Connected leadership is not the status quo

What is connected leadership? It’s not the status quo. Stephen Downes provides a succinct counterpoint to certain popular leadership literature, especially ‘great man’ theories.

‘Leadership’ is the trait people who have been successful ascribe as the reason for their success.
It is one of those properties that appears to be empirically unverifiable and is probably fictional.

As organizations, markets, and society become networked, complexity in all human endeavors increases. There are more variables as a result of more connections. In complex adaptive systems, the relationship between cause and effect can only be known after the fact. This makes traditional planning and control obsolete. Connected organizations must learn how to deal with ambiguity and complexity. Those in positions of leadership have to find ways to nurture creativity and critical thinking. The connected workplace is all about understanding networks, modelling networked learning, and strengthening networks. In networks, anyone can show leadership, not just those appointed by management.

A guiding principle for connected organizational design is for loose hierarchies and strong networks. This is succinctly explained in the definition of wirearchy: a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology”. As networked, distributed work becomes the norm, trust will emerge from environments that are open, transparent, and diverse. Strengthening professional social networks will ensure that knowledge is shared and contributes to organizational longevity. Connected organizations need to learn as fast as their environments.

As a result of this improved trust in the workplace, leadership will be seen for what it is – an emergent property of a network in balance and not some special property available to only the select few. This requires leadership from everyone – an aggressively intelligent and engaged workforce, learning with each other. In the connected workplace, it is a significant disadvantage to not actively participate in social learning networks.

Leadership in networks does not come from above, as there is no top. To know the culture of the workplace, one must be the culture. Marinate in it and understand it. This cannot be done while trying to control the culture. Organizational resilience is strengthened when those in leadership roles let go of control.

Networked contributors (whether they are full-time, part-time, or contractors) do the bulk of the knowledge work at the edges of the organization. Working out loud and personal knowledge mastery (PKM) are becoming critical skills, as work teams ebb and flow according to need, but the network must remain connected and resilient. A key function of connected leaders is to listen to and analyze what is happening. From this bird’s-eye view, those in leadership roles can help set the work context according to the changing conditions and work on building consensus.

The connected workplace requires collaboration as well as cooperation. Both collaborative behaviors (working together for a common goal) and cooperative behaviors (sharing freely without any quid pro quo) are needed, but most organizations today focus their efforts on shorter term collaboration. However, networks really thrive on cooperation, where people share without any direct benefit. Modelling cooperation is another important leadership skill in the connected workplace.

Connected leaders know that people naturally like to be helpful and get recognition for their work. But humans need more than extrinsic compensation, as our behavior on Wikipedia and online social networks proves. For the most part, people like to help others. Cooperation makes for more resilient knowledge networks. Better networks are better for business.

Solving problems is what most knowledge workers are hired to do and complex problems usually cannot be solved alone. They require the sharing of tacit knowledge, which is knowledge that cannot easily be put into a manual or procedural guide. Research shows that tacit knowledge flows best in trusted networks. Trust promotes individual autonomy and this becomes a foundation for more open social learning. Without trust, few are willing to share their knowledge. An effective knowledge network also cultivates the diversity and autonomy of each worker. Connected leaders know how to foster deeper connections which can be developed through meaningful conversations. They understand the importance of tacit knowledge in solving complex problems.

The power of human social networks, like electricity, will inevitably change almost every business model. Those who are trusted as leaders will need to understand the new connected workplace. Connected leadership starts by organizing to embrace networks, manage complexity, and build trust.
status quo
This post is a remix of several older ones in order to create a single reference on connected leadership.

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