Sign in or
Background: Social media and networks have been in the spotlight of social change. Our interest has piqued against a backdrop of dramatic events: massive protests in Egypt that led to the resignation of Mubarak or 13 million supporters engaged and almost three quarters of a billion dollars raised in Obama’s 2008 presidential election campaign. Some media outlets described the upsurge in Egypt as a leaderless revolution. But was it? In this report we want to dig into the leadership story behind network successes. Global and domestic events have generated interest about how network strategies and social technologies are making it possible to reach, influence and mobilize exponentially more people. We encourage you to read these useful resources. For those of us in the business of developing leadership, we provide recommendations for adopting network strategies and tools. Even more importantly this report asks all of us to dig deeply and challenge ourselves to understand how leadership is changing (and needs to change). Without a reexamination of tried and true beliefs about what leadership is and how to support it, we may find ourselves sidelined by bold, and impressive network actions that are tackling seemingly insurmountable problems like carbon emissions, poverty or a repressive regime.
Leadership and Networks
[Updated on 7/19/11] Note: This is a framing piece for the Leadership and Networks Report. We will be using this as scaffolding for the synthesis and pulling the examples and ideas from latest iteration into this piece. Please feel free to help or to provide feedback on this framework and whether this helps to focus the report, especially for the primary audience of people doing leadership development work.
Why this report: This report is a joint project of people and organizations working in both the leadership development field and the network field. We have come together to produce this report for several reasons:
1. We believe that preparing leadership with the mindset and skills to utilize network strategies and tools can amplify the impact of our social change work.
2. We believe that it will not be possible for people to take full advantage of opportunities to adopt network strategies without a fundamental shift in the ways we think about and develop leadership.
3. We believe that stories and network can teach us about the kind of leadership needed to tackle complex problems and new ways of developing leadership.
4. We believe that sharing ideas, resources and recommendations will move others involved in leadership development work to do more to unleash the potential of networks to solve social problems.
Where we are now: We have invested tremendous resources in the nonprofit sector and most people would agree we have not made noteworthy progress on any major issue of our day. The income gap in the US is larger now than it has been in over 80 years! The trajectory for global warming is frightening. We live in an increasingly global economy where complex and interdependent problems cannot be solved by one individual or even one large institution. And yet, mainstream ideas about leadership have changed very little. We remain attached to heroic models of leadership placing extremely high expectations on what individuals can accomplish.
What we need: We need to move beyond leadership models that focus on building the skills of individuals and challenge ourselves to understand how to cultivate leadership as the process by which multiple actors align their efforts to take action. We need a new mental model of leadership and new approaches to leadership development if we are to move the needle on any significant social problem by taking advantage of network strategies and more connected ways of working together.
[We need a sidebar on the first page that has a very basic introduction to what we mean by network] A network is a collection of people, organizations or other entities that are connected by some kind of relationship. The pattern of relationships influences things like communication and the likelihood of collaboration. Networks are getting more attention because social technologies like cell phones, social networking sites, and blogs are making it possible for networks to reach more people and coordinate the work of more people with less effort. Scientists and mathematicians have also figured out how to visually represent networks in maps which are giving us new tools to understand what makes networks effective and how to make networks stronger.
Are networks the answer? Network strategies are no more the answer to every change initiative than organizations can be and yet organizational change strategies have been prioritized for decades as the best way to make change happen. The problem is that organizations create silos that swallow up Individual leaders whose authority and time to act on what matters most is often limited by organizational rules. Despite our best intentions, the problems of duplication and fragmentation persist, even in the face of growing recognition that an organization working alone cannot make the really big changes that are needed. We settle for doing our part on our small piece of the puzzle and for the most part, it’s not adding up to a huge collective impact on any major problem. There are several things we would say about leadership and networks:
- Networks increase influence and reach by amplifying messages through social media, producing innovation by bridging organizations and sectors, coordinating the actions of more people with fewer resources, and aligning the work of individuals and organizations around a common purpose that achieves greater collective impact.
- People and groups will exercise more effective leadership if they know how and when to use network strategies to build momentum for change, and use network resources for greater public benefit.
- Using network strategies effectively requires different leadership values and behaviors.
- Millennials who have grown up in a socially connected world are bringing a strong network centric approach to social cause organizing.
These points are all well illustrated in the story of …..
What new leadership behaviors can we learn from in networks? Networks are often successful because they embody a set of values (sometimes referred to as a network mindset) that shape how people and organizations interact. Leadership is created through relationships and what we do together not who we are as individuals actors. A closer look at what is contributing to network success can teach us about the leadership process. These examples demonstrate values that are part of the leadership ethos of a network and demonstrate individual and group behaviors that increase leadership impact.
