Roles of Collaborative "Leadership"

January 26, 2011 26 Comments

|Photo by tarotastic||

Last week it was my humble privilege to be part of an august team of network thinkers and consultants as we delivered on our contract of working with community-based organizations that are involved in the pioneering Renew Boston initiative.  My teammates included Steve Waddell, Madeleine Taylor, Beth Tener, Tom Cosgrove, Nick Jehlen, Noelle Thurlow, Carl Sussman, and Bruce Hoppe.  Our deliverable ultimately emerged in the form of an action learning forum focused on best practices and challenges around enrolling community members in an exciting money-saving program that promotes energy efficiency and renewable energy. As part of the forum, we collectively offered and demonstrated net work tools and strategies for enhancing overall success.

At one point a comment was made by one of the participants about the importance of leadership, which spurred some break-time conversation between a few of us on the consulting team.  Truth be told, we never came to full agreement as a consulting team on what we mean by “networks” (I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to avoid conversations about orthodoxy and instead focus on the practical implications of what is otherwise a shared felt sense or essence) but I think we all agreed that leadership is a tricky concept when applied to new distributed ways of working.

To the extent that leadership is about “holding the whole,” thinking big about the state of a system and paying attention to what will be required to ensure its survival and evolution, it is a concept that has application in networks.  However, the traditional, individualistic, heroic, top-down images we have developed miss the mark.  Network (and perhaps all) leadership is a dynamic, shared and multi-dimensional phenomenon.  Many of the people with whom we partner at IISC understand this implicitly, and we have found it important to help our clients be more explicit about this by clearly delineating the multiple roles that leadership can embody in a collaborative networked endeavor.

  • Convenor – The convenor is the person or group who has “convening power,” the social capital and connections to pull people together and some of the resources to support the initiative (money, space, technology) and build the network.  In our IISC practice, convenors are often foundations, municipal governments, and community-based organizations.  Their role includes championing the cause, raising awareness, and making the initial and ongoing invitation to come together.
  • (Process) Designer – The “process design team,” in IISC’s practice, is comprised of a diverse group of people representing different parts of “the system” who have an aptitude and appetite for mapping out a pathway of and individual activities (meetings, research, stakeholder outreach) that help to move a wider group of stakeholders from vision to action.   They are charged with, and delight in, the creative endeavor of fashioning experiences that enliven and bring out the best in people, including the creation of space for difficult conversations and strengthening connections.
  • Facilitator – The facilitator is a person or team responsible for stewarding the process, for holding the space for difficult conversations, listening to the wisdom of the group, helping to build alignment and agreement, and balancing structure with openness for  emergence.
  • Provocateur – This can be an informal or formal role, and is filled by the person or people who can ask the un-askable questions, challenge the group when it is reaching agreement too easily or getting too comfortable and safe with its work.  The intent is stimulate new and bold thinking.
  • Implementer/Prototyper – Implementers are not simply putting into action a “strategic plan,” but running with nascent and promising ideas, experimenting and honing as they go.  We often find prototyping occurring at the “edges” of larger projects in the form of new partnerships and conversations going off and trying out new things.
  • Weaver – (taken from Network Weaving) “A weaver is someone who is aware of the networks around them and explicitly works to make them healthier (more inclusive, bridging divides). Weavers do this by connecting people strategically where there’s potential for mutual benefit, helping people identify their passions, and serving as a catalyst for self-organizing groups.”
  • Coordinator – In our practice, network coordination comes down in large part to creating and maintaining a communications infrastructure, scheduling common meeting times, and ensuring that people have access to good information when they need it.  And there is overlap between this role and the function of . . .
  • Governance – This is the function that people most often want to turn to first, because the knee-jerk reaction is to want to bring some order to the perceived chaos.  How will we make decisions?  How will we develop policy or make strategic recommendations?  How will we get things done?  Valid questions, and if the default is to a traditional governing board structure, it can limit network potential.  As our friend Jessica Lipnack has said, “You only need enough structure to facilitate conversation and make key decisions.”  Less is more, and structure can be fluid.  We’re talking jazz here, rifting on the tune emerging in our heads, not playing notes on the page written by someone long dead and gone.

And surely there are other valuable roles and takes out there.  Please do jump in.


  • Gibran says:

    This is an excellent and comprehensive list Curtis – thank you! I think we have to look into the distinctions between leadership and governance. I fully agree with Jessica, less is more in network governance. What concern me is a tendency to shy away from leadership, and I think movements have struggled with this before the network conversation became prominent. We have a fair concern with the idea of the charismatic leader and all the problems that can bring, but we can swing to far off and become distrustful of essential leadership qualities, the capacity to articulate a vision, to push, to prod, to take the helm when necessary – to move! Networks also need leadership.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Thanks, Gibran. Agree with you on the problem of shying away from leadership in networks. How hard it seems to find the middle ground. Each of the roles articulated above can have tremendous power to it, including the ability to push and prod and put stakes in the ground (at appropriate times). I have worked with relatively anemic convenors who needed an injection of “it’s okay to wield your power appropriately” and others where I’ve had to work to pry their fingers open. It certainly isn’t about letting things go, but also not about holding too tightly.

