Network Leadership: a Mindset Shift for the Digital Age

The World as Network

Our world is organized on the principle of networks. Everywhere we look, networks can be discovered.

It was the emerging new science of ecology in the early 20th century which observed that species were linked together through their feeding relations with each other (aka food chains). Subsequently, it was understood that these links are an integral part of a network known as the food web which connects all species in an eco-system with one another. This food web acts as a a kind of natural “circular economy” in which even the waste of one species is the food and nourishment of another species.

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With the advance of neuroscience, the ubiquity of networks as well as their sheer power has been revealed. An average human brain contains approximately 10 billion nerve cells which are interlinked in a vast network of 1 trillion (!) connections known as synapses. It is the patterns of these interconnections which gives rise to our sensory perception, memory, knowledge and consciousness. Everything we feel, taste, see, and know is a consequence of the power of networks and interconnections.

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Likewise basic cells are currently understood to consist of networks of molecules. This concept gave birth to the science of network biology. Even atoms are regarded as networks of energy.

A mindshift in the role of leadership in organizations is vital

If our natural world is organized around the network principle, it is natural to recognize our organizations as networks as well. Grasping to understand this network reality has significant implications for our understanding of the role of leadership in organizations. In addition, it requires a mindset shift. 

Currently the prevailing metaphor for organizations is a "well-oiled machine". This paradigm predicates that the role of leadership is to guarantee that all the parts of the machine are working appropriately. 

What are the implications of this approach? The end goal is usually to obtain the maximum amount of output possible from the entire process.

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How does a change in metaphors make a difference in our understanding of leadership? Let’s conduct a thought experiment to explore the impact of a new metaphor starting with the following question:

What happens if some component inside an organization is not working as effectively as it should be?  

From the machine model point-of view, the focus is entirely upon the underperforming part. The non-functioning component is analyzed and an attempt to fix it is made. If it cannot be fixed, the part is simply removed and replaced. The success of any intervention is dependent on the leader’s efforts which are external to the actual machine itself.

What if we consider an organization as a living network, rather than a machine? 

By using a living network focus, attending to a specific underperforming element of an organization would be similar to coping with a malfunctioning organ such as a liver. To develop an understanding of a degenerated liver, it is key not only to look at the component – the function of the liver itself – but the entire organism which determines an individual’s overall health. Is the underperforming liver the result of alcohol abuse, obesity or some other cause? This approach would indicate that the solution should occur at the level of the organism, not the organ in isolation. From a living system perspective, endeavoring to fix the part alone leads to addressing only the symptoms, not the cause.

If all else fails, an organ transplant can be considered. However, this is a highly complex undertaking which ultimately depends upon whether the host accepts the transplant (or not). The replacement "component" (ie. organ) may be fully functional, but if the host rejects it, the problem is not resolved.

In contrast to an external fix which is implied by the machine metaphor, in the case of a living network "true change comes from within". The success of an action is dependent on a behavioral shift and/or reaction from within the organization itself.

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HEALTH as a new leadership paradigm for our post-Covid world

First and foremost, what is the purpose of leadership?

As mentioned above, the machine metaphor defines the role of leadership as the individuals who make sure that the machine runs optimally. Moreover, it also implies external operators who maintain and run the “well-oiled” machine

In contrast, a network functions by itself. One of the hallmarks of life is its ability to maintain itself. Neither bacteria nor a cat need an “external operator” to successfully be alive.

In light of this new metaphor, the role of leadership in a living network must shift from "running the machine" to ensuring the optimal health of the organization.

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And what could this metaphor of health mean for our present-day understanding of leadership?

Rather than focusing only on the components (ie. machine parts), optimal health embraces a focus on the whole. The flow of nutrients throughout the entire body is more important from a health point of view than the functioning of its individual components.

What are we referring to, when we talk about organizational health? It is the flow of information and energy across the various nodes of its network which characterizes the health of an organization.

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The detrimental nature of silos in companies provides a helpful insight about the importance of fostering organizational health. An organization’s ability to function properly is impaired when different parts of an organization do not communicate effectively with each other. Lack of trust is an indication that individuals are holding back what they know and/or are willing to contribute. This detrimental mindset inevitably impairs an organization’s ability to perform optimally. This underscores the importance of why trust is the ultimate measure of health in an organization.

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The goal of leadership in the machine metaphor is to continually grow capacity and maximize output.  More is always better.   In living networks there is unquestionably a period of growth. However maturation is the more important phenomenon of living networks.

What implication does the concept of maturation have for organizations? How an organization adapts to its environment is crucial for its ability to maintain its health. This adaptation (or “maturation”) is developed through learning.

Growth at all costs as aspired to in a machine metaphor is replaced with a goal of "maturation" in the new paradigm of living networks. A fine balance of growth and adaptation is realized through learning.

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At the heart of optimal health lies quality not quantity.