● Generosity: The founder of KaBOOM!, Darell Hammond, tells a story about a breakthrough on their mission of getting a playground within the reach of every child when they asked, "why don't we just give away the model? We can't do everything anyway. If we give it away people can replicate it on their own."
● Letting Go of Control: The last presidential election campaign, developed social technologies that enabled people to organize their friends and communities. This was possible because campaign organizers let go of control and concerns about whether people would do what they said they would do or stay on message.
● Trust and Reciprocity: Networks assume good will and build trust so that people from diverse perspectives and experiences can connect, interact together and find common ground. Lawrence Community Works uses a network centric organizing approach to engage 50,000 members who are driving community change in Lawrence, MA. Community members build trust and connections by hosting dinners to talk about their journey to the neighborhood and what their experience has been while living there. Action emerges from these conversations.
● Transparency: When people in organizations work in ways that are more transparent, accessible and understandable to people outside the organization, the walls between inside and outside become more porous. Transparency creates more opportunities for engagement. Ideas and resources flow more freely and creativity is sparked. The authors of this report agreed to collaboratively write and edit each other’s work on a public wiki in order to elicit more feedback and engage more people in promoting a more inclusive, networked and collective models of leadership. There are now over 200 people signed on to the wiki.
● Accountability: Authentic relationships create the conditions for mutual support and accountability. Accountability and responsibility are not enforced through rules, rather people become accountable to one another and the larger network because they care about each other. Nonprofit executive directors in Boston neighborhoods historically looked out for their own interests without thinking much about the well-being of the whole community until they formed strong, trusting relationships with each other through a fellowship program. Since then, they trust and care about each other deeply, leading them to act in ways that value the whole community, not just their short-term self-interest.
What is different about network leadership? Network leadership practices clash with strongly held ideas about leadership that are prevalent in the nonprofit sector and society at large. Given the rootedness of our ideals about individual responsibility, we frequently develop narratives about leadership that attribute accomplishments to individual effort and merit overlooking the ways in which many people were contributing to a success. This narrative often leads us to fear being outperformed by others, and a desire to protect our competitive edge. This leadership mindset is not conducive to generosity or transparency. Our elevation of individual leaders relegates leadership to a select group making it difficult to see leadership in everyone who wants to get involved and take action. The Obama campaign would not have had its success if they saw volunteers as campaign workers who needed to be managed by a few central leaders.
The chart below illustrates some of these differences:
|Traditional Leader Model||Collective network leadership|
| ● Leader exerts influence over followers |
● Leadership in organizations is top down & hierarchical
● Achievements attributed to strength of individual leader and failures are attributed to his/her shortcomings as a leader
● Leaders can be developed but not everyone has leadership potential
| ● Individuals and groups connect & align efforts to support a common purpose. |
● Leadership is a dynamic process with people assuming many roles
● Achievements are produced through collective leadership effort and failures & experimentation are embraced for advancing collective learning and adaptation.
● Everyone has the ability to exercise leadership
What does network leadership have to do with non-profit leadership? The overwhelming majority of people who are exercising leadership on the issues that are dear to them are still doing it as staff, donors, volunteers and researchers in nonprofit organizations. As demonstrated in the Re_AMP Case Study a network strategy can connect the work of many nonprofit organizations to make a target like an 80% reduction in carbon emissions possible. Of course, this required people to connect, not as leaders of their specific organizations, but in a process of leadership where they could leverage the resources of their organizations and networks for a collectively defined and held goal. Individuals and groups representing the 120 organizations that were part of Re-AMP created the conditions for success by investing significant time to get to know each other and understand what each brought to their relationship and work together. This network mindset may create tensions for people who also hold a view of their leadership as being accountable for protecting the short-term interests of their organization. Does this mean that people working in nonprofit organizations need to have two leadership styles: one for leading inside their organizations and one for network leadership? We think not.
As we engage in leadership in networks, we are expanding our understanding of the kind of leadership we need for dealing with complex problems across all spheres of social change work. We should not confuse organizational management with leadership in networks or leadership in general. Leadership is exercised whenever people seek each other out to collaborate and learn together. This happens within organizations, often informally, without regard to the organizational chart that defines appropriate channels of authority and communication. Informal networks enable information to flow more easily between people, help people find solutions to problems, and are often the source of creative ideas. If our primary lens recognizes leadership as influential individuals, then we may well fail to see leadership in informal networks or recognize the value of connecting to people in different organizations, and cultivating supporters outside organizational boundaries.
Traditional ideas about leadership will not work in a network where behaviors are more inherently collective, where sharing and giving away ideas and credit is valued, or when letting go of control unleashes the potential for many more people to become involved in leadership. Collective leadership can also enhance our work in organizations. As more people expand their understanding of leadership and and cultivate their abilities to exercise collective leadership, they will accomplish more using network and organizational strategies.
