Generating ideas, connections, and action

What are you learning about Network Leadership? Interview with June Holley

Introduction:  I had a sneak preview of June’s latest synthesis of research, “What we know about Network Leadership”, drawn from extensive reading and interviews with people leading networks.  I asked to interview her about some of the big ideas as a preview to the learning summary which will be published in the next couple of months.


Can you start by talking about what you mean by Network Leadership?

Take an example like the response to Hurricane Sandy.  A small group of people who had been part of Occupy Wall Street converged on the Rockaways, a strip of land devastated by the storm, and began to mobilize their networks to provide food, supplies and shelter for the many people in need. Over the next few months, more than 50,000 people volunteered and self-organized to provide meals, shelter, and medicine.  As time went on, increasing numbers of those involved were local residents.

These efforts were not organized by the Red Cross or FEMA, but by an ever-expanding group of network leaders who identified needs and then worked with small groups of others to meet those needs. As new volunteers arrived, they were encouraged to plug into an existing effort only until they saw an unmet need they could take responsibility for meeting. As a result, these network leaders were able to shift quickly from meeting basic survival needs in the communities to organizing local mold remediation crews and the YANA (You are Never Alone) Medical Clinic.

Network leadership, as this story illustrates, is not so much about individual characteristics but about a culture shift to a dynamic, open, inclusive, collaborative way of relating.  More and more people are drawn in and encouraged to notice opportunities to help, and take action.  Although individuals are initiating action, they are not looking for followers so much as drawing in others who want to engage deeply and share responsibility for success. When this “true peerness” develops, the results can be transformative.

Network leadership draws out and supports the leadership capacity of increasing numbers of people supporting a cascade of transformation as each new leader initiates change with others and then, in turn, supports others to initiate.  Its an expansive process of leadership development that makes societal transformation a possibility.


That is a great lead in to my next question.  What are you learning about how we can do a better job of developing network leadership?

Network leadership is not simply an individual quality and cannot be developed by focusing solely on the individual.  That is why it is so important that network leadership development support an action learning process where networks of individuals try out network leadership in a supportive learning group where they can experiment and reflect on their work on the ground and figure out what worked and didn’t so that they can make changes and try again.  In Occupy Sandy, there were lots of opportunities for people to take on new roles, and while there were nightly calls that people could join to debrief their work and get support, it was not explicit leadership development so for some people it may have felt like sink or swim.  We have not figured all of this out.


We are just starting to delve deeply into the details of network leadership, its all a very new adventure.  People have to become very skilled at group processes like metacognition and metalearning.  For example, How does a group think together? How do you get breakthrough thinking from a group? What are the right questions to ask? It can be hard to talk about this without raising concerns about group think.  In network collaborations its not about forcing consensus or pressuring everyone to think the same, but how get everyone’s ideas out and explore them in ways that push us all to think differently, freshly.  Some organizations are exploring this and we need to learn from them.


People have to learn how to be a network leader in a collaborative space where they see others change and move into a network way of working.  For example, I am in 6-12 projects at any time, with up to 30 people in each one, and in virtually all of these collaborations our work flows in exciting ways without hierarchy.  We have to figure out our different roles and tasks and its often sloppy but our innovations are amazing - and our learning curve is so steep it keeps us breathless! We have to imagine this type of overlapping action and learning on a larger scale.


You have supported, coached and written about networks for many years now. In this recent round of research did any big new ideas about Network Leadership emerge?


Network leadership development is really about building a new culture.  We have to change the culture of ourselves and our organizations as well as that of our networks.  Its not just about skills, its everything... all of your values, practices and your beliefs.  Our relationships have to open and flatten and become reiterative. Its about fundamentally changing the way we understand and invest time in relationships. We have bits of it in our lives but this is really a different way of being.  Not only do we each have to change, we have to work with others on change. 


Network leadership development can enable individuals to identify aspects of network culture that they are having trouble with and help them develop strategies for movement in these areas.  Checklists can be developed to help sets of individuals in a network assess the degree to which their network has developed a network culture and point out areas for future focus.


Recent research in neuro-leadership documents the importance of modeling in helping people move to a new way of being.  Mirror neurons in the brain absorb the behavior of others in a way that makes it easier to adopt new behavior and we need to learn more about how this happens.  Network leadership development can help leaders see the importance of their behavior as a guide and model for others and provide spaces where they can build and practice the new culture collaboratively, noticing and supporting each other.


This is why it is doubly, triply important to make leadership development part of everything.  We don’t even know what a fully rich network culture looks like because it won’t just be something that happens in networks.  It is the way that people will be.