system to yield more equitable opportunities and outcomes, the attraction to a network approach is likely due to a desire for some combination of the following:

  • small world reach
  • relative efficiency
  • more distributed capabilities
  • resilience/sustainability
  • rapid growth and diffusion
  • adaptability

I have written elsewhere about elements of network thinking that can help to leverage these attributes of a network approach.  Beyond those elements, there are certain practices that Beth Tener of New Directions Collaborative and I have identified as distinguishing a network leadership approach.  The header for this is that network leadership moves away from overt efforts to control what is too vast, complex, and uncontrollable, and takes more of an approach of stewardship and attempting to create conditions that will allow collective intelligence, will, and movement to organically develop. The call is to step back and focus on:

  • cultivating shared responsibility and mutual support;
  • growing diverse leadership;
  • encouraging trust to take root;
  • ensuring there are multiple avenues for people to connect and share information;
  • helping to develop the capacity to collectively listen and learn; and
  • rewarding experiments.

Surely there is more, and I encourage readers to both share their thinking and experiences here and come back to the underlying spirit and view towards potential that support actions in the name of net impact.

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  • Beth Tener says:

    Well said, Curtis. I’ve lately been seeing “networks as incubators” – the places that enable the connections that birth a new idea or collaboration. The participants can run with the idea or the network can adapt to create a new work group or task/support structure for the new initiative. This speaks to the need for simple flexible ways of organizing work as things emerge and change.

    A leadership skill for network work (particularly in early stages of network formation) is how to see and understand the “system” that network members are working within (with the diverse perspectives a network can convene.) It takes patience and being comfortable in uncertainty to take the time to build relationships and understanding and access the collective intelligence of the network to identify the wisest strategy and actions to take. When people don’t have these capacities, there can be a rush to action and results that bypasses and misses the true potential of the network.

  • I am particularly interested in the role data plays in creating effective network impact.

    I notice that some groups and networks I work with are highly skilled in observing and nurturing emergent change, but not at measuring it. Others are skilled at observing new impacts and producing useful, consistent data about them. But rarely are there easy, reciprocal connections between these two kinds of groups. (One unusual example of how to cultivate this kind of network robustness is the Public Science Project at CUNY.)

    If effective network leadership means encouraging links to people and institutions that are not already close insiders to the network, then ensuring linkages to data and data-producers is an important leadership function. Social change networks need good data to describe, as well as shape, their impact. These don’t have to be strong links – in fact, they shouldn’t be – but having the links are critical. For, after all, it is the weak links with distant connections that spark innovation in networks!

  • Curtis says:


    Thanks for the addition about the important skill and practice of “seeing the system.” And patience is definitely a virtue!


    Love the addition about data, and couldn’t agree more that it is difficult to build bridges between people who see and understand emergent value and those that are more oriented toward tangible measurement. They may not always be compatible, but certainly they are both valuable!


  • Curtis says:


    Another thought – could story be the bridge?


  • Carole Martin says:

    Great thread, Curtis.
    To expand a bit on what I imagine is embedded in your “rewarding experiments” and in Beth’s comment, leading by demonstrating comfort with and curiousity about unintended outcomes is key.
    Often, there are gems in the rubble of a “failed” experiment – and rather than sweep it up and dispose of it, it’s worth sifting through it and noticing what can be repurposed.
    It’s skillful recycling of energy, ideas and connections – and it requires leadership to make it a priority and a practice.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Carole! What have discovered is key to helping people embrace “failure” as, in some cases, necessary? And what techniques are useful for sifting and mining what could be repurposed? Any specific examples?

  • Nancy Gabriel says:

    Hi Curtis,

    Great piece. Another quality that I think about is the capacity of network leaders to engage across difference. Bringing more of the system into the room means lots of different experiences and perspectives. Creative possibilities can be missed when there isn’t the ability to engage with the difference and sit with, and work through, the tension difference can bring up. Often we try to manage the tension which squanders the possibility of something new emerging that can really contribute to the collective understanding and impact of the group.

    This may be included what you meant by “developing the capacity to listen and learn.” It feels so important to me I wanted to name it directly.


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