What are network leadership competencies?
There are five key competencies needed to effectively lead within a network, use network thinking and tools, and tackle complex problems in the nonprofit sector. All of the competencies are enhanced by a network mindset and network literacy. Network literacy implies familiarity with the concepts of networks and their dynamics. A network mindset is the awareness and understanding that individuals and organizations are embedded in networks, and that social change impacts are more likely to occur as a result of applying network competencies.
Connecting: Relationships are the foundation of leadership as a collective process and strongly valued in networks. Lawrence CommunityWorks (LCW) is a nonprofit community development corporation working to transform and revitalize the physical, economic, and social landscape of Lawrence, Massachusetts. LCW’s goal is to create a new “environment of connectivity” where residents can more easily connect to information, opportunity and each other. Their belief is that if thousands of residents are induced to “get back in the game” of working together and taking leadership roles in Lawrence, they can truly revitalize the City.
Bridging and weaving: The fragmentation of the nonprofit sector makes large-scale social change and solving complex problems extremely difficult. Understanding where connections are weak, and intentionally building bridges across silos and other divides creates a stronger foundation for joint action and alignment of effort. Network weaving is the intentional process of connecting people, e.g. introducing people who know you but do not know each other; reaching out to new people and making people with different points of view feel included; and inviting and facilitating conversations across differences. Expanding the network’s connections and reach is critical for creativity, innovation, and impact.
Organizing: In a traditional organizational model, leaders manage participation through strategic plans with prescribed roles; in networks, leadership is more distributed and often self-authorizing as people and groups take on different roles, and coordinate and align their actions to move in a desired direction. Network members understand that small and large contributions aggregate to produce a larger collective impact. Bill Traynor of LCW describes how critical it is to effective community organizing that networks create multiple entry points for people to find ways to do what they can and feel valued as contributors. Becoming adept at using social media can increase broader engagement and make it easier to support large-scale social change efforts.
Action Learning/Reflection: Learning in networks occurs through constant experimentation and failure. Creating space for continual reflection and assessment is a practice that enables networks to learn quickly, let go of what does not work, and build on successes. MomsRising celebrates mistakes with "joyful funerals" to acknowledge the value of trying new things, and letting go when things do not work. Leadership that embraces risk taking, openness and commits to continuous learning and integration is more likely to produce social benefit and transform the status quo. Many funding models for organizations require short-term results for continuous support: this practice often undermines the bold experimentation which depends on learning from failure. Action learning is a hallmark of a vibrant network where plans emerge and action is adapted in response to experimentation with many ideas.
Learning about self: Individuals in networks need to be committed to learning about themselves. Bill Traynor of Lawrence Community Works shares his reflections about the personal learning and reflection one must do to be effective in a network. "The leader has to genuinely participate in the environment in order to deploy herself appropriately. The challenges of this way of being are profound, and those challenges start with a fundamental reflection about who you are as a person and how you move through the world: how you exhibit fear, react to change, deal with letting go of power and ego. How you listen and observe and the keenness of your instincts for both conceptualizing and synthesizing. How you hold onto or let go let go of strongly held convictions about what is right and what will work. All of these things are of course rooted in the essence of who we are as people.”
Systems Thinking: Efforts to address societal problems like climate change, poverty, or class and racial disparities, require a deep understanding of how systems work and perpetuate themselves. It is not possible to understand class, culture and power and how to work on behalf of social justice without paying attention to how opportunity structures create and maintain racial and class inequities. Looking at interactions among multiple factors that influence system performance is critical for identifying leverage points for change. In the RE-AMP project the first course of action for the organizations and funders was to begin by understanding the system they wanted to change. They mapped the system to identify 4 key levers necessary to change the system: stop the building of coal plants, retire existing coal plants, replace coal generated electricity with renewable power and reduce electric consumption through efficiency. This multi-leverage point strategy requires an ability to see the big picture and understand how actions need to align to produce systems change.
What does this mean for leadership development?
To support leadership as a collective process with the competencies needed to work effectively in networks and in more connected ways will require that we rethink leadership development delivery strategies. Most leadership program focus on building the skill sets of individuals, often to prepare them to lead in organizations. As we embrace leadership as a process enacted by multiple people engaged in change, what are the costs of selecting and developing individuals? Are we inadvertently reinforcing individualism that has so infused our leadership thinking? If leadership emerges through the process of taking action, then the needed skills for success do not reside in one person (the leader), they reside in the capacity of small groups of people contributing their skills, coordinating actions, and collaborating for greater impact. If networks are essential for large-scale change, then why do we focus so much attention on individual skill-building. In a community change project wouldn’t it make more sense to connect people with different skills and life experiences to strengthen their social capital so that they can be lead more effectively together. These are important questions for the leadership development field. While it may well be possible to help individuals learn collective behaviors, and develop and practice collaborative skills within a cohort environment; our traditional approaches have not led to the impacts we seek. Are there better ways to help groups, networks and communities exercise leadership for greater public benefit?
