Leadership in a Network Age

April 18, 2018 Leave a comment

“Network entrepreneurs are keenly aware that they are few among many working across the larger system, and in this way they embody a special type of … leader[ship].

Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman & David Sawyer, “The Most Impactful Leaders You’ve Never Heard Of”

Image by tarotastic, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

This is the third in a series of blog posts that appear in their entirety on the Education Week website. In the previous post we considered how structure has implications for the extent to which a network or networked activity is able to leverage different kinds of net effects and create value for diverse participants. We also considered how structure has implications for both equity and how power is distributed. Another important consideration in how to create equitable benefit is what leadership looks like and how it plays out in and around networked activity.

The concept of leadership seems to be undergoing a rapid evolution lately. Especially in this “network age” there appears to be both a growing appreciation that leadership has always been about more than the singular and highly visible heroic individual, and that going forward, leadership must be upheld as much more of a shared and multi-dimensional endeavor.

“Leadership for this era is not a role or a set of traits; it is a zone of inter-relational process. Step in, step out.”

– Nora Bateson from Small Arcs of Larger Circles

In much of the collaborative consulting work that we do through the Interaction Institute for Social Change, leadership (or what we at IISC often call Facilitative Leadership) is about “holding the whole.” That is, there is a need for groups, teams, organizations and communities to think more expansively about the state of a given complex system (community, economy, food system, organization, school, school district) and pay attention to what is required to support resiliency and/or change for more equitable and sustained benefit. In these situations, the traditional top-down images of leadership fall short.

In education, for example, we have seen hopes often pinned on seemingly superhuman teachers and principals who are brought in to “rescue failing kids and schools.” The assumption underlying such moves is that these extraordinary individuals will of their own drive and volition beat the odds and dramatically reverse the downward trajectory. This story may be the making of a box office smash, but in reality is met with mixed results at best. This is not to say that individuals cannot provide crucial sparks at important moments in organizations and communities. But holding out for heroic singular leadership ignores the systemic reality of what got us to where we are in the first place, and denies the more complex and connected response that is actually required.

“Leadership is helping to make the network smarter.”

Harold Jarche

Indications are that network leadership is at its best a dynamic, diverse, and multi-dimensional phenomenon. Many of those with whom IISC partners in the work of social and systems change understand this implicitly, and we have found it important to help them externalize and be more explicit about this by naming some of the roles that leadership can embody in a collaborative/networked world.

One over-arching and all-encompassing role, with a bow of recognition to June Holley for coining the term, is network guardianship. Network guardianship is first and foremost about preserving and modeling fundamental network values such as transparency, openness, respect, generosity, equity and mutualism, all of which contribute to the creation of conditions that can nurture connections, flows, net effects and shared value. Many if not all the important roles in networks contribute to establishing a collaborative and trusting culture. This culture is important to create and protect, especially at the outset of an initiative (in a food justice initiative we referred to the early pioneers of networks as “network gardeners“), though one might say it is important throughout to keep networks from becoming too calcified or exclusive.

“In a P2P network community . . . everyone is involved in creating and working toward that same common purpose and vision, . . . everyone is equal and all are able to act.”

Mila N. Baker from Peer-to-Peer Leadership

Paul Skidmore, in an essay titled “Leading Between,” points to some of the important activities and key points of focus of leading in networks that contribute to making them rich and intelligent environments:

  • Start from the outside-in (periphery to core), begin with “end-users”
  • Lead with contact/connection, not content
  • Build and nurture trust and [conditions for self]-empowerment
  • Help people grow outside of their comfort zones, including connecting to others and other domains
  • Be lead learners, not all knowing

More specifically, there are a number of core roles or functions that we might put under the heading of “network leadership” that collectively serve to feed the soil and nurture collaboration and cultures for connections and flows to flourish equitably. For more see the full post at this link.

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