Navigating Networks

Collaborating through Networks

“Networking is not about just about building your connections with other people. It’s about connecting people with people to build a better future, to share ideas, and to create bigger mutual opportunities than would otherwise be possible.”

Locking in to Networks
Locking our Leadership into Networks

Networks are a pervasive feature of leadership in both the not-for-profit and the for-profit sectors. It is sensible to ask the question concerning the extent to which networks are competitive or collaborative. The traditional approach within the for-profit sector is that of ‘competitive rivalry within an industry’[1] much later adapted in the not-for-profit industry. However, collaborative ‘relations between organisations’ [2], described also as networked leadership involving relationships, is becoming more popular in both sectors [3].

In summary, we enact leadership within networks.

Relationships are difficult to nurture, work within and evaluate. Dimensions of networked relationships include direct/indirect communication, opposing and common purposes, the interaction across networked relationships ranging from one-to-one (including business-to-business) through to complex multiple relationships (multiplexity) and equality (of interests, power (hard and soft), and resources. These are useful starting points, but how do these criteria affect the way that relational leadership and its impact are measured and evaluated? Focusing on relationships inevitably challenges values, priorities, assumptions, behaviours, and ethics.

What are the Challenges of Leading through Networks?

We can point to a number of challenges that face network leadership

    1. Leadership is about influencing and persuading others to do something that the leaders want them to do. However, the most successful leadership across networks is achieved by informal leadership rather than solely through the exercise of positional or hierarchical power. This is fast becoming the most critical style for leadership.
    2. Vigorous leadership networking supports access to others across the networks along with increasing the level of information and resources that can be identified and applied. It is not just about links with different people. It’s about being able to influence those other network members in a way that collaborative advantage is gained by working with those connections intelligently to solve problems and create further opportunities for network and organisational improvement.
    3. Network leadership is not just about improving leader communication, as important as that is. The skills of network leaders include essential negotiation skills and both the capacity and the capability to both manage and lead through conflict and difficult conversations.  This is a real challenge within networks as invariably there will not be either a formal leader or a hierarchical structure as networks are characterised by plurality and differentiated (although often complementary) goals and objectives.

    Essential Negotiation

    Good negotiators take a planned approach to negotiation and will define a way of planning the journey to “Yes”.  Genius negotiators know when to challenge and push but also when to sit back and actively listen.  They will have a good tactical plan in which they seek to acquire intelligence.  In doing this, the genius negotiator will know exactly what information to share and when but also when to hold back.  This is called qualified giving.  It is a game, but it is one that can make the difference between coming to a deal that has mutual benefit rather than one in which both parties are competing to get the bigger slice of the pie.  Negotiation is the essence of networked leadership.  Genius negotiators, having built the intelligence then know when to mix and match on giving and receiving resources or coming to mutual agreements, often giving concessions on short-term outcomes for a long-term goal.


Essential Negotiation

If you want to read more about Essential Negotiation, click below

Leading Networks Positively

Networks concern relationships and relationships involve people

When a person feels that they are following a purpose or engaging in work that they recognise as important, negative aspects of work such as lack of loyalty, stress and role ambiguity are unlikely to emerge. Levels of commitment, satisfaction, and fulfilment are correspondingly increased. This will be further enhanced by empowerment, direct engagement with customers and clients and a sense of contribution to community well-being. This practice of positive leadership will be even more difficult to achieve in cross-sectoral networks although – once achieved – more substantial levels of satisfaction and achievement are more likely.

There are four approaches to leading positively as applied across networks. Positive leadership [4] can be achieved through the three components of collective leadership  including enacting Integrated leadership by:

  1. Envisioning purpose and Enabling a positive climate in motivating those led.
  2. Engaging all and Engendering positive relationships through relational leadership.
  3. Enabling and Empowering collective others in building capacity and capability; and
  4. Evaluating success in the achievement of socially desirable outcomes.

Cross network interpersonal relationships can be enhanced by demonstrating positive energy as role models and encouraging positive energy among others in networks. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in that networks strengthen interpersonal relationships, encourage collaboration, and increase the efficacy of interactions resulting in both organisational and individual performance improvement within the networks. It is not just formal leaders who make a difference. It is possible to identify positive energizers, reward and support the positive behaviours and incentivise the reflection of this energy across other network members. Network leaders should place high positive energizers in roles that allow maximum interaction and engagement with them and in practice-based coaching through applied leadership challenges specifically or through performance assessment and development more generally.

Collective Leadership

Towards the Collective Network

Invariably we will lead through networks, but a leaderless network can create confusion rather than collaboration.

A determined effort should be directed to the aim of developing collective leadership in asking the intelligent questions (summarised in the preceding topic) in equal measure across the network/s to the questions asked within your own institution. Institutional leaders should encourage collective others within their networks to consider the collective solutions in accordance with the shared purpose and values. Collective leadership asks intelligent questions and encourages collective others within networks to consider the solutions. This favours leading-in-the-round rather than leading through the line. Immediate crises may need leadership from the front.

How do networks and organisations differ? The term ‘network’ can be differentiated from ‘organisation’ given the formers pluralistic and heterarchical characteristics as opposed to the latter’s more singular and often, hierarchical nature. In an interesting anthropological study of complex societies hierarchies were described as “elements, which on the basis of certain factors, are subordinate to others and which may be ranked”. The authors made an important point:

“Hierarchy — inasmuch as it is often a reductionist metaphor for order — has disproportionately influenced theory building in both social and natural scientific contexts.”[5: 2]

Conversely, a heterarchy may be defined as “the relation of elements to one another when they are unranked or when they possess the potential for being ranked in a number of different ways” [ibid:3].

Although related to anthropological studies this work has resonance with the leadership structure within which personal agency operates. Crumley [5] argues that the conflation of hierarchy with order “makes it difficult to imagine, much less recognise and study, patterns of relations that are complex but not hierarchical”. This resonates with Cameron and Quinn [4] who suggests a need to understand the simple structure that underlies all organizing activities. Understanding these structures, they argue, help “to create new and more effective patterns of organising”.

Hierarchy -v- HeterarchyIn leading networks positively, we favour a heterarchy, in which units and individuals (nodes) within those networks work collaboratively towards the achievement of a shared purpose and objectives. As described in earlier sections, the Compass Leadership360 approach to leadership is based on the alignment between Buckminster Fullers’ perfect cube and the interaction between the triads of tetrahedrons; it is thus supported by the perfect platonic solids and draws on geometric symmetry (click here to read more).


[1].   Porter ME. Competitive strategy: techniques for analyzing industries and competitors. New York: Free Press; 1980.
[2].  Chappelet JL, Bayle E. Strategic and Performance Management of Olympic Sport Organisations.: Champaign: Human Kinetics.; 2005.
[3].  Uhl-Bien M. Relational Leadership Theory: Exploring the social processes of leadership and organizing. The Leadership Quarterly. 2006;17(6):654-76.
[4]. Cameron KS, ProQuest (Firm). Positive leadership : strategies for extraordinary performance [text]. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers,; 2012.
[5].  Crumley CL. Heterarchy and the Analysis of Complex Societies. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association. 1995(6):1-5. doi:10.1525/ap3a.1995.6.1.1

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