As our clients face new complex and interdependent challenges, we have been looking for better ways of understanding the role of formal and informal leaders in weaving and activating informal networks. How do we do it? Who is involved? How will we know when we are successful? These questions are part of the reason CCL (in collaboration with the University of Cincinnati) hosted a conference on the convergence of networks and leadership. This conference brought together 30 thought leaders from across the world to discuss the science and practice of networks and leadership, as well as gain new perspectives on the field.

Even though this conference was two years in the making, it was unbelievably timely. John Kotter’s new book, Accelerate, is bringing substantial attention to the role networks play in our organizations (not to mention how much they impact individual performance and community resilience).

Finally the long-standing traditional leadership guru embraces networks! Woot! (For a mini-review of this book, see my other blog post.

Attendees at the Thought Forum on Network Leadership and Leadership Networks















Organizers of the Event



Heated Debate – Not about the basics – but about the future

The basic question – can networks help individuals, organizations, and societies be more effective – has already been answered. Yes. They can and do. We’re living and working in the networked age, and there was no question about this basic fact during the conference.

However, the participants made it clear that the answers to more interesting and more difficult questions about the emergence of leadership in networks are still ahead. The members of the conference challenged the status quo when answering these questions. I would like to say we reached consensus and had little disagreement, but then I would just be making stuff up to make this post sound nice. In reality, there were heated debates, significant disagreements, occasional raised voices, and of course, individuals taking seemingly intractable positions. The process was messy, but we know this is what happens when you bring intelligent, strong, opinionated people from different domains together.  And as usual in these rare instances, the outcome was impressive. Many participants left reporting that their viewpoint had been fundamental challenged and they felt renewed energy to engage in this work.

We didn’t agree on much but we did have some insights

We need network approaches to leadership, NOT Network Leadership [click to tweet]

We agreed (mostly) that our field of topic is leadership, and we don’t need another sub-set of leadership studies. We already have collective leadership, shared leadership, authentic leadership, ethical leadership, transformational leadership, transactional leadership, leader-member-exchange and probably more. We all study and practice leadership – this is fundamental. We are applying the lens and science of networks to the topic of leadership.

We had more questions than answers, but I think the questions were quite meaningful and provide a future area of work. These questions include:

Under what conditions is it effective/ineffective for the leadership role to be distributed in the network?

How do we make networks operate more effectively, and how do we identify who to work with?

What kind of leadership is needed in a network organization (i.e. in this unique structure)?

What can a team do to effectively change/build their network in order to be maximally effective?

How do network approaches uniquely help us understand the leadership phenomenon?

What this means for the science and practice

Drawing from our years of research on interdependence and collective leadership, CCL is pushing leadership scientists to discover answers and solutions to these questions. CCL is already integrating a network perspective in many of its custom and open enrollment programs. We have also created an aggressive research agenda to answer the critical unknown questions in this space. You will see much more of this research, writing, and networks and leadership content in the near future. A network perspective on leadership may hold many of the answers our clients need in order to remain competitive in this highly connected and complex world.

What you’ll see in the near future.

  • CCL White Paper on Networks & Leadership based on the conference
  • CCL hosting another follow-on discussion on this topic to take initial ideas into action at the Academy of Management annual meeting in Philadelphia, PA next month
  • A special issue of the Leadership Quarterly on Collective and Network Approaches to Leadership guest edited by CCL Research Faculty, Kristin Cullen and Francis Yammarino (State University of New York at Binghamton)
  • Applied Research Opportunities for those interested in partnering with CCL (please contact Kristin Cullen for more information on this)
  • Community and societal applied network solutions – helping the most interconnected sector tackle our societies biggest problems (please contact Chuck Palus for more information on this)
  • Organizational and Executive network solutions – what every organizational leader should know about how their own network impacts their success and how to create strategic advantage through activating their organizational networks (please contact me, Phil Willburn for more information on this)

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