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Leadership in a Networked World

Some decades ago, Rensis Likert studied large number of work groups in an attempt to form a typology of leadership. Much of the work focused on communication and decision practices in different organizations. He identified four different “systems,” which exhibited the key variations across organizations. They form a progression. System 1 is the most hierarchical, with those in higher positions holding full responsibility for decisions, without input from subordinates. Management is focused entirely on work completion, sometimes through threatening behavior. System 2 lightens up on the threats and replaces them with rewards of various sorts. Communication from below is limited to information pleasing to the boss. System 3 leaders have greater trust toward subordinates, generating more information flow up, down, and sideways. System 4 is more fully participative; there is trust up and down the line. Subordinates feel free to deliver bad news. Successful teams abound. Members of more than one team end up having importance to organizational success.

Likert’s work was conducted in individual work organizations and suffers from having been done before the internet and globalization of work. Increasingly, organizations and individuals are linked together into networks. Some are short-lived and unidimensional. Some are long-lasting and heavily integrative. Some modern work organizations have members that interact virtually via electronic media and rarely are in the same room together. At the organizational level, complementary task assignments to allied organizations produce alliances for the production of products or services. Organizational cultures blend across networks.

This contrast makes one wonder what effective leadership will be in a fully networked world. In some sense, this is a side issue to what makes effective networks. In another sense, networks by their nature abhor centralized authority and hierarchies. The notion of the boss of a network seems oxymoronic.

What makes a node in a network of collaborators or work organizations judge that its network membership is fruitful? What are the attributes of persons who strengthen the network?

This all has relevance to the modern university. As research issues increasing are informed by knowledge domains spanning the entire university, networks appear to be increasingly attractive as an organizing principle in contrast to hierarchies. What kind of roles offer leadership possibilities in a network of research groups?

System 4 in Likert’s perspective highlighted the role of “linking pins,” people who were members of multiple work teams. Such persons lead some work teams and were members of others. They ended up translating organizational strategy to day-to-day work. Their team-spanning knowledge facilitated integration of ideas, processes, and workflow.

One would hypothesize disproportionate importance for those who are members of multiple nodes in the network. They learn multiple cultures. They identify and communicate the potential synergies across nodes of the network.

Effective leadership of a network, in my experience, requires a selflessness that masks that any leading is even being done. Leadership in a network seems more like facilitating latent consensuses. Hence, one key attribute is consistent outreach to different nodes, and the ability to translate knowledge and nomenclature of one node to another. (This is one feature of joint citizenship in multiple nodes.)

Another attribute goes beyond knowledge of different nodes’ perspective to support of them. Effective leaders in networks must be devoted to the value of the network, beyond the value of individual nodes.

I suspect leaders in networks must be more flexible on the degree of commitment of each node to a network. Networks are often voluntary clustering of synergistic units. The benefits of ongoing network membership might vary across the nodes (some are deeply benefitting; others not so much). Hence, an effective leader needs to calibrate aspirations across nodes. This requires empathy and the ability to understand various perspectives.

I suspect much of this means that leaders of networks, in contrast to leaders of single organizations, may not even be labeled as “leaders.” Indeed, they might wisely avoid labeling their work as leadership. Rather, they will yield their influence because of the shared beliefs of network nodes that they have each node’s interests at heart.

5 thoughts on “Leadership in a Networked World

  1. Robert, as you emphasize, the less centralized “leadership” in a network environment would require greater mission ownership or mission by-in on the part of participants in order that both aspects of leadership be accomplished: (1) do the work, (2) maintain the group.

    There’s no guarantee that a central leader will be committed to assuring that the work gets done and that the group is maintained (as opposed to a commitment to a personal agenda or even a departmental agenda), but the possibility of deviation from the mission is multiplied when there are more “leaders” who need to have ownership or by-in concerning the mission. Even though the negative impact might be less from each straying leader as opposed to the case of a straying all-powerful leader, the impact of the “weakest link” can still be severe in a complex network with many dependent relationships and dependent workflows.

    As with many human systems*, “the system isn’t the problem — the people are the problem.” Going along with Prof. Jim Collins’ encouragement about getting the right people on the bus (and in the right seats) and letting them decide how to steer the bus, leadership in a networked world/environment still comes down to the people!

    *Yet, there are cases in which the system needs to be tweaked or ditched so that the people can better do the work and maintain the group.

  2. Modern universities need to think out of the box, this should be a part of curricula, If we are in need of a healthy system we should concentrate on minor details as well.
    We should not only consider those who are confident enough to speak but we also need to raise those voices which are insecure about their loud consequences.

  3. The original Likert scale was developed in 1932 by Rensis Likert, a psychologist who was interested in measuring people’s opinions or attitudes on a variety of items.

    Do’t you think that it is not logical to use data obtained in 1932 in 2019?

  4. Edem, as was said by Pete to Kermit in The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984): “Peoples is peoples.”

    1932 Peoples and 2019 Peoples are both peoples!

    Definitely consider whether old data leads to outdated conclusions; however, some aspects of the human condition are fairly constant over time. It seems to me that Robert is wondering whether an understanding of the leadership ramifications of the more networked world of 2019 requires going beyond the four systems described by Rensis in 1932.

    Edem, what fifth system would you suggest for describing leadership of work groups in the more networked world of 2019?

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