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.

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