Network perspective is a leadership imperative. But do you have it, and do you make the most of it?

Network perspective is the ability to see the complex web of connections between people in and beyond your organization.

As an individual, network perspective allows you to move beyond the official structure (the “org chart”) to get work done using informal networks. This perspective means knowing who has influence and where to go for information, and it’s about seeing — and tapping into — the ties that extend beyond your organization into other organizations, communities, and society.

At a broad level, networks are a natural part of an interdependent yet volatile world. Many leaders and academics are coming to the conclusion that our understanding of leadership should consider both the natural and strategically created networks.

“Today’s organizational and societal challenges are too big to be addressed by heroic leaders alone,” according to Networks: How Collective Leadership Really Works, a paper based on a forum we co-hosted with the University of Cincinnati. The piece argues:

“A more contemporary understanding of leadership as a shared process is needed. Collective leadership occurs when mobilized masses achieve exponential results through their connections. If leaders, organizations, partnerships, cross-sector alliances, NGOs, community-based organizations, and grassroots movements are going to leverage the potential they have for impact, then they must understand the power of informal networks.”

By embracing leadership as a shared process that engages and creates networks, organizational leaders create several benefits:

  • An increase in the collective capacity for leadership.
  • The enabling of others to step up, adjust, and make decisions about the future of a project, team, organization, or community.
  • The transformation of the leadership culture from reliance on command-and-control hierarchies to adaptation within agile, interdependent networks.

The participants in the forum (30 scholars working at the intersection of collective leadership and network science) agreed that networks are how collective leadership happens. And alongside the various theoretical questions discussed, they asked:

How do we ensure that leaders are trained and fluent in a network perspective?

For example, once a network analysis of any kind is completed, what does an organization, community, or leader do next? What kind of network learning should be included in leadership development?

Which brings us back to network perspective. Networks and leadership are complex, evolving areas of practice and study. But as a leader, you can start with boosting your own network perspective. Understand where you are in a network, the overall structure of the network, and how your position in the network impacts your leadership ability and the success of your team or organization. You can also ask yourself 3 questions:

  • Is my network open? Are the people I know all connected to each other?
  • Is my network diverse? Do I have ties and connections that cross critical boundaries in the organization?
  • Is my network deep? Do I go beyond surface interaction and invest in quality relationships with others?

As you think about the characteristics of your network, consider the value of the ties and relationships you have — and the gaps or weaknesses that prevent you from accomplishing things that matter. With greater awareness, you can then begin to build a network that will help you achieve personal and organizational goals.

CCL, in collaboration with the University of Cincinnati, hosted the 2014 Thought Forum on Network Leadership and Leadership Networks. Read about the forum and key network questions in the paper Networks: How Collective Leadership Really Works. From there, you can also link to interviews with thought leaders about their experience at the forum.

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