cooperative leadership

Last week I hosted a video chat on the changing nature of leadership. Part of the discussion was on the changing needs of society as the dominant organizing forms shift — from Tribes to Institutions to Markets, and now to Networks. We are currently in a post-modern phase transition where the vestiges of the old form (Markets) still dominate as new forms of Networks are being experimented with. The ensuing uncertainty drives the current rise of populism, xenophobia, and demagoguery. People are scared. But the future can be positive.

The new network form is retrieving cooperation — sharing freely with no expectation of direct reciprocation — as the primary way of getting work done. We can only influence networks, not direct them. Collaboration — working together for a common object — worked well in markets because companies could collaborate in order to compete. Collaboration also works well in relatively stable institutions where the rules don’t change too quickly. But collaboration is too limited to work in networks.

Martin Nowak, a mathematical biologist, concludes The Evolution of Cooperation with three-part winning strategy.

“What I find very interesting in these games of conditional reciprocity, direct and indirect reciprocity, we can make the point that winning strategies have the following three properties: they must be generous, hopeful and forgiving.

Generous in the following sense: if I have a new interaction, now I realize (and this is I think where most people go wrong) that this is not a game where it’s either the other person or me who is winning. Most of our interactions are not like a tennis game in the US Open where one person loses and one person goes to the next round. Most of our interactions are more like let us share the pie and I’m happy to get 49 percent, but the pie is not destroyed. I’m willing to make a deal, and sometimes I accept less than 50 percent. The worst outcome would be to have no deal at all. So in that sense, generous means I never try to get more than the other person. Tit-for-tat never wins in any single encounter; neither does Generous Tit-for-tat.

Hopeful is that if there is a new person coming, I start with cooperation. My first move has to be cooperation. If a strategy starts with defection, it’s not a winning strategy.

And forgiving, in the sense that if the other person makes a mistake, there must be a mechanism to get over this and to reestablish cooperation.”

To be generous, hopeful, and forgiving will in the long run make for stronger networks and communities. Cooperation is the necessary behaviour to be open to serendipity and encourage experimentation. This is the only way we will address our complex challenges.

Effective human knowledge networks have three key traits — openness, transparency, and diversity. With these in place, trust emerges, and this enables knowledge to flow better. As the network form becomes more widespread we should be re-thinking leadership.

Leadership in networks does not require a heroic queen like Boudicea, a calculating courtier like Cardinal Wolsey, or a monopoly builder like J.D. Rockefeller. The emerging form of leadership will look more like the influence of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. Looking at Boudicea and Malala we could also infer that certain feminine leadership traits are being retrieved by the new network form.

Leadership in networks is making the network more resilient. It is helping the network make better decisions. Leadership has to focus on improving cooperation among all the nodes. This is not the ‘great man’ theory of leadership. It’s a networked humanity approach because our challenges are global. Our institutions and markets are now globally connected. Optimizing for any single institution or market to collaborate better is not enough. We have to find better ways for all of us to cooperate better. The good news is that we evolved to cooperate. We now have re-teach ourselves.

“network leadership is about working together to make sure that people in the network are connected in a way that encourages flows of resources, information and support to every part of the network” —June Holley

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