open and connected leadership

What happens when reputation-based networked leadership comes up against hierarchical institutions and competitive market forces? In the short-term, it looks like it loses, as was the case of Greece’s finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis.

“So what Varoufakis is doing here is harnessing the capacities of communication technologies to support transparency and genuinely intelligent policy debate, and thus empower the polity. Alas, the opposite of both of those trends is the dominant norm in the political use of the mass media and communication technologies.” – Open Democracy

But it may be the winning strategy for the long-term.

“Varoufakis is experimenting with open and representative politics which seeks to advance the economic and social wellbeing of those he is elected to represent. Surprisingly, such an enterprise seems ‘new’ because the ‘realist’ norms of power governing high finance view the very idea of that sort of politician as an impossibility. If we have any serious commitment to the West’s democratic vision of power, let us hope there are more impossible politicians out there.” – Open Democracy

I noted in leadership in perpetual beta that in an age of pervasive networks, creativity and design are extended while command and control mechanisms like the executive suite are made obsolete. The art of storytelling as a leadership skill is retrieved from the past. Networks like Open Democracy are a platform for the narratives of new leaders like Varoukis. Other aspects of older societal leadership practices are also being retrieved, such as this example of democratic self-management used in West Africa.

“Being self-managers by definition, they navigate conditions and engage in practices that drive serious effectiveness without bureaucracy:

Zero Command Authority. All relationships, and all activities, are purely voluntary. No one has any authority to direct activities of any kind. All leadership is exercised through influence, persuasion and trust. The voluntary gathering of forty unpaid leaders for two full days of training was an expression of pure self-management.

Nurturing the Network. The overall network is actually a network of networks (in the parlance of my friend, Ken Everett, N2N). Each leader has a local community network, nested within the larger community of communities. The leaders operate fluidly at both network levels and internalize self-management at a visceral level because they have no other way to get things done. Resources from the larger level (like learning) flow to the local level, and local resources (like information) flow to the larger level. Both network levels are necessary, and each nourishes the other.

Learning Organization. The leaders gathered in small groups at break times to share insights, questions, observations and updates. The groups were fluid and information flowed easily from group to group and person to person, refining and anchoring the learning.” – Doug Kirkpatrick

As I complete my third book in the perpetual beta series, I see more signs of an emerging form of connected leadership as society and our economies move into the the next organizational form, from Tribes to Institutions to Markets, and now to Networks dominating the previous three forms.

While tribes were mostly cooperative, sharing freely amongst themselves, they had a near horizon for sharing, and were usually patriarchal for major decision-making. In networks, these tribal tendencies for control are not optimal. Neither are the more sophisticated control methods of institutions and those of markets. Thinking that the role of leadership is to act and make short-term decisions misses out on how well fully functioning human networks can deal with most problems without intervention from above. When managers and executives get involved, they often make things worse for those doing the day-to-day work. This is even more pronounced when those doing the work are connected to their peers in social networks and communities of practice that have established and trusted knowledge-sharing practices.

The real job of leaders today is to ‘hold the space’, and in order to hold it they need to first establish a space where connections are flourishing. Leading is connecting.

  • Leaders help make connections.
  • Leaders are network weavers, connecting others to make the network stronger.
  • Leaders model good learning behaviours.
  • Leaders practice personal knowledge mastery.

My new e-book, Adapting to Perpetual Beta: Leadership in the Network Era, will be published here before the end of Summer.


3 thoughts on “open and connected leadership”

  1. This is a great riff. Thank you for your continued work and sharing of such insights.

    I am most fond of the “The real job of leaders today is to ‘hold the space’, and in order to hold it they need to first establish a space where connections are flourishing. Leading is connecting.” There are nuances around the concept of “leader” that are important to tease apart. Many people think of leaders as “Drivers” or those who provide pull in a direction. Driver -leaders are important but not sufficient in a network. Networks demand “weaver leaders” that focus on pulling the people in the network together and “operations leaders” that focus on sustaining the space. The roles are fluid but important to draw the distinctions so the networks can be organized properly and in balance.

    I am not really a fan of the “network of networks” language. It feels like a sloppy way to say distinct networks that have open boundaries, or distinct networks that share some of the same nodes or protocols. If a “network of networks” share the same protocols and boundaries then the set is a connected network and can be measured and built as one. If the networks don’t share universal node rules, protocols or agree that resources flow across networks freely then you have nested and/or fragmented networks. Or hubs that intersect networks and play gatekeepers among them. The accuracy in analysis provides much more clarity about how to more deeply connect people or resources across network boundaries that are often ignored as “network of network” is used.


  2. Just a comment on “tribal” structures. There’s a question here of how much tacit regulation exists here, which potentially makes the appearance of lack of hierarchy deceptive: power and hierarchy may be tacitly embedded in shared beliefs and rules that need not be explicitly formulated because they are already taken as unquestionable by all participants (I’m not necessarily saying that’s the situation with your present-day example). But one of the characteristics of modern societies, the disembedding of communication from particularized contexts and the development of “any-context-at-all”-capable discourse and sign systems, continues, even in a more intensive form, I think, into a networked age. When a Japanese web aggregator picks up my blog post for his newsletter and I retweet his link to my followers, we are, yes, framed by the ensemble of technologies, but substantially unconcerned by any embedded, tacit, local considerations about the protocols of proper communication (eg. you first speak to the oldest in the room, or you make eye contact with everyone, or you avoid eye contact with your superiors, or you use the “vous” rather than the “tu” with this person, etc.). So network organization isn’t just tribal organization purged of its negative characteristics, eg. patriarchy, but rather it mobilizes (potentially) new degrees of freedom from both given social hierarchies and organizational frameworks AS WELL AS embedded codes, received customs, and tacit regulation. I think that “as well as” is the crux, the really novel thing to think through. Or in other words, what would the loose, affiliative relations that you see in societies not organized by formal governance and rules be like when coupled with thoroughly post-conventional means of communication, which wasn’t the case in tribal organizations, despite their “anarchic” appearance?

  3. Networked organizations are T+I+M+N, so they include aspects of all four structures, positive and negative. However, the “N” structure dominates. Adapting to Networks is my main focus here, as many organizational designers have written about tribes, institutions, and markets already.


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