  • Sara Oaklander says:

    Curtis, Digging into this through the angle of leadership and roles turns out to provide a particularly useful articulations of networks. I can imagine this being a helpful source of guidance for anyone thinking about taking a network approach to a multistakeholder collaborative planning initiative. Thanks for that!

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Thanks, Sara. And I think we have learned valuable lessons about what happens when we do not clearly articulate these up front and get agreement from key stakeholders.

  • Beth Tener says:

    This is a good summary, Curtis. A question came up in a networks workshop I was leading today about how to cultivate leaders within a network so the facilitator/coordinator does not get too overwhelmed in a ‘hub and spoke’ type structure. Perhaps this fits in your Implementer category, though I think it also has some element of coordination, such as people who step up to lead sub-teams or work groups.

  • Curtis says:

    That’s a good question, Beth. Certainly part of breaking out of hub and spoke, as you know, is decentralizing the communication, getting the periphery to talk to one another. I remember consulting with an education-related network that was trying to get itself out of hub-and-spoke dynamics and mentioned that they tended to have centrally set agendas and presentations as part of their convenings. So I suggested using Open Space. That started to shift the energy. I guess the question is how do you make it not simply a one time thing by highlighting ongoing roles that people can play. I think that is where you can either share facilitation and design, and/or get people into coordination, weaving, etc. And yes, a big fan of sub-groups! I also think there is something to noticing and encouraging the prototyping that tends to happen under the radar in many networks. Let people know that is leadership and all about making things happen!

  • Carl Sussman says:

    Curtis, what I find most helpful about your deconstruction of functions within networks is that it creates the expectation that many people have key roles to play in developing, sustaining and making a network productive. Having those categories makes it easier to create a vision of decentralized leadership within networks. At our Renew Boston workshop last week, I also had a side conversation with Madeline and a few others about the issue of network leadership. I shared an experience I had with a very high-functioning network of youth workers. It was high-functioning until the person who provided most of the leadership left. This is the weakness of the hub and spoke structure – of a traditional or centralized leadership structure. Most networks need the leadership functions you describe, but not centralized.
    In part, we are saying healthy networks are made up of a critical mass of good citizens willing to convene, maintain a communications infrastructure, weave, etc. If you have that happening in a network, leadership is emergent and distributed. That is a robust and resilient network structure.
    So what is governance? Maybe in a network, governance is the conversation among its members about how the network maintains its vibrancy and promotes good citizenship. While decentralized leadership is perhaps an emergent property of well-functioning networks, creating it may be the result of an intentional discussion about fostering leadership.
    Without the critical mass of engaged citizens you have the hub and spokes structure Beth described. A hub and spokes structure is perhaps neither here nor there – neither network-centric nor organization-centric. It may not have a corporate form, but in effect it has a hierarchical structure and lacks many of the unique characteristics that make networks useful and different.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Carl. I really like what you are saying about a critical mass of “good citizens” who are willing to (decentralize) the work of convening, maintaining commmunications, weaving, etc. In terms of governance, I have been looking at how different groups with whom I/we work ultimately decide to structure themselves, and it can vary in terms of form and also LANGUAGE. How a governing group names itself suggests something about the spirit of the network. Board, steering committee, hub team, implementation team, coordinating team, prototyping team . . . .

  • I must admit that when I hear people talking about “leadership” in the context of “networks”, I always end up with “community developer”. I think there is value in pulling apart the sub-roles as you’ve done, so don’t get me wrong. However, I think it’s also good to have “the whole” held too.
    I know we didn’t get around to talking about “what a network is”. However, I think it is a critical conversation. I find it very hard to really talk about leadership if we don’t have some dimensions of what a network is…the role of individual leadership then is about nurturing those dimensions…several of these are implicit in the roles described here.
    The most impressive work I’ve seen to do with leadership and networks is by Grady McGonagill with Peter W. Pruyn and Claire Reinholt…there’s a wonderful table that points out leadership is not simply a question about individual roles, but group, organizational, network (leadership networks) as well. You can see more about it at

  • Great piece Curtis. It’s about time somebody came up with an algorithm for collaborative endeavour. It’s easy to jump on the ‘group think” bandwagon – because it’s easy access. Anybody can contribute to virtually anything.

    But what you’ve done is lay a framework for participation, a structure to work with. By nature, collaborate structure has a tendency to be flat – but that doesn’t mean it should be absent of roles and the resulting responsibilities.

