The Network is the Leader

March 5, 2014 Leave a comment

I just finished reading Mila Baker’s Peer-to-Peer Leadership: Why the Network is the Leader, which adds to the growing case for more widespread network thinking, foregrounding of human relationships, and shifting traditional conceptions (and myths) of leadership in business and beyond. Much of what Baker writes about has been expressed in the writings of others, including Clay Shirky, Carol Sanford, Nilofer Merchant, Kevin Kelly, and Harold Jarche, and I appreciate how she couches much of her writing in the evolving leadership and organizational development literature and thinking.

Baker begins by making the case that the still dominant individualized and command-and-control leadership lexicon is insufficient for our changing, complex, and interconnected world.  She goes on to promote the use of peer-to-peer (P2P) IT architecture as a model for framing thinking about leadership and how we organize ourselves.  In P2P arrangements, everyone become a generative and recipient node in a network, and has easy access to other nodes. Going forward, Baker believes that the concepts of “node community” (instead of hierarchy), “equipotency” (instead of fixed positional authority), and “relational dynamics” (instead of purely role-based and transactional modalities) will be critical for all organizations to embrace to remain relevant.

Where this leads, as evidenced by a few examples offered by Baker, are arrangements where everyone leads and follows, reciprocity and transparency are fundamental values, and survival and thriving come through connection.  While there is much from the book that could be mentioned here, I wanted to focus on what Baker lifts up as the four developmental steps for P2P organizations to go through on their way to leveraging individual and collective potential for greater adaptability, resilience, and responsibility. These are:

  1. Internalizing values and purpose
  2. Creating opportunities (permeable boundaries and multiple channels) for mutual and continuous exchange of input and output
  3. Reconciling polarities and abstractions (harmonizing destructive internal dissonance)
  4. Forming dyad exchange structures (for intelligent, emergent, trusted, as-needed actions)

According to Baker, an organization must go through the first three steps if it is to realize the fourth. What this suggests is that leadership becomes about the collective work of creating critical conditions for an organization (or a community of nodes) to align at different levels around commonly held ground and direction, build and deepen connectivity, take self-organized action (cooperation and collaboration), and continuously monitor and course correct.  In other words, the focus is on stewardship, relationship, and interaction.

I am struck by how this seemingly validates and extends what we at IISC uphold as the need for more wide-spread and skillful Facilitiative Leadership.  And I am sitting with the implications for how my and our mindsets need to continue to shift to embrace greater peer-to-peer potential.

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