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From Leadership Develop Programs to Vibrant Networks: Five Things to Consider

The Arab Spring and the massive mobilization of people and resources in the 2008 elections have captured the imagination of leadership development programs impressed by network strategies with the potential to magnify the social impact of individuals and groups.   Many leadership programs are interested in how they might incorporate a network approach to catalyze action among their graduates.  LLC would like to share five lessons from conversations about program design approaches could be at odds with nurturing emergent networks:

  • Leadership models introduced in many leadership programs are in conflict with the leadership behaviors that are needed for network leadership.
  • Few existing leadership programs are helping participants learn to use social technologies or to gain skills with network strategies that would help to ensure the success of the network.
  • The top down, expert driven design of many leadership programs undermines self-organizing and peer learning opportunities that would help nurture an emergent network.
  • Leadership program graduates will not automatically connect as a network simply because they have graduated from the same leadership program: there has to be a compelling purpose and the impact of the network could be amplified by being open.
  • Supporting a network requires an investment in platforms and network coordination.


Leadership Models and Cultivating Network Leaders

Leadership programs often have explicit or implicit assumptions about what constitutes effective leadership and many programs incorporate curriculum to strengthen skills needed for this type of organizational or managerial leadership.  However, as we learn more about the development of effective networks, we noticed that network leadership requires very different skill sets that are sometimes at odds with the management skills that are important in organizational contexts.   In today’s increasingly connected world, leaders will need to be adept at both organizational and network leadership and adapt their skills to the environment in which they are working.  The chart below (from June Holley’s Network Weaver Handbook) illustrates new skills and leadership behaviors that participants in leadership program could be encouraged to cultivate and practice in their leadership within a cohort that connects the work of individuals across different anti-poverty organizations. For example, leaders will need to know when to be directive and when to facilitate others, when to set a central direction and when to encourage others to take small actions and experiment. 







Position, authority


Role, behavior

Few leaders


Everyone a leader




Tell what to do


Many people initiate



Facilitation and Support

Small group in the know


Openness & Transparency




Top down


Bottom up

Make sure tasks completed


Help identify breakthroughs



Small group






Innovation and Experimentation

Provide service


Support Self-organization


Program Design

Many leadership programs utilize experts and training programs.  This is helpful and can provide exposure and opportunities to learn new skills that participants would not have otherwise had.  Some programs devote a good deal of their  face-to-face time to deliver these resources.   When the program delivery is predominantly top down, participants assume a more passive role as recipients.  On the other hand, when programs encourage fellows to self-organize learning and action components of the program (identifying topics and skills that they need right then in their work and then taking the initiative to convene others who are also interested or skilled in the topic or skill), participants are more likely to see the learning value they derive from their relationships with one another and this becomes an incentive for staying connected once the formal part of the leadership program ends.  As participants bring a more conscious lens to these behaviors, they will be learning about a network mindset and network strategies through their own experiences.  The collaborations they organize as part of the leadership program build the skills, mindset, and relationships that become the base on which higher impact collaborations are built after the formal program ends.


Network Tools and Skills

The opportunity to learn new skills is an important offering of any leadership program.  The skillful and targeted use of social media is critical to building and mobilizing effective networks. While a number of emerging leaders have grown up using social media tools, many current and senior leaders that participant in leadership programs may be less comfort with these new and important tools.  Leadership programs can provide a learning environment where young participants are encouraged to experiment with social media or if they already have these skills they can learn to cross mentor people in their worksites, helping them to adopt new technologies that will enhance their ability to extend their reach and coordinate the work of more people.


Designing for Emerging and Expanding Networks

Leadership program participants will not automatically join a network unless there is clear purpose and value in being connected.  This purpose will often align with or be an extension of the social impact results, like climate control or early education, that the leadership program seeks to support. Questions are often raised about whether a leadership program’s graduate network should be a closed or open.  If the network is closed the implication is that only the program’s graduates will be in and form the network.  One of the primary functions of network leaders is to help others become active and effective networks leaders.  A networks ability to attract resources could also increase its potential impact on its focal issues. This could be cause for us to reframe the issue of open verses closed leadership programs. Network leadership development needs to be framed as emergent and viral.  For example, the RE-AMP network described in the article Transformer started with a set of 17 leaders who worked closely with each other for a year, deepening relationships and understanding the system they wanted to transform. They identified high-leverage areas in their field, and then – over the next 3 years –reached out to include 125 organizations and hundreds of new leaders who could add value to those leverage areas. As a result of this expansive approach, the network was able to have dramatic impact on development of new policies and practices in their target area in a very short period of time.


Building the Network Infrastructure and Support

While networks have an organic and emergent nature this does not mean that they cannot be nurtured or that they don’t require some basic levels of support to succeed.  Many leadership programs only think about network (or alumni) organizing after their programs are well underway.   There is often a scramble to create the right platform for the group. Introducing and experimenting with collaborative technologies during the course of the program – so that participants themselves create the social media ecosystem that fits their needs and communication styles – will ensure that this network infrastructure flourishes after the formal program is completed. 

As the network grows it will need network coordinators (individuals who coordinate and convene network participants) and network guardians (who facilitate development of network structures – innovation funds, social media platforms, network weaver support).  While all participants should be encouraged to become skilled network weavers, the role of network coordinator or guardian will require resources and staffing. 

In short, while there is definitely an emergent nature to effective networks that is much more that leadership programs can be doing to make sure that there participants have a chance to develop a network leadership mindset, practice with social media tools and experiment with self-organizing opportunities.