Leaders must leverage networks

The power of social networks is not a new subject. In fact, we’ve been talking about social networks (offline social networks, at least), for centuries.

Consider, for example, this ancient proverb, which underscores how attributes or behaviors can transfer from one to another: “Live with one who prays, and you will pray. Live with one who sings, and you will sing.” Or perhaps you prefer Aesop, whose fable of “The Belly and the Members” demonstrates how a single member of a network can have a disproportionate amount of influence on the whole network. And then, there’s his fable of “The Father and his Quarreling Sons,” which emphasizes the ever-popular sentiment, “united we are strong, divided we are weak”  (or, the more modern alternative: “united we stand, divided we fall”).

With the advent of social media, the public consciousness seemed to marvel at this novel phenomenon. Gradually, as online networks proliferated, we began to realize that they mirrored what has been happening offline for ages (e.g., it wasn’t the “what” that was new, but the “how.”). Online networks amplified and diversified how we create and sustain our connections with others. These digital manifestations of our physical networks served to deepen our awareness of the power of networks. And we still have much to learn.

In this vein, Nicholas Christakis’ TED Talk on “The hidden influence of social networks” provides some compelling insights and provocations. The purpose of his undertaking was to “[understand] human networks…how they form and operate” to better understand human activities and experiences. In this pursuit, he and his collaborators found that the stronger the connection between two people, the greater the probability certain attributes might be transferred from one to another. The initial subject of his study was obesity, but the same principles held for subsequent studies which focused on emotion.

This has important implications for today’s leaders. If a physical condition, such as obesity, can pass through a distributed social network as readily as emotions, like happiness and sadness, how could we possibly ignore the power of networks to advance–or derail–our cause?

As the modern work environment grows increasingly complex and distributed, the simple fact is that individuals rely on networks to navigate their organization and execute their work more than before. CEB (formerly, Corporate Executive Board), nods to this fact in a recent white paper entitled, “Rise of the Network Leader.” They posit that today’s work environment requires a new leadership style, which they dub “network leadership.” They pose some interesting questions and observations, but the data they provide is particularly intriguing. In studying the performance of more than 3,000 leaders, they found that 74% of leaders indicate the number of stakeholders they interact with has increased (duh, but good to have the data) and that 70% of leaders lack the flexibility to effectively create and lead social networks. That last bit is key: it suggests a widespread performance gap in which leaders are unable to access and leverage one of the most valuable resources in their organization — the people!

As leaders, we seek to accomplish our goals with and through others. As the ways in which we accomplish the “with” and “through” evolve, we must also.

A network-savvy leader knows that networks ought to be cultivated, fostered, and leveraged in an intentional way. Christakis observes that “the pattern of connections among people confers upon people different properties. It is the ties between people which makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.” That the architecture of our ties has such importance cannot be overstated and seems to mirror an observation David Allen once made regarding our personal leadership style, when he wrote, “How we are who we are can make a transformational difference in our jobs, our careers, and our lives; and that’s something that can be learned and practiced-not simply something we innately possess.”

So, how do we enhance our ability to lead (and leverage) networks? I admire the work of Dave Logan and his collaborators, who pioneered the concept of “tribal leadership” (Ted Talk | Wikipedia | Website). But really, if there’s one call to action from all of this, its to begin thinking about and engaging with our networks in an intentional manner.

At the conclusion of his talk, with the tenor of a benediction, Christakis emphasizes his belief that “if we realize how valuable social networks are, we’d spend a lot more time nourishing them and sustaining them.” For leaders who wish to be successful in today’s work environment, this is absolutely true.

The Icarus Paradox

A Kellogg School of Management study underscores that the more flattery we receive, the more we allow our self-impressions to be inflated. According to this study, this holds true for CEOs and constitutes “the Icarus Paradox:”

  • “’What we are saying,’” Stern explains, ‘is that with CEO status, the greater the status, the more flattery and opinion conformity will be directed towards the CEO. And the more flattery and opinion conformity directed at the CEO, the greater the CEO’s self-enhancement.'”
  • “The results showed that CEOs subject to flattery were more likely to believe themselves to be better leaders and more adept at strategy. Firm performance data, however, did not bear that out. Firms with flattered CEOs were less likely to change strategy when company performance dipped.”
  • Stern and his colleagues call this the “Icarus Paradox.” “The high levels of flattery and opinion conformity that high-status CEOs receive can foster self-enhancing cognitions that lead them to become over-confident in their strategic decisions and in their ability to correct performance problems with the current strategy,” the authors write.

