Across organisations and communities there are some leaders who manage to get things done through their sheer ability to understand how the network of individuals connect on the ground, who to talk to and how to bring together people in just the right constellation of effort that can make things happen. Our work with leaders in the public, private and third sector over many years has helped to identify these as what we now term ‘network leaders’. Network leaders recognise the interconnected world we live in, they understand the social system of organisations, and bring people together to achieve their ends.
The military describe it as Fingerspitzengefühl, literally “finger tips feeling”, an idiom for intuitive flair or instinct, but which also describes great situational awareness and the ability to respond appropriately as circumstances change. In military terminology, it is used for the ability of some military commanders who are able to maintain, with great accuracy and attention to detail, an ever-changing operational and tactical situation by visualising an evolving mental map of the battlefield.
The idiom is intended to evoke a military commander who is in such intimate communication with the battlefield that it is as though he has a fingertip on each critical point. In this sense the term is synonymous with the English expression of “keeping your finger on the pulse”. Even though there is no physical connection between the commander and his troops it is as if the commander has their own sensitive presence in each spot.
The term suggests that in addition to any discursive processing of information that the commander may be conducting (such as mentally considering a specific plan), the commander is also establishing cognitive relationships between disparate pieces of information as they arrive, and is able to adjust their mental model of the battlefield accordingly.
This is a valuable skill for a ‘commander’ in any organisation or business. Have you laboured over a project that you really believed in but been unable to get it off the ground because you couldn’t persuade the power brokers. No doubt you’ve heard of Stakeholder Mapping Theory, identifying those who are interested in your project and those who have power. That’s a good start, but it’s too static.
One of the functions of a static map is to allow a traveller to decide upon a course of action suitable for getting from one point to another. However, in times of war, the terrain, the troops and weapons deployed change much more rapidly than cartographers can change their maps. The same can be true in fast moving business environments, where a commander with fingerspitzengefühl would hold an evolving map of the organisation in their mind, adjusting it as new information is received.
When it comes time to leverage influence to promote your initiative or idea you need to create a “power map” to guide your campaign, a network diagram of key nodes (decision makers related to your issue) and the changing connections between them. As you scan across the network ask yourself, “Can I influence this person directly? If not, whom can I influence who can influence that person?” Then begin to think about how and when you will approach these various colleagues. Wargame the situation, “Who might be threatened by my plans, and how can I bring them over to my side?”
You can massively increase your influence on a particular issue by knowing your audience and framing your proposal as a benefit to the people you want on your side. Consider each stakeholder’s needs, perspectives, and personalities. Do your homework to find out what they need to hear and what will capture their attention? For each person, make sure you’re answering the question, “What’s in it for me?” Also talk about how an idea will benefit the organization as a whole. Use the word ‘we,’ as in ‘We’ll see value.’ If your proposal is primarily self-interested, people won’t line up to support it.
We call this Network Leadership and define it as:
“The capability to work across social boundaries, connecting ideas with action and people with resources, in pursuit of shared goals. While it is open to possibility and opportunity, it remains true to its core beliefs of alignment, synergy and restless persuasion.”
In our experience network leaders facilitate network action through four key practices:
1. They understand social systems through an evolving network map.
2. They have convening power to bring people together around shared goals.
3. They lead beyond their formal and positional authority. It is leadership understood first and foremost as a social process that creates direction, alignment and commitment.
4. They possess the power of restless persuasion, always ready to respond to emerging opportunities.
Great leaders appear to do this intuitively, knowing what to do or say almost unconsciously, based on the processing of past experience and the accumulation of network knowledge. In some it is even described as innate, alluding to a belief that some leaders are born rather than made. We don’t believe that. Fingerspitzengefühl is learnt behaviour, which it is possible to codify and teach. Understanding the fundamentals of Network Leadership will help get you there quicker.