Saturday, February 26, 2011

Seriously Rethinking Leadership in a Networked World

For over 30 years, I have had the privilege of helping leaders around the world develop their leadership effectiveness. In dozens of sectors and markets, I've seen the best and worst.

I continue to see established and emerging leaders who are passionate about learning to be better leaders and entrenched leaders who view learning as a threat to their power.

In these interesting times, we are witnessing an abundance of leaders who are devastating the integrity of markets and the faith of their constituents. Many countries have what Will Rogers referred to as "the best government money can buy." It is easy to find leaders who define leadership as the exercise of control over money and people.

At the same time, the planet is abundant with leaders who are helping to make their communities stronger and more resilient. They have intelligence, wisdom, and transparency. They see themselves more as stewards of resources rather than controllers of money and people. They think that leadership is more about helping people find their power than having power over people.

But are these the qualities of good leaders? Perhaps the only thing we can accurately say about leadership is that every assessment is based on personal bias.

For some people, good leaders serve their interests at the cost of serving competing interests. They like weak leaders they can control with money, votes or threats to their power and influence. Others like strong leaders who exercise control over others. They like leaders whose rule guarantees certainty in their favor.

Whether we want leaders who are children capable of being controlled or parents capable of protecting us, what both perspectives have in common is that they are essentially self-serving. They position leaders as tools to our agendas.

And because we are still transitioning through a predominantly adolescent consciousness on this planet, there are almost always competing agendas. In this ethos, we impose on leaders the unfulfillable expectations to guarantee the dominance of our agendas over opposing and hopefully loser agendas.

The opposite of viewing leaders as tools to use is viewing them as assets to engage in our networks. The two most valuable assets in networks are knowledge and skills.

In this worldview, leaders have unique value to the extent that they have unique knowledge and skills in their networks. Their networks include everyone they directly interact with and influence. Leaders who lack unique value have redundant value in their network.

The more connected networks become, the more likely it is that leaders have redundant value. This is one dimension of the leadership crisis today, exacerbated by the fact that the more asset redundant leaders become, the more irrelevant they feel and the more control they exert to restore ego equilibrium.

Reality is, in networks leaders can gain unique value in at least two ways. They create unique value when they create a niche of unique value for themselves. And they gain unique value when those in their network intentionally leave them a space of value uniqueness that no one else takes on.

This is a huge culture shift to see the value of leaders as equivalent to the uniqueness of their real time knowledge and skills relative to their networks. It is a shift that requires us to question the value of positional power that leaders assume in their leadership roles.

Positional power is the assumed power to control money and people. We have abundant and growing evidence that it takes no unique network value to exercise control over money and people.

Scope of control has nothing to do with unique value in a network. If scope of control had any causal relationship to scope of unique value in networks, monarchs, autocrats, and dictators would be guaranteed the most unique knowledge and skills in any networks at any levels around the world.

Understanding leadership through the lens of unique network value profoundly changes the conversations we have when we interact with leaders in our networks at the relative levels each of us has access to these kinds of interactions.

It becomes imperative that everyone understands the unique assets of their leaders. Before they enter any leadership position, we need to gain a collectively clear and accurate picture of their unique and redundant assets relative to our and their networks. When they enter these positions, we need to make it collectively clear what unique assets they have that the thrivancy of our networks require. We also then need to negotiate the areas of asset uniqueness they would provide the network.

But because of the intrinsically dynamic nature of networks, their relative asset uniqueness and possibilities of uniqueness constantly shifts and changes as other people in the network expand their unique value, making the leader's assets redundant, but still possibly quite valuable. Asset redundancy at optimal levels is key to network resiliency.

Networks are also constantly shifting landscapes of opportunities and expectations and so leaders always have opportunities to grow their unique assets to meet these. And this emphasis on asset and network based leadership makes it immediately more possible for leaders across boundaries to collaborate more successfully and intelligently to do together what they cannot possibly do alone, apart or in opposition.

This is an incredibly important shift if we seek a world where leaders help build thriving communities at micro to macro levels.

In this construct, perhaps the most salient characteristic of network relevant and valued leaders is that they have a passion for knowing their networks and continuously reinvent the unique value in knowledge and skills they bring to their networks.

This calls for a profound shift in how we develop, select, and assess our leaders. And the time to begin is now.

