We live in a networked world in which issues and problems, from global warming to terrorism and inequality, flow through webs of connection causing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). In this environment, people are beginning to question whether traditional leaders are up to the job. Equally, we are seeing the growing power of networks and the capacity they provide for people, resources, and ideas to self-organize. This has led others to question whether traditional forms of hierarchical leadership are still appropriate or whether a more contemporary understanding of leadership is needed, one which sees leadership as a shared process, which harnesses the power of social networks.
My own view is that network leadership is not a new model of leadership, but rather a lens through which to view leadership. In the same way that hierarchies and org charts have provided a particular way of seeing organisations (often positional, directive and top-down), applying the lens of social networks to leadership provides a new paradigm, or way of seeing the world and organisations, which is facilitative, emergent and lateral, even bottom-up. In this new environment, leaders must do more than set strategic direction, inspire others, and drive execution. They also need to establish strong network performance by building, aligning, and enabling broad networks both within and beyond their organisation.
The social network paradigm can be used to understand both organisations and communities. In organisations, networks develop largely within work groups due to proximity, homophily (the tendency to associate with people like us) and other natural human inclinations. However, some of the most important ties cut across groups: traversing teams, functions and departments. In this context an understanding of social networks can help identify cliques, silos and gaps in connectivity, which, when dealt with effectively, can improve productivity, smooth channels of communication, and spur change and innovation (see my blog of June 2015 on Social Network Analysis).
Conversely, in community settings where there is no formal organisational structure, the paradigm can be used to identify, map and build more robust connections between community leaders and groups. Allowing public servants, community activists, and leaders in the third sector to uncover the value in their communities and connect those who have to those who need.
In both cases formal designated leaders and leaders who emerge from within the network play important roles, but network leadership, unlike conventional top-down leadership, is more about enabling than directing. It is more about influence than control; more indirect than direct; and requires leaders to create a work environment based on autonomy, empowerment, trust, sharing, and collaboration. It is leadership understood first and foremost as a social process that creates direction, alignment and commitment without recourse to positional authority. On that basis I would offer four strategies to help you lead and get things done in a networked world.
Lead with Understanding. Leading without authority is all about your ability to positively influence the people around you, so start by making sense of things for them. Become the go to person for answers and insights. Take time to understand the dynamic web of connections that have an impact on your collective work; identify the patterns of relationships in your personal network and the broader organisational network that will foster strategic success and those that will inhibit or undermine it; and then communicate this knowledge to your colleagues.
Lead with Questions. If in doubt ask questions, never be afraid to speak up if you don’t understand or need clarification, but also use questions to lead. You may not be the one ‘in charge’ but you can always lead with great questions. Try out a few of these and see how they can change the course of an entire conversation or meeting:
• What if…?
• Have we considered…?
• Can you help me understand what you mean when you say…?
• What have we possibly overlooked?
• Who else should we invite to be part of this?
• Is the issue we’re talking about here the real issue?
• What must be done first?
• Can we describe what success looks like for this project?
• What can I do to help?
Lead with Bravery. Step up, speak up and embrace responsibility even if you are faking it at first. It is unlikely that people will follow you and trust your ideas if you seem unsure of yourself or unwilling to accept responsibility? So offer to participate in existing projects or take on new projects; dream up a new initiative; or improve an existing system. And always act with humility. If you mess up, then own up. Describe what you learned from the experience and then try again.
Lead with Enthusiasm. Emotions are contagious. We are drawn to passionate people on a mission that we believe in. Give people a reason to follow you. Even if you’re not in charge, you can always take responsibility for raising the energy in the group and rallying people around a shared purpose or mission.