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What Leaders do

Under the new paradigm of living networks, a leader's focus is on the interconnections in an organization and the flows between them.  These flows consist of both energy and information. The health of a system (ie. organizations) is directly connected to the robustness of its interconnections. For example, while Mental health undoubtedly has a physical chemical component, researchers have discovered that there is also often a social component. Loneliness and lack of meaningful social connections often play a significant role in the development of anxiety and depression. A powerful antidote to depression is to foster strong interpersonal connections.

What does this mean for leaders? They must focus on relationships and fostering these relationships both within and outside of their organization. Connecting people is no doubt one of the most valuable leadership activities.

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Recognizing how certain combinations of already pre-existing technologies can lead to breakthroughs is the essence and inspiration of innovation. One of the reasons that digital technology is so disruptive is that novel combinations of software, sensors, platforms, etc. create new applications for their use. To successfully adapt to the on-going digital revolution, leaders are being forced to focus on those interconnections which are driving innovation in the marketplace.

However, it is insufficient to focus on the number of interconnections alone. It is the quality of those interconnections which ultimately determines their overall value. What flows through those interconnections is where the unforeseen value resides. The platform of Airbnb connects property owners with travelers seeking overnight accommodations. Although Airbnb does not own any properties itself, it owns the flows of information. This interconnection makes Airbnb more valuable than most established hotel chains. Property owners and travelers continuously flock to the Airbnb platform because of the quality of their information connections - measured in ease-of-use, convenience and reliability.

Moreover, the role of energy flows should also not be underestimated. It is energy which underlines the quality of the interconnections. Energy is made visible in an organizational setting through the motivation of employees and their willingness to go the extra mile to get things done. In an environment which is characterized by trust and fueled by meaning, energy flow in a human context is boosted. People are energized when they understand the purpose of their work and how it contributes to a meaningful outcome.

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Where is Leadership needed?

From the perspective of the machine paradigm, leaders are for all practical purposes external to the organization. Therefore, it is not surprising that leadership is traditionally regarded as residing mostly at the "top" of an organization. Perched at an eagle's lofty perspective, leaders can objectively look down on their machine and objectively figure out how to “tweek” it.

On the other hand when the organization is regarded as a living network, this perspective has distinct consequences for leaders. First of all, a living network normally has no clear top or bottom. There are only networks nested within networks in a living system. Seasoned managers know only too well that to accomplish tasks solely by following the hierarchical chain of command in an organizational chart can be futile. Managers often rely on a balance of authority and their informal networks to get things done. Seasoned managers intuitively understand that the power is not necessarily always located at the top.

But where does the power of networks actually reside? 

It is to be found in those areas of an organization where the highest quality (as well as quantity) of interconnections reside. A negative example directly related to the Covid-19 pandemic provides an excellent example of the power of interconnections. Super-spreader events are hubs which accelerate the spread of the virus throughout society. Similar “super-spreader hubs” in businesses can positively disseminate information and material resources rapidly throughout the organization. These hubs can be located anywhere within the organization, not only at the top. These power hubs require leadership and call for on-going leadership development.

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Leaders need to identify where these hubs are located throughout their own organizations. This new paradigm of an organization as a living system poses a new challenge for leaders. Leaders need to learn to map - not measure - how information and energy flows throughout their organization. The new science of organizational network analysis maps not only the hubs in the organization but the attributes of the interconnections as well.

Leadership in the Information Age

Networks have always existed. The coming of the Information Age has raised our awareness about the omnipresence of networks in our world. The challenges of the pandemic has furthermore raised important issues about a need for change in leadership practices. This shift in perception has undoubtedly been heightened by accelerated digital transformation and its impact on our working lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. The role of networks has become more noticeable to all of us more than ever.

All the more reason to embrace the idea that the paradigm of the "well-oiled machine" has outlived its usefulness. New thinking and up-dated metaphors atuned with the needs of the Information Age are required for leadership to evolve.

Ensemble Enabler has developed an approach to leadership development which addresses this leadership challenge of our current Information Age. These series of services enable organizations to transition into this new world of leadership.

Leader as Learner and Teacher - Learning, Connecting, Teaching, and Facilitating form the foundation of Ensemble Enabler’s new leadership paradigm. This leading-edge approach to how leadership works is based upon the "living network" paradigm which provides a framework for a transformative process to effectively develop leaders.

Leadership Sprints – Leadership development which is fostered in real-time and engages within the framework of actual project work located at the power hubs of organizations and their immediate networks.

Network Leadership Mentoring – An innovative approach to support key leaders throughout an organization which enables leaders to reflect and embrace a shift in perceptions and behavior about how to effectively lead an organization in a VUCA-World.

Team Coaching – Optimal team development is cultivated through observation, feedback and reflection on relationships and interconnections within existing teams to enhance the energy and trust within the group.

Enable your organization to use the power of networks to identify sustainable business solutions with speed and effectiveness: Network Leadership - Intentional Collaboration -Network Mindset

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