Leadership emerges from network culture

Even five years ago it was not the norm to work at a distance. Employers wanted to keep workers on-site, when it made no sense, as this post from 2005 noted: virtual work, but we need you onsite. Virtual work is no longer limited to mostly free-agents, as many salaried employees today work at least part-time off-site. It’s becoming the norm and bringing change with it, even though that change may not be visible.

When people work at a distance, an implicit shift occurs. They have to be trusted to get the work done. Management also shifts from measuring time to measuring results. A new culture emerges. It becomes more trusting. Trust is the glue that holds creative organizations together, not rules and regulations.

Culture is an emergent property of people working together. Leadership is also an emergent property, I am becoming more convinced, as I recently wrote. This post received a lot of attention and Johnnie Moore referred me to an interesting, though rather expensive, book on Managing Without Leadership:

I propose that we consider the phenomenon of leadership in like manner, and conceive of it as part and parcel of organisational practice. In a naturalistic redescription of the phenomenon, we might view it as an emergent, self-organising property of complex systems. There would then be no need for engaging in more leadership studies: instead, we could redirect our attention to the study of the fine-grained properties of contextualised organisational practice.

Donald Clark also passed on a post he made a few years ago on Leadership Training:

Leadership Training: Complex behaviours and skills are reduced to simple geometric diagrams, a pyramid here, an interlocking circle here, a four quadrant typology there. Leadership training became a byword for contradictory theories and over-simplification. A few choice quotes are thrown in, preferably from historically famous leaders, some interactive exercises, straight out of traditional management courses and you’re off.

One way to look at leadership in our complex work world is through the lens of improvisation. In improv, nobody is in charge and leadership is shared. John Moore [not Johnnie] says that from improv, one can also learn how to:

  • be a passionate follower;
  • be a better listener and reactor;
  • make instinctive decisions and deal with the consequences;
  • trust others; and
  • make others look good

These all seem like good advice for organizational leadership as well. Everyone can practise improv skills and everyone can exert leadership in the organization. John Moore says that a major benefit of embracing improv skills for business is that failure is an option, which aligns with Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, that advises organizations to Probe-Sense-Respond in order to manage in complexity.

Dave also underlines the fact that over half of your probes will fail and hence the need to have a culture where failure is an option. It’s what Dave calls “safe-fail”: “We conduct safe-fail experiments. We don’t do fail-safe design. If an experiment succeeds, we amplify it. If an experiment fails, we dampen it.” Failure is not just an option, it’s a common occurrence.

As networked, distributed workplaces become the norm, trust will emerge from environments that are open, transparent and diverse. As a result of improved trust, leadership will be seen for what it is; an emergent property of a balanced network and not some special property available to only the select few. This shift may give us the real democracy our organizations need to realize their full creative human potential.

3 Responses to “Leadership emerges from network culture”

  1. Richard Terry

    This post raises some fascinating concepts Harold. I suspect that the structures and practices of organisations strongly determine the character of the relationships therein: a strongly centripetal and opaque hierarchy will certainly not engender the sort of leadership that values and fosters trust or a networked approach. It may be the case that leadership development falls back too often on overly simplified models, but this may be because that is what is believed leaders want: a semblance of order distilled from the chaos. However, there seems to be a groundswell of opinion forming among practitioners that a more rounded, dare one say humanistic approach is required. Improv and other theatrical techniques, as well as other lessons from the humanities are slowly finding an appreciative audience among senior leaders for whom the traditional slog through four dimensional diiagrams has become a chore far removed from the realities they confront on a daily basis.

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