Twitter @jackzen / Jack's profile:


Ed Brenegar said...

Good post. I generally agree.
My question is how your perspective on leadership redundancy in networks is not just another form of positional leadership.
My perspective is that we need to shift away from that positional view to leadership as an attitude and behavior that everyone can perform. It then means we can stop calling managers leaders, and start actually measuring the leadership character of their management.
Thanks for good, thought provoking ideas.

Jack said...

Yes Ed, great thoughts. One of my intentions here is to spark and provoke thoughtful exploration into the validity and contributions of leaders as we go forward, particularly in an era where self-organization becomes more possible, dominant, and productive as a model of engagement and organization.

Some believe we need less leaders and more, at least better, leadership. The piece suggests the question of just what does an organization or community need uniquely from their leaders.

Valdis Krebs said...

Great convo!

My colleague Vancho talks about followership... is anyone following the prescribed leaders? Maybe we need to look at emergent leaders? Discover who they are [in the network] by looking at patterns of followership?

Vancho and I have done with several corporate clients. He applies this approach to sports teams with great success!

Sergio said...

Very interesting article, thanks for sharing. First to Ed Brenegar's comment, I agree we need to not only stop calling managers leaders, but also need to reinforce the key distinction between the two.

I like Peter Drucker's distinction. Managers, he says, have the inward focus and discipline of rendering efficient an organization's people, processes, and technologies. They are focused on 'doing things right'. Leaders on the other hand, have the outward focus of effectively guiding, activating and directing people towards a shared purpose. They are focused on 'doing right things'.

If you agree with this its easy to see why a "leader" who exists for the sole purpose of exercising control over money and people aren't leaders at all. If anything they are poor managers, skilled at command-control and demotivation.

Jack - one perspective of redundant talent is that occurring in the open source software space. Leaders in open source software are determined by their real-time reputation, and this reputation is fed by their active commitment and contribution to the open source software projects. The reputation is increasingly quantifiable, just take a look at Stack Exchange Careers 2.0,, Equally interesting is the fact that once the redundant value in the network crosses some imaginary threshold, leaders move on to new concepts or technologies. This is happening right now in Agile Software Development, Software Craftsmanship and Scrum movements, and what becomes evident here is that the real essence of a Leader is the one who can quickly let go of their investment in skill and knowledge towards newer pastures.

This comes back to what you say: " that everyone understands the unique assets of their leaders". I would add that this should happen both in themselves as leaders and in others. Because it is this understanding (something like efficacy) that will enabling the trail leaders continue to blaze.

June Holley said...

I, too,have been thinking a lot about leadership from a network lens. One thing that could help support more network leadership is if we all had "anti-bullying" training -- that is, if we all knew how to recognize and deal with leaders who are bullies. A lot of current leadership models are based on subtle (or not so subtle) bullying - and it really keeps people from expressing their own leadership qualities. I love that many schools are now training kids to work together in a bullying situation to stop the bully quickly.

And I definitely agree that helping us all see our unique qualities and how precious those are will help us initiate and be part of highly-effective self-organized collaboratives.

Thanks, Jack for all your good thinking in this area!

Jack said...

June, love the bullying metaphor because it suggests the behavior of children and adolescence who are used to assuming power over others. There is no strengths and asset based organization in a culture of bullying and leaders must epitomize the opposites.

Opposites of bullying: hospitality, generosity, engagement. More common in healthy networks than traditionally bully-driven corporate cultures.

Tom Graves said...

June, very strongly agree re 'anti-bullying training'. In my understanding, the effective power of a network is directly related to how well its people understand that power is the ability to do work, not the ability to avoid it - and that that work explicitly includes relational and aspirational work as well as the more obvious physical and mental work.

Juan Vender en internet said...

I love this article, thanks Jack for this post. I agree with you. The content of the article is all positive and it is a great start of people would get a chance to read this.

Great work!


SmithMillCreek said...

Your comment about a planetary adolescence reminded me of Andrew Revkin's riff on that theme:

Which he expands uponat

I am increasingly noticing that everyone wants to form coalitions, alliances, etc; yet fewer, it feels, want to join others. So I'd echo the call to develop "followership" skills (or move towards a more anarchist culture of followers who question authority, and leaders who listen better).