From, “Flattery’s Dark Side – Why you may want to consider how much you compliment.”

Promoting Women (Promoting Themselves)

Women are not promoted as frequently or as far as men are. How much of this is attributable to circumstance, prejudice, or women’s preference?

“Women who are offered promotions ‘generally feel they need to know 80% to 90% of their current job before they feel ready to step up into a new role,’ she says. But if you are smart and knowledgeable, “probably somewhere closer to 40% to 50%” is all that you need. Men, on the other hand, feel no such constraints.”

“The Journal report was based on the comments of a task force set up to study the obstacles that women continue to face in the workplace. According to a McKinsey study quoted in the article, women get 53% of entry level jobs and ‘make it to ‘the belly of the beast’ in large numbers.’ But then ‘female presence’ drops sharply, ‘to 35% at the director level, 24% among senior vice presidents and 19% in the C-suite.'”

From, Do Women Shy Away From Promotions?

Terrorism Steeped in Tao?

Back in November of 2009, I recounted my befuddlement by the perspective that al Qaeda is inherently weak because it utilizes a strategy of ‘leaderless resistance.’ The government advisor who expressed this view seemed to think that because al Qaeda cells did not have leaders following the Great Man archetype, boldly marching on the field of public consciousness, that they were weak and easily eliminated.

On the contrary, I mused. Perhaps these terrorist cells have selected a strategy of great strength and endurance. After all, as Lao Tzu said,

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him… But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did it ourselves.'”

A 2009 analysis published in Security Studies, which the aforementioned government advisor must have missed, seems to support my view that this strategy of ‘leaderless resistance’ may be stronger than it appears to the casual observer. This article, by Jenna Jordan and aptly titled “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation,” states that

“despite a tremendous amount of optimism toward the success of [leadership] decapitation, there is very little evidence on whether and when removing leaders will result in organizational collapse.”

In fact, Jordan goes on to say,

“The marginal utility for [leadership] decapitation is actually negative. Groups that have not had their leaders targeted have a higher rate of decline than groups whose leaders have been removed. [Leadership] decapitation is actually counterproductive particularly for larger, older, religious or separatist organizations.”

Perhaps, anticipating the incredibly predictable strategy of eliminating the ‘man at the top’, al Qaeda took heed of some ancient Tao wisdom and integrated it into their organizational culture.

If only Taoism was more widely (and thoroughly) followed.

Requisite to Good Leadership: Holding Your Leaders Accountable

In 2008 the popular television show How I Met Your Mother put forth “The Pyramid of Screaming” as a model for explaining where some of our frustration and come from – and where it can go to. The concept, detailed thoroughly in The Bro Code (a humorous read, highly recommended), essentially explains the process in which our bosses yell at us and, out of a need to ease our own frustration, we then yell at someone lower on our personal totem pole: whether it be a hapless employee lower in the office hierarchy or a family member.

How I Met Your Mother

While The Pyramid of Screaming was meant as entertainment, it has an obvious foundation in reality: when we feel that someone has yelled at us unjustly, we have a predilection for passing on that frustration to someone easily within our power. It isn’t a nice human quality, but examples of it are abundant. This habit, of course, speaks to something larger: a dissatisfaction with our ‘superiors.’  We are much more likely to feel maligned – that is, unjustly admonished – if we don’t respect the figure performing the act, or his/her position.

With skepticism about someone’s right to admonish us as pervasive as it is, it begs the question whether there is something intrinsically wrong with us (the followers) or them (the leaders)? Are we terrible followers or are they terrible leaders?

Some recent studies suggest what many of us have long suspected: that many of our leaders are not as advertised. Specifically, there is nascent evidence which suggests that – by virtue of their leadership roles – our bosses have increased capacities to fake their own competence and to lie.

