Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Leadership is not obsolete in the networked world


Last week, I gave a talk in Frankfurt at the impressive E20 Summit about leadership in devolved organisations. My starting point was the myth that leadership is somehow less important in new, networked organisations. Not so. If anything, it is more important than ever, but the focus and practice of leadership is changing; and if we are to engage leaders and involve them in the development of social business structures, then we need to be able to understand and address their challenges and issues using language that resonates with them.

Leadership is not all one way. For example, in the human body, the brain does not simply control the body – the body also controls the function of the brain. So too in organisations, we need direct, decisive leadership from the top, but also feedback, support and assistance from the organisation.

Barack Obama is perhaps the best known example today of a style of leadership that demonstrated, at least in his election campaign, the value of strong vision and leadership combined with the ‘power of we’. The message was clearly about the power of collective action and collaboration, but without his strong leadership qualities, it would never have succeeded.

Also, leadership does not disappear in flat, ostensibly non-hierarchical structures. Back in the early 1970’s, a feminist activist Jo Freeman wrote an interesting paper called The Tyranny of Structurelessness about her experience of organising in leaderless groups, and concluded that blindly rejecting traditional forms of organisation and the roles associated with them was probably a mistake. In many cases, the informal structures that inevitably develop in a leaderless organisation are more opaque, less useful and in some important respects less democratic than in a traditional organisation.

In our era, Wikipedia is an interesting example, as it is often assumed to be an entirely open, leaderless organisation. But in fact, Wikipedia has its own leadership issues, as the controversy over a secret mailing list for its top administrators shows. The list was used to maintain power over other editors and deal with user banning and other contentious issues. In fact, the list was just a symptom of the long-standing byzantine power structures that exist among the famous 1%ers who are responsible for half the site’s edits.

So, leadership is a feature of human organisations, which means it is here to stay. Although some leaders may fear new social technologies, and believe they might make them less relevant, in fact the ideas and tools of the social web can potentially open up new opportunities for traditional leadership strengths.

One aspect of this potential is the fact that we can now have both intimacy *and* scale thanks to the web and it’s networks of trust. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has over 1.5m followers on Twitter, and very much leads from the front in the company’s radical approach to open, friendly customer service (which has earned a shoe retailer a valuation just south of a billion dollars in its acquisition by Amazon). Craig Newmark of Craigslist does a pretty good job of being human in public, via his blog. In Boeing, a totally different kind of company, leaders faced a problem of lack of honest feedback in company meetings, and they found that internal blogs can help leaders get better, often anonymous, feedback from across the company. They also have, of course, a famous blog – Randy’s Journal – run by their VP for marketing, which has evolved over time to be a pretty interesting site considering the culture of the company.

The evolution of social networks and internal social tools within large companies offers a huge opportunity for leaders to break out of the stultifying constraints of internal corporate communications and reach out to people across the company, sharing their vision, encouraging people and listening to what they have to say. When you consider, for example that IBM’s internal social platforms have over 67k blog users, 53k social network members and 150k wiki users (source), this gives a sense of the potential for leaders to reach out and engage directly with people.

However, leaders need to evolve some new skills to deal with this highly networked organisational landscape. Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody talks of the challenges posed by the fact that collective action has never been easier or cheaper thanks to the ‘net. This updates Alvin Toffler’s notion from the early 1970’s of the adhocracy – an ad hoc grouping that comes and goes as required, which is in many ways the antithesis of the bureaucratic structures that have built up around large corporations. We live in a world where people are more likely to engage with affinity-based networks and groups than formal structures based on reporting lines. This is how things get done in the real world. Trust is cheaper than control, if you can achieve it.

Co-ordination, rather than top-down management, is often a better way of influencing outcomes in complex systems, and requires its own special leadership skills. Systems thinking and the challenges of complex adaptive systems have already influenced the thinking of army doctrine in the United States and elsewhere, through ideas such as network-centric warfare and enablement, and hard lessons such as the failure of conventional doctrine in the Millennium Challenge 02 exercise. Similar lessons about co-ordination rather than top-down management are also being learned in the UK National Health Service, whose flagship IT transformation programme is rapidly becoming an object lesson in how not to run a major change project, and a good example of the need for more focus on social factors in project delivery.

In systems that exhibit signs of collective intelligence, where does leadership reside, and who is in charge? Influencing outcomes in these kinds of system, or indeed in any vaguely complex system, requires what Martin Dugage describes as network-centric management, and what others have called network-centric organisation. Leaders who can thrive in such contexts can expect to exert far greater influence over business outcomes than those who continue huffing and puffing and pulling the bureaucratic levers in the expectation that they are still working as before. But the characteristics required for influencing networks rather than managing reporting lines can be quite different, and leaders need to be comfortable with the exposure this creates and behave with a degree of what Anne McCrossan calls blatant integrity.

On a more practical level, how do the ideas of social business and enterprise 2.0 impact on leadership today? For my talk I looked at three starting points:

1. Identifying and nurturing future leaders
This is an area where companies are already using social tools, such as recruitment blogs, graduate onboarding and leadership programmes. We have been involved in several quite successful projects to create social networks for new joiners in graduate programmes, and there seems to be a real benefit to allowing new joiners to weave their own affinity networks to help them cope with a new role, and then gradually develop these into networks of influence to help them advance their career and find their place in the organisation.

