Evolving our leadership: How network leadership gets us where we are going

 

Elsa Henderson and Devon Davey

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Leadership is universal. It can come from anywhere, and anyone can be a leader. As major transitions in leadership are happening In philanthropy and across social change work, we ask, what skills and practices does an evolved leader truly need?

One possible answer to this question is that we think network leadership comprises the most highly effective practices of interdependence, adaptive problem solving, emergence, invitational, facilitative, and embodied leadership. In this article, we discuss these key elements with the aim of steps we can take to develop our leadership inside our organizations, teams, and communities for better outcomes for those we are working to serve inside philanthropy and across the social sector.

Types of leadership

Leadership holds deep meaning and is a massive field of practice. Below, we share five pivotal frameworks to help map this landscape. Our hope is to help inform current trends and what they can offer philanthropic leaders and all leaders in impact-driven work in this unique moment in time where historical oppression and white supremacy are being reckoned with. So, what are the competencies and practices of the creative embodied leader today?

Adaptive leadership: This is based on a set of characteristics (character, organizational justice, development, emotional Intelligence) seen as necessary for leaders facing adaptive problems. Adaptive problems are about the unknown, where the adaptive leader faces uncertainty applying the appropriate skill set.

Embodied leadership: These leaders embody the capacity to lead in the midst of ambiguity and complexity. Derived from somatic coaching, it is an approach bringing the body forward as a resource in creating a place for change and transformation.

Facilitative leadership: Effective facilitation involves using processes and tools to maximize the collective intelligence of individuals in a group to choose the best course of action and to then build a template for acting on the choices made.

Invitational leadership: Aimed at “inviting” all interested stakeholders to succeed, this involves sending positive messages to people, making them feel they are valued, able, responsible, and worthwhile.

Regenerative leadership: Weaves together a leadership framework with inspiration from thinking in the circular economy, adult developmental psychology, anthropology, sociology, complexity theory, and next-stage leadership development.

Now that we touched on some of the most relevant leadership types in these times of transition, what do they look like in practice? What might the dream of an evolved and creative leader be today? Our invitation to leaders is: let’s evolve to embody practices of network leadership.

An invitation to network leadership

We see network leadership as a form of leadership that encompasses some of the strengths of each of the practices above. Network leadership, having existed for millennia, engages people around a shared purpose to co-design new structures while creating space for learning and collaboration for systems impact through communities of practice.

Below are some of what we see as the core competencies of network leadership:

  • The purpose at the centre: stewarding the purpose and engaging with it from multiple angles of the system (which requires different perspectives) as articulated by Converge.net;
  • Emergence: building relationships, space, and trusting what will come;
  • Power-sharing: inviting peers into facilitation, co-design, and practice (while letting go of control);
  • Humility: consistently choosing to show up bravely; letting something bigger move through you; surrendering your identity and much more in service of the larger work.[1]

Philanthropic leadership means following the frontlines, as this Stanford Social Innovation Review article shares that leaders on the ground are the ones shifting structures, policies, and practices (or rather the components of systems) toward equity, of which funders and philanthropic partners need to remain keenly attuned to. Many of the practices shared, such as embracing divergence and being present in our work, relate to capabilities that evolved leaders can embody. Following the above foundational leadership competencies, we will shift to exploring how a leader can live into these practices.

The purpose at the centre

So, as we take the next steps in our own evolution, what might guide us? In times of uncertainty, when we can’t quite see the land ahead, we may need another form of guidance, a dream, or an emergent sense of purpose to guide us as leaders. An emergent purpose can help us navigate through times of uncertainty and ‘see’ beyond the horizon of what currently exists. Yet what is an emergent purpose?

We can think of a purpose as a kind of dream. As outlined by the Converge network, when this dream honours the vision of the individual and moves in a direction that is supportive of the collective, a dynamic tension occurs, between self-interest, the individual’s passions, and shared interest[2], the needs of the collective. In this tension, new possibilities can arise. This is a way of sharing a dream and co-creating purpose that allows for groups to share power and let something bigger move through them. Network leadership fosters emergence, the inherently creative and life-giving quality we see in all living systems.

Emergence

When something arises or comes into being, often in ways we cannot predict or conceive of, that is emergence. Life is a continual process of emergence and divergence. One gift of emergence is that it

fosters co-creation and the sharing of power. When we cannot control or direct the outcome, emergence invites us to partner with each other and take turns leading and following.

We know that relationships are vital to our health as individuals and a key ingredient for sustaining communities and organizations. Now more than ever, after two years of a pandemic and phases of social isolation, we know we need meaningful connections to thrive[3]. Relationships are vital for our individual and collective wellbeing. Emergence invites us to lean into our relationships.

Power-sharing

One way we can measure the health of these relationships is through the flow of information between the different people or stakeholders, and the way the network addresses power asymmetries. Power imbalances, at a network level, tend to create bottlenecks that slow down or even inhibit the flow of information and connectivity between different individuals.

Network leaders recognize the importance of connectivity and the role that trust and information sharing play in sustaining trusting relationships. Network leadership actively invites different stakeholders into positions of leadership and in this way they seek to share power. Much more remains on this topic and we recommend reviewing Building Movement Project’s restructuring leadership writing.

Humility

Network leadership reminds us that we can do more together than we can alone. When we feel the reality that we all exist in networks and that relationships are the connective tissue that keep our lives going, we can feel a sense of humility. In network leadership, humility can allow us to return to the ground beneath our feet, the word humility stems from the Latin word humus, meaning soil. This groundedness can allow for more to work through us, by inviting us to step out of the way. For example, when we see a colleague take on the role of leadership we may be humbled by the way their actions embody our shared purpose.

How to get there

There is often a gap – a delta between where we are and where we want to be as evolving leaders. We wouldn’t be human if that gap didn’t exist. It is where growth thrives. So, how can we get unstuck (by society or ourselves) and take action to get to where we want to be as leaders (even if we don’t know where that is yet)?

  1. Integrate. Integration is your mind connecting theory to action and a process by nature which often allows for space internally needed before taking action. Invite time for integration.
  2. Pause and reflect. Allow for internal processing. When productivity is a social and cultural norm, redirect that energy and move towards reflection.
  3. Hold presence. Attend to the present moment and let go of the biases, regrets, and anxiety of the past and future. This is a ripple effect then felt by the people in your networks and systems.
  4. Coordinate tools and skillsets. Cultivate the tools and styles from the leadership practices shared above and allow space for emergence (let go of control and trust!).
  5. Tap into your creative potential. By leaning into not knowing and allowing spaces to co-create and build new things, you can surprise yourself and unleash the wisdom your body knows.
  6. Feel into belonging. In (re)connecting to peers and growing small moments of connection and trust you can be truly seen, felt, and heard.
  7. Physical movement. Allow for shifting context and perspectives by getting up, moving your body regularly, taking walks during meetings, and stretching often.

We see network leadership as inviting practices that can help leaders evolve our capabilities regardless of their context, drawing upon thousands of years of leadership practices from around the world and encompassing the strengths of embodied and creative leadership. How can you tap into your creativity and emergent knowing to get to where you want to go?

Elsa Henderson is part of the Converge Network and on faculty at the Metavision Institute. Devon Davey co-creates strategy for greater equity and growth with female founders and leaders of colour inside organisations in the refugee crisis, youth empowerment, education, philanthropy, network building, and climate justice spaces.


Footnotes

  1. ^ Ehrlichman, D. (2021). Impact networks: Create connection, spark collaboration, and catalyze systemic change. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
  2. ^ www.converge.net
  3. ^ Social Relationships and Mortality. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith

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