We need to revisit how leaders — local, national and global — get things done
by Mike Peckham and Dr James Whitehead
In 1754, William Shipley, an artist and merchant, convened a group of 11 like-minded individuals at Rawthmells coffeehouse in London’s Covent Garden. These passionate social reformers brought about the genesis of the RSA.
Our work with leaders across sectors has helped to identify Shipley as what is now known as a ‘network leader’, the likes of which we need more than ever. In the modern world, the challenges we face — from global warming to terrorism and inequality — flow through interlocking webs of connection and causation, leading to volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Simultaneously, the power of networks is growing. In science, technology, health, environment and civil society, networks are becoming a way to uncover the hidden architecture of complexity and unlock people’s capacity to think and act in different ways.
But, as the American lawyer and political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter observes in her 2017 book, The Chessboard and the Web, we do not yet know how to handle this networked world at the strategic, operational or tactical level. The network provides a metaphor, not an analytical tool, and we need to understand how to connect for specific purposes.
So, what skills do network leaders need? First, they need to understand social systems; this helps identify the cliques, silos and gaps in connectivity, which can improve productivity and responsiveness, smooth channels of communication, and spur change and innovation. Through this understanding they acquire the ability to connect and energise a network around what they are trying to achieve.
Second, they need to have convening power. Network leaders know that they do not have all the answers and therefore adopt a more expansive style of leadership. They recognise that the only way to prosper in turbulent times is to draw on a wide range of good ideas, no matter what the source. Third, they lead beyond their formal and positional authority. Leadership in a networked world is more about enabling than directing, more about influence than control and more indirect than direct. It is leadership understood first and foremost as a social process that creates direction, alignment and commitment.
Finally, they possess the power of restless persuasion. Network leaders have a clarity about what they want to achieve, have a positive energy that attracts people to them, and are unafraid to combine this and their connections to make things happen.
In today’s world of networking and collaboration software, big data, analytics and AI, managers simply cannot continue to assume a static, hierarchical model of the firm for the convenience of seeing how to manage it. Traditional models of hierarchical leadership are no longer appropriate; they need to be replaced by those that see organisations as shared processes, and harness the social capital of formal and informal networks to get things done. The people at that first meeting in Rawthmells were the network leaders of their time. Today, the network leaders among the RSA’s global fellowship of 30,000 people need to reflect on how they use their skills in pursuit of making the world a better place.
A longer version of this article can be found at RSA Comment: www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-comment
Mike Peckham is Managing Partner of Gadhia Consultants, Managing Director of PSA Training and Development, and Chairman of Airbox Systems
Dr James Whitehead is a Senior Consultant at PSA, having previously been a Learning Development Officer in the British Army
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 3 2019