Lessons from how leadership is being developed in networks:
Cultivating a network mindset: Leadership programs that cultivate a network mindset focus less on skill-building and more on relationship-building and helping each other to see and experience the power of interconnectedness. Bridging barriers and boundaries, and becoming aware of your position and role relative to others shifts perceptions about where power and influence lie from the individual to the network.
Multiple entry points: A number of organizations that use network strategies create multiple entry points for people to connect to small groups of people around issues they care about. Multiple entry points give people a chance to meet other people, build relationships and find opportunities to contribute their gifts. In this process, networks form, and people grow and develop their leadership as they do work together.
Convening and Process: In the example of the ReAMP project leadership emerged when people set time set aside to get to know each other and find the connections in their work. Network mapping was a powerful tool for visualizing their connections. Participants who all had numerous responsibilities in their own organizations and the container that gave them time and space and the process that supported know each other in deeper ways supported collective leadership.
Learning by doing: In a collective culture where small groups of people are actively supported to take risks and reflect and learn together a couple of things are happening. Bonds of trust and reciprocity are created as each person contributes their ideas, talents and resources; no one person is the “knowing leader.” As the group interacts, issues and conflicts undoubtedly arise. A group’s capacity to manage those issues depends on the quality of relationships they have together, and their collective willingness to find solutions that work for the group as a whole, and move their collective work forward.
Relationship building and weaving: As people in LCW got to know neighbors they had not met, share their stories and talk about their community, collective grievances and aspirations emerged connecting people in their desire and willingness to take action.
Implications for Leadership Development
These lessons are being echoed from other experiments in leadership development that have achieved surprising results in short time by convening multiple stakeholders in a specific region who are focused on an urgent problem, or by convening people in small communities to have guided discussions about their experiences of poverty and what to do about it. There are some striking similarities that point to new approaches to developing leadership capacity:
Support people, groups and organizations who want to work on a common concern: Many of the leadership strategies that can point to dramatic changes in the lives of people in a community are supporting people in the process of taking action together on a specific problem or issue.
Provide convening and process support that build relationships: A number of successful approaches focus on supporting connection and understanding each other better (and in the process ones self). For example, the systems mapping process was helpful to the ReAMP participants and study circles the framed questions for participants in the Horizon’s program helping them to draw on their experiences and wisdom to shape plans, and the neighborhood circle process in LCW used storytelling to build relationships among estranged neighbors.
Facilitate Action Learning: Learning from co conspirators in joint action or colleagues in a field develops everyone involved. Fostering action learning, provide time and structure to reflection, and facilitating communities of learning and practice all develop leadership.
Brokering resources: Maybe an important role for people and organizations who want to strengthen social change leadership is one of identifying and securing resources. Most of the approaches we are drawing from have an asset based philosophy and assume that groups and communities have among their members many of the skills that they need, so they don’t come with a fixed curriculum that some feel presumes a deficit of skills. This is not to say that in the course of work and trail and error that groups involved in change will not recognize that there may be resources, knowledge or skills that would be helpful. The difference is that people engaged in leadership are identifying what they need. Leadership programs or coaches can be providers of what is needed.
Recommendations and questions for people doing leadership work:
- Learn about network strategies: There are lots of great resources, you can join or start communities of practice with other leadership folks who want to get up to speed and compare notes about what it means to adopt a leadership mindset, practice yourself with new social technologies, think about what it would mean to have a more networked design for your program and how it could help your alumni organizing.
- Question your assumptions about leadership and the role of individuals: Can you bring a new lens to stories of change and the role of leaders, or leadership?
- at model of leadership are you promoting in your leadership development work?
- Question what you have assumed about leadership development delivery strategies: Is there a way of inserting leadership development into change work and supporting the groups work rather than focusing on individuals?
- Bring network thinking to your program graduates, they are a network. You could use network maps to help them learn more about the way their network is working and to strengthen it to support increased collaboration.
- Competencies: In your leadership development work are you helping to cultivate competencies the increase connection, action learning, bridging and collective action.
Latest page update: made by DeborahMeehan
, Jul 20 2011, 12:28 AM EDT
(about this update
About This Update
Edited by DeborahMeehan
4 words added
4 words deleted
- complete history)
Keyword tags: None
More Info: links to this page