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Shedding Organizational Trappings: 5 Ways the Leadership Learning Community Embraces A Network Approach


In 1998, twenty-five leadership programs were invited to participate in a two day “unconference” to experiment with creating the conditions for cross-program learning, field-building, and self-organizing around tough challenges in leadership development work. Today, the Leadership Learning Community (LLC), formally launched in 2000, has engaged over 2000 individuals from close to 500 leadership programs, foundations, academic institutions and consulting businesses who connect through face-to-face meetings, webinars, LLC’s website and social media channels. LLC’s mission is to transform the way in leadership development work is conceived, conducted and evaluated.

LLC promotes and is committed to embodying leadership that is inclusive, networked and collective. This is not always easy. Heroic models of leadership and hierarchical, top-down organizational practices often become our default behaviors if we are not intentional about questioning our assumptions about how to organize our work. In its 10 years LLC has had to hold the tension between drawing on good organizational practices and realizing that as a community of practice and learning we are a different kind of animal needing different approaches. Some areas in which LLC has experimented with network approaches include:


  1. Sharing leadership: The LLC team uses a model of distributed leadership in which shared purpose and shared accountability create the conditions that unleash the leadership of everyone on staff, and for that matter..on the board and in our community.
  2. Self-organizing: LLC encouraged early enthusiasts to initiate learning circles in their regions. Some had great success. One group of leadership evaluators organized around an interest in figuring out how to evaluate inner leadership, network impact, and social change. They saw an opportunity to share evaluations and help the field learn from the experience of different program approaches. The Evaluation Circle shared ideas, innovations, tools, and built on each other’s work to improve evaluation practice and helped produce the highly regarded Handbook on Leadership Development Evaluation. Other self organizing efforts floundered when well intentioned circle leaders were pulled by other demands. One lesson for LLC was to provide more training, guidance and support to individuals and organizations launching circles, and to talk openly about successes, and failure embracing what we were learning. LLC also created a community seed fund as an incentive to self-organize and collaborate on learning projects.
  3. Trusting and letting go: LLC’s national meeting, Creating Space, is one of its hallmark events. In 2009, LLC moved from a model of selecting a small group to plan the conference, to a more open process of self-selection. An invitation to the community generated interest from close to 30 people, who used collaborative technologies such as webinars and wikis, to plan and execute the meeting. This model resulted in the co-creation of an event that drew on the talents of many, and that required less staff coordination. The next annual meeting will use a network strategy to coordinate regional meetings and cut down on the costs and environmental impact of a national convening in one location. By giving up some control, more people will have the opportunity to participate in shaping their own learning experiences.
  4. Crowd sourcing: LLC stepped back from its work in 2007 to reflect on what we had learned about where the field of leadership needed to go based on hundreds of interactions with people doing leadership work. We saw clearly the need to promote models of leadership that were more inclusive, networked and collective and realized we could not do it alone. We engaged over 20 partners to help us learn and push our thinking about a new leadership paradigm and to help get the message out beyond our community. We have created a collaborative workspace where partners are sharing resources and writing together about new approaches on a public wiki. It’s a process that takes longer, but one that produces better learning, can reach a lot more people, and have more impact.
  5. Sharing governance: LLC is experimenting with opening its board to the community. Starting with community nominations for board openings and involvement in selection, the board is now inviting the community members to participate in board meetings to create more openness and transparency, and more fully benefit from the talents of the community.

In a recent survey, community members were asked about LLC’s “secret sauce.” The word that rose to the top was “openness.” Openness is a consistent thread that runs through the examples of different choices and issues LLC has had to grapple with to extend its influence and capacity.  We are embracing network strategies to more effectively promote more inclusive, networked and collective leadership approaches among leadership programs who are supporting tens of thousands of individuals who will have an opportunity to exercise leadership on social issues.