As reported by Jeffrey Kluger at Time, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley subjected a number of groups to a series of exercises. After each, participants were asked to rate their fellows on specific qualities. Almost without fail, participants gave higher marks to individuals who spoke out more often and more loudly, whether or not what they said had any merit. In short, the participants demonstrated a tendencies to view someone as a leader based on how confident or competent they made themselves appear.

A study with similar experiences was detailed by the Harvard Business Review just this month. In it, Dana Carney divided participants into two distinct roles: either bosses or employees. They were subsequently given instructions to follow which involved lying to an interviewer. Participants were then studied to see how they dealt with certain biological and psychological results of lying. In Carney’s words,

“Just as kids don’t touch a stove once they learn it burns them, people don’t like to lie because it hurts them emotionally and physiologically. These data suggest that powerful individuals—CEOs, portfolio managers, politicians, elite athletes—don’t get burned when they touch the figurative stove. They seem to be more physiologically “prepared” to lie, which could lead to their lying more often.”

“Just as kids don’t touch a stove once they learn it burns them, people don’t like to lie because it hurts them emotionally and physiologically. These data suggest that powerful individuals—CEOs, portfolio managers, politicians, elite athletes—don’t get burned when they touch the figurative stove. They seem to be more physiologically “prepared” to lie, which could lead to their lying more often.”

After perusing these studies, it is easy to feel some angst towards people in all positions of power. But is that justified? Ask yourself these questions:

1) Who is to blame for this state of affairs?

2) Who can fix it?

The answer to both questions, of course, is “You” – the Everyman of American organizational culture. In a follower role, it is easy to persuade yourself to think you have less responsibility for your organization’s success. But that’s preposterous – followers have just as much responsibility for being good shepherds of their organization as their bosses do. You really are your bosses’ keeper. As Warren Bennis said:

“If I had to reduce the responsibilities of a good follower to a single rule, it would be to speak truth to power.”

Hikikomori – a digital recluse?

In the March 15, 2010 edition of Newsweek, Devin Stewart reports that “the estimated number of hikikomori” is burgeoning. Hikikomori, as it turns out, is the Japanese term for “shut-ins who have given up on social life.”

Stewart seems to suggest that this is related to the miserable economy, where Japan’s massive debt has contributed to just 14% of respondents reported feeling confident in Japan’s direction, according to an Ipsos/Reuters poll cited by Stewart. But, what if the economy is just a single contributor among many? And what if hikikomori are cropping up across the globe and not just in Japan?

As I read Stewart’s brief column, I couldn’t help but remember a March 2007 essay published in Harper’s where I first encountered Internet Addiction (“I was a Chinese Internet Addict.”) That essay discussed the phenomenon, likely to be added to the DSM-5, in which individuals become so obsessed with the internet that they lose touch with reality (I’m dramatizing, but only slightly). What of the people who give up on physically social lives, and opt for solely (or predominantly) digital ones?

This bears keeping in mind. As social media develops and becomes more pervasive – as comprehensive connection to a digital world becomes more facile, what do we stand to lose?

Email Addiction. Side-effects: Stupidity.

Way back in aught 08 (September 2008), I wrote about the building evidence for Internet addiction. The March 2010 Entrepreneur brings us an article by Joe Robinson  (“Email is Making You Stupid“) which explores several aspects of technological addictions – including the harmful side-effects.

This article suggests that the burgeoning amount of emails, instant messages, tweets, and texts we receive  are becoming a harmful and prohibitive cacophony of hyper-communication. So why can’t people reduce the amount of messages they send (and receive)? Well, they could be addicted (“e-compulsion”). In such instances researchers notice decreased attention spans, increased stress, and decreased productivity (Alarming statistics! Read the article).

The most frightful thing to consider? What if what we’re doing – emailing about – day-to-day really impacts our life in the long-term? Robinson brings to light an argument by Winifred Gallagher, authored of Rapt, that “humans are the sum of what they pay attention to: What we focus on determines our experience, knowledge, amusement, fulfillment. Yet instead of cultivating this resource, she says, we’re squandering it on ‘whatever captures our awareness.’ To truly learn something, and remember it, you have to pay full attention.”

As noted by Robinson, it pays to pay attention to attention.