This also provides an opportunity for existing leaders to break out of organisational silos and hierarchies to identify and encourage talent across the organisation. Another speaker at the E20 Summit, Julien le Nestour, quoted a very interesting piece of anthropological research from the late 1930’s that looked at the link between individual and group performance among Italian immigrant gangs in Boston when they went bowling – essentially their position in the group was a very accurate predictor of bowling scores, meaning that group dynamics would act against a low-status player who looked like he could beat a high-status player. This suggests that hierarchically-organised groups can sometimes act as inhibitors of individual performance, which has some worrying implications for the way we organise work. In a more networked structure, perhaps one of the roles of a leader is to see beyond the org chart to identify and support the low-status but high-talent bowlers before their performance gets dragged down by group dynamics.

2. Enable leaders to have presence and intimacy at scale
In many ways, business leaders have become as constrained by bureaucratic cultures and process as those lower down the organisation. Social networks and social tools offer a way for them to be more present in the organisation, even when the organisation is quite large. By reaching out to talk to people, read what they are doing and also injecting their own experience and ideas into discussions taking place across the organisation, leaders can collapse the perceived distance between themselves and the workforce. A key skill here is the ability to communicate in a human voice, and have something interesting to say.

Leaders often place great value on real-time unmediated information and feedback about business performance and what is happening ‘on the front line’, but curated presentations, meetings and sugar-coated reports are not always the best way to get it. One of the real benefits of social tools is their potential to surface this information soon enough for it to make a difference.

3. Give everybody a chance to demonstrate community leadership
There has been some interesting thinking around the idea of leaders as servants, and whilst it is not a realistic archetype in many organisational cultures today, it does contain a grain of truth in the sense of acting as an organisational steward or a force multiplier for the talents of others. There are so many issues flying round in a typical organisation that an experienced leader can add value through sense-making, link-making and synthesising information to help turn it into actionable insight. Cultivating leadership within the network, and aiming to increase network productivity as well as focusing on individual performance, is a key leadership skill for the Twenty-First Century. This is what CISCO CEO John Chambers means when he talks about the move from ‘me’ to ‘we’:

“We now have a whole pool of talent who can lead these working groups, like mini CEOs and COOs. We’re growing ideas, but we’re growing people as well.” In fact, he says, “where I might have had two potential successors, I now have 500.”

Not every leader has the confidence to operate in this way, free from the safety net of the org chart, but for those who can develop the critical skills to make these ideas work, the potential for business transformation is huge.

6 Responses to Leadership is not obsolete in the networked world

  1. By Frank Wolf on November 16, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Thanks a lot Lee – your presentation was my personal highlight at the Enterprise 20 Summit!

  2. By Ronna Porter on November 16, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Please DON’Tstop writing such long posts when they give such a full and shareable review of your own excellent presentations. A far better starting point for what I expect will be an interesting debate than the usual Chinese whispers ..

  3. By Jacob McNulty on November 16, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    Excellent post Lee – I’m consistently impressed with your depth of thought into the components required for #sbd outside of the tech.
    I strongly believe that leadership development and other more traditional OD/Org Lrng/KM methods will be needed to make #sbd sustainable. We incorporate LD focused on the network as part of our offerings as well:
    I asked your CEO at #defrag about the end goals of our services being similar and he disagrees but the more I read from you the stronger I feel that way. Thx and keep ’em coming…

  4. By Jo Jordan on November 16, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    Agree with you mostly but 1 and 3 seem to contradict. I think we have to encourage people to understand where they fit in to a network and shape the network around them. Some will plain old tech specialists because they choose to be. Some will be unadulterated coordinators because that is what they choose to be. They will find their way in a network by the networking they do. No one is going to do it for them though there well be psychologists (like me) who will be running around (networking around) tapping people on the shoulder saying (hey, do you know that…).
    With respect to big organizations : I have two questions. Which will remain and why? How can we run locally modular value networks (given that Boeing is not going too well.)
    Great to have the post though. I agree with the previous comment. Great to have a proper debate.

  5. By Lee Bryant on November 16, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    Thanks all.
    @Jo: I don’t really see why 1 and 3 contradict. I believe there is still an important role for leadership, but we should try to widen the characteristics we are looking for to recognise leadership in people who may not fit the traditional mould – getting more women in leadership positions being a good example. But there is also a need to inculcate a collaborative leadership mentality in communities and networks. CISCO is a good example. It takes Chambers’ strong leadership (1) to enable the community leadership he wants to see flourish (3).
    I can’t really answer your question about which large orgs will remain, but I have a hunch that more will survive than we perhaps think. They are remarkably resilient forms of organisation, actually.

  6. By Brandon R Allen on November 17, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    I totally agree with your points and appreciate the depth with which you made them. The challenge for these points is to get our educational systems and mindsets out of the past and into what can we do to get better in the future. In this task we struggle against the small minded individuals rooted in scarcity that like the status quo. One idea that I thought really fits your points is the idea in America to cut a year of high school for kids and have them spend their last year doing something civic in nature. This could include helping the poor build infrastructures in 3rd world countries to serving in a branch of military. Not only would we be teaching others to serve but we would also teach these young people how to lead.
    Great post. I enjoyed it.