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How is network leadership different from organizational leadership and why is understanding this difference important?

Network leadership, unlike conventional leadership approaches, is collective, distributed, bottom-up, facilitative and emergent. The individual model of leadership historically associated with strong organizations is more, directive, top-down, and transactional. As we expand our leadership mindset to understand leadership as a collective process, more people are questioning the leadership assumptions that are embedded in traditional organizational structures and processes. While the Leadership and Networks publication will contrast network and organizational leadership as a useful way of highlighting new models of leadership emerging in a connected environment, we believe that these distinctions will become less significant as organizations and communities adopt leadership approaches that are more relational and collective.


The Monitor Institute provides a chart that characterizes the differences between organizational leadership and network leadership.

Organizational Leadership Network Leadership
Position, authority Role, behavior
Individual Collective
Control Facilitative
Directive Emergent
Transactional Relational, connected
Top-down  Bottom-up

Source: Monitor Institute Slideshare, Social Networks for Social Change (p.72)


Network leadership and organizational leadership have always co-existed, although during much of the 20th century organizational leadership was the privileged form for organizing resources and managing the delivery of goods and services. Even in the social sector, organizational forms prevailed. Hierarchical leadership structures created a form of accountability that made donors feel safer with their investments. Money was invested in developing nonprofit leaders who would have greater capacity to manage and lead effective organizations. This led to some remarkable leadership achievements, but at the same there were unintended consequences.


Many people and communities did not benefit from the ways that resources were organized and distributed; and in some cases, great harm was done (especially in communities of color and low-income communities). These communities used their own assets to meet their needs as best they could with little public or philanthropic support, and in fact, when that support was provided it often failed to address the structural inequities that existed in the community and often exacerbated disparities. Leadership programs were not, for the most part, designed to bridge differences, build social capital, or address structural inequities.


At the start of the 21st century we are increasingly recognizing and seeing the power of network approaches. With the rise of the Web and the greater capacity for people, resources, and ideas to self-organize, new forms of organizing are becoming possible. The Obama campaign is an excellent example. Using web-based tools and community organizing, supporters were able to connect, contribute, and collaborate much more easily, efficiently, and faster than ever before. The campaign invested in creating the collaborative platform ( but its use was driven by his supporters.


Many organizations are learning to “work wikily” with greater openness, transparency, decentralized decision-making and distributed action (Monitor Institute) and are therefore better positioned to adapt to dynamic and changing environments and respond to crises (Heifetz et. Al). This being said, however, many organizations are finding it challenging to adopt a network approach to leadership, and leadership programs are not supporting organizational leaders to develop those skill sets.


As we expand our leadership mindset to understand leadership as a collective process, more people are questioning the leadership assumptions that are embedded in traditional organizational structures and processes. For instance, are hierarchical accounting and reporting structures the most effective way to ensure accountability in all circumstances? When might trust and the quality of relationships established among people in groups be a better foundation for accountability than the exercise of authority? Are organizations the best from for catalyzing new leadership and spreading innovation? When might networks create more leadership opportunities and increase the reach of new ideas and practices? Network forms of leadership increasingly coexist with organizational forms. How do we become smarter about how to use these forms in appropriate ways? How can organizational leaders create more space for network forms of leadership? How can leadership programs support organizational leaders to develop network leadership competencies?



This article is part of the Leadership and Networks series, which is currently being developed as part of the Leadership for a New Era (LNE) collaborative research initiative.  LNE was launched in 2009 by the Leadership Learning Community; a nonprofit organization transforming the way leadership is conceived, conducted and evaluated in the nonprofit sector. LNE focuses on promoting leadership approaches that are more inclusive, networked and collective. Through this initiative we are working with several partners to produce a publication (Leadership and Networks) that seeks to influence how leadership is cultivated and supported in the social sector; and to more effectively support efforts to mobilize collective action across sectors to address complex social and environmental issues.  In the next couple of weeks we will develop a series of articles exploring topics related to network leadership – this is one of the first articles of the series. For more information please visit


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