    Again … thanks for your work.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Clay. I/We do find that articulating the roles can help people see more possibilities for their participation and also for the overall functions of the collaborative/ network. It can also help mitigate unhealthy power dynamics by spreading the wealth of leadership and cater to diverse talents.

    I also should refer anyone to the good work of Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor who have codified different kinds of networks and their related core central tasks with respect to network building – nicely summarized here –

  • Curtis says:

    Here is another resource on network governance, discovered by my colleague Linda Guinee –

  • Laura Moorehead says:


    Your description of the network roles is very helpful and raises useful dialogue about how networks can be differentiated from traditional organizational structures. Yes, language is everything! Thanks for offering your thinking.

    I am also struck by Carl’s response and the redefining of the role of governance in a network. Yes! Couple that with the “good citizens” who flex into different roles as needed and vibrancy and adaptability become a measure of sustainability of the network.

    I’m enjoying this dialogue – Thanks, Curtis.

  • Curtis says:


    So good to hear your voice on this. I’m curious to know how much this resonates with people in the ICL Intensive. Would this be helpful for them as they engage in their project work during the program and beyond?


  • I really like this list! this puts names to the different roles you may need to play at different times in a collaborative effort. It would be ideal to have each role represented but my guess is that if you want progress you should ask yourself, which role is missing and which roles do I need to be playing in order for progress to be made?

  • Curtis says:

    Thomas, I think the old adage “Form (and role) follows function” holds true here. Don’t create any more roles than you need for the work to be done. And of course that will change from phase to phase and over time.

  • When June Holley, Valdis Krebs and I kicked off the term network weaver, it was in the spirit of creating visible, connected and credible connectors. They are usually more the informal than formal leaders, people who lead from passion and perspecive than position and power. In stuck communities, there are few and as communities move to thrivancy, it is because more emerge. Some of this emergence can come from formal training of formal leaders on the art and science of network weaving. It’s OK actually if communities have many formal leaders who don’t weave networks as long as they have an ecosystem that does cultivate network weaving at all levels and scales. They are especially valuable in the design of any kind of new collaborations. Thanks for this great conversation!

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Jack. We so appreciate your good work and inspiring insights. I really like this idea of weavers contributing to “thrivancy.” And thanks for pointing out the cross-over between weaving and design work. Boundary crossing (and closing triangles) is an act of shifting relationships and therefore the design/pattern of networks.

  • Dan Bassill says:

    Good list. I think teams and committees could use the list for their own organizational efforts. I encourage you to look at article I wrote in January showing the roles needed on effective planning teams. Very similar to yours and shows this as an inverted pyramid.

  • Curtis Ogden says:

    Thanks, Dan, for your comment, the mention on your blog, and your good work with young people in Chicago (my favorite American city) and elsewhere. I like your inverted pyramid and want to sit with it a while and share with others. Great to have these different options to present to organizational and network efforts.



  • Great conversation. Based on our experience with nets from start up to maturity (and in some cases dissolution), we think there is lifecycle component to this – beyond the early role of convener. I think many of us have observed that there is an early stage tendency for roles to be concentrated and, if the net is healthy, a later stage move to distribute responsibilities. At some point, financial stewardship emerges as distinct role. That should be added to the list.

    Also we think the stewardship needs of connectivity nets are different from alignment nets and different again from production/action nets. For example:

    Connectivity: Open pathways for communication and exchange: Weaver:help people meet each other, increase ease of sharing and searching for information

    Alignment: Build a sense of shared identity and purpose: facilitor: help people to explore potential shared identity and value propositions

    Production: Produce desired outcomes more effectively:
    coordinator: help people plan and implement collaborative actions

  • Curtis…Very complete and thought-provoking list. I’m delving into Thomas Edison’s collaboration process, and see much of what you’ve identified in his “must-haves.” One item that I couldn’t quite pin down: inspirational leader. Where do you think this falls? Collaborations are prone to breakdowns – as you aptly note – and often the inspirational leader must step in to maintain momentum. I welcome any thoughts you may have on this!

  • Curtis says:


    Thank you for your comment and question. I think what you raise about inspiration is critical. When this spark lacks, often in the form of a vision or a visionary, as the old saying goes, the people can perish. And I think that the provision of inspiration can be shared and spread. In our practice, this often starts with a convenor, who is moved to pull people together. And the mantle can easily, and often must, be picked up by others as the venture becomes more jointly shared. In the life of a collaborative venture or a network, it strikes that there are different times for different kinds of inspiration, and this may fall differently to different roles. There is some interesting research that has been done on how charismatic leadership can disrupt movement in networks. If I find that, I’ll post or send. And curious about your thoughts, Sarah!

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