The difference between Networked Leadership, Systems Leadership and Digital Leadership ?

Photo by David Menidrey on Unsplash

I have moved between various communities of practice over the last decade and in the last 3 or 4 years I’ve heard people talk about networked leadership, or systems leadership or digital leadership.* I was thinking about what each of these mean (to me) and what I’ve seen as the benefits and challenges of each, and where they are of course talking about the same thing anyway.

I think of them simply as:

Networked Leadership

Understanding that we are in a networked world, and that change can really only happen through networks. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book, The Chessboard and the Web is good on this. I also wrote a blog about a networked mindset last year.

Systems Leadership

Understanding that change is continually happening anyway and having the ability to see and understand the interconnections between things and the root causes of issues, whilst stewarding all those different parts of the puzzle forwards. (The now quite old article in Stanford Social Innovation Review is a good overview of this). We also created this site back in 2014 talking to a group of ‘systems leaders’ about their practice (excuse the awful videos!) and created this publication with Oxford University in 2015 about the different elements of systems change practice. It’s also worth reading Collaborate’s new compendium of Systems Leadership in Local Government.

Digital Leadership

I think there are two aspects of this actually.

One is that you are adept at working in an agile way — making use of the way software is built (openly, iteratively and through data driven design), to inform the culture of how you work — this is what people mean by the culture of digital.

The second is that you have an understanding of technology — a basic level of knowledge about how the internet works and an understanding of how technology effects all the different aspects of your organisation, as well as its impact on the wider context (community and society) in which your organisation operates.

These two things often get conflated which is unhelpful.

The good and the bad

What I’m interested in is how the good aspects of each of these can combine. People in the systems change space are great at understanding what’s really going on, at building trusted relationships, at surfacing what’s difficult (especially power), and at holding complexity. What can happen though is that moving into action can be quite stifled. It can feel at times like there is inertia, or opaqueness, or so much “deep democracy” to ensure that every voice is included, that you end up forgetting what you were all trying to achieve in the first place.

In the digital community, people are great at making things happen, at being pragmatic, at working in the open and at pace. The other side of this though, is that it doesn’t always feel authentic in terms of acknowledging the complexity, and the messiness of human life. It can work well for transactional government services but doesn’t neatly translate to other contexts. The urge to get things done can also knock important things out of the way, and this means they don’t always take root.

And just being networked isn’t enough without intent, without actively curating your networks to be more and more diverse — you end up existing in a huge echo chamber, talking to the same people and getting your theories of change validated by people just like you.

New Additions

*I actually started this blog 9 months ago (think what that says about my blog backlog!) and since then, there’s a few more to include — Collective Leadership, Responsible Leadership (something Anita Roddick was talking about in the 90’s but in a different context), and Ecosystem Leadership.

Responsible Leadership is something Doteveryone are doing. Janet Hughes wrote this blog when she and I kicked off the programme in 2017, and now Alex Mecklenburg is doing a great job of adapting it to be fit for purpose with senior leaders at City Hall. I’m hoping all City Leaders will adopt this approach. Like Theo Blackwell said at TiCTEC Local on Tuesday — it is the responsibility of city leaders to consider what they commission and advocate for, especially in relation to technology.

Collective Leadership is something that the government is doing. I was involved in the scoping (through interviews and sharing my experience) of this work that Sandra Armstrong and her team are leading. This kind of leadership embodies the principle of ‘greater than the sum of our parts.’ This is also the kind of leadership that makes sense for Mariana Mazzucato’s work and IIPP, when thinking about what kind of person/people are needed to lead Mission-oriented Innovation.

Ecosystem leadership (creating shared intelligence across a system) draws on a few practices. The movement building work of NEON and Ayni Institute is worth looking at. The now relatively old but still useful writing on taking a collective impact approach is too. It also links to “Generous Leadership” a term my new employer, the Big Lottery Fund, talks about — having a collective awareness and generosity towards the wider set of people and organisations with whom your work is connected.

My personal practice

The book that has most influenced me in terms of leadership is Dancing At The Edge by Graham Leicester and Maureen O’hara. The Point People are currently doing work with the International Futures Forum to build on the contents of the book, and share it more widely. Some of our early interpretation and translation of this work is below. This is a list of some things we think are important to know about when leading in an increasingly complex world, and in a world that is fostering more polarity, and more inequality:

  • Strategy — not about imposing goals on the external world but about reading the landscape and seeing the potential for what will happen next
  • Seeing the whole and root causes
  • Sensing opportunity and resonance at an individual, group and system level
  • Giving time to sensing and seeing patterns
  • Doing reflexive practice — which is like wisdom in action
  • Constantly moving between your internal world and the external context
  • Seeing movement and flows, not fