Leadership in a Networked Age


We face a daunting and challenging task if we are serious about helping lead networks in these distracted and disrupted times: we must rethink the core elements of what leadership actually means. “Ultimately,” offered Elie Wiesel, the humanitarian and human rights advocate, “the only power we should aspire to is that which we exercise over ourselves.”


We know of course this is true. We want to believe it. Live by it. But what does it mean? What is that power “over ourselves” actually made of? What does power over ourselves look like? How, specifically, do we develop it? When do we know we have it? 



Who are network leaders?

We are.



You and me for starters. (If not us, who?)

And as ordinary as we are, we are the ones who must develop and practice organizational and network leadership. We are the ones who are responsible for the transformation of the networks, systems, organizations, communities and families we serve. Not our boards, not our CEOs, not our bosses, not our colleagues, our employees, our parents or children. Just us. You. Me. It is all in our hands.

How can that be? We are responsible for everything even when we are not in seats of power? Aren’t those in power responsible for the good of the whole? For setting the tone, making the culture of leadership visible to all? Isn’t that what leadership is? After all, with leadership comes the necessary authority and control. Doesn’t it?

It doesn’t.

Institutional leadership can impact our lives for sure. They can fire us, redeploy us, promote us. They can make us feel potent and powerful, small and insignificant, but over our beingness (more on that word later), they have no power at all. No-one can mandate who we are. Or tell us how to be authentic and connected to our own core. Whether I work in the C suite or the mail room, I have to take stock of my own leadership, my own conduct, my own contribution to the system or organization I serve. Much more than deciding what kind of organization I want to belong to, I must act as I wish that organization to be.

My responsibility is not about the outcomes, not about the success or the failure of the enterprise. None of us have that power. Not even the CEO or the Board. The power I do have is to model the kind of self-leadership that can insure purpose, authenticity and honesty in the way I work. No-one can take that away from me. 


What does Network Leadership look like?

Network leadership is the way we elect to hold our own conduct to account, to practice self-honesty (we will call it self-responsibility in this book.) The task is steep and requires a relentless focus to get a hold of ourselves and pursue a rigorous practice. And, while not easy, the practice offers huge return. As with any disciplined commitment, we begin to learn profound things about ourselves and rewrite the false fixed beliefs that have kept us wary, small, limited. We become more purposeful. As our practice deepens inside the systems that can often be stymied, sluggish or even oppressive, we can develop the acumen of joyful insurgents—determined to free ourselves (and those around us) from the habits and mythologies that no longer have much use.  We can discover an essential truth: leadership is not a mastered outcome, it is a modeled practice.

How do we do that? We can:

Become familiar with our own tendencies, prejudices and preferences;
Learn in real time;
Notice the effects we have on those over whom we have positional power;
Pay attention to how we are triggered to react in fear or anger rather than curiosity;
Observe how often we draw fast conclusions from limited sources and information;
Discover a deep reverence for what we do not know;
Develop an abiding faith that there is no other (“they” is always “us”);
Sharpen our ability to ‘ignite’ through the quality of our listening;
Pay rigorous attention to our own internal state in order to recognize our own biases (what you focus on determines the state you are in);
Grow more willing to assess our own trustworthiness before we measure the trustworthiness of any system or individual; relinquish bitterness or blame (wound always offers a partial vision anyway);
Move from enslavement by our own ego to robust dialogue with it;
Understand how to honor and support people who “hold the whole” and serve the institutions and systems that serve them;
Refine our attention to our core principles, our internal moral/ethical compass;
Free ourselves of the need for applause;
Be grateful;
Love without fear at work;
Love without fear in general.

Power over oneself is at the core of network leadership. Network leadership is the practice of self-responsibility as the foundation to our interaction with others, the ongoing exploration of the power Wiesel describes in service of the highest good of all concerned. As we move from attempting to direct or influence others, we must continually face our hardest and most intransigent ally: ourselves. How we meet ourselves with curiosity and presence so that we can embody collaboration and communication with others is important, but how we pursue leadership as a purposeful expression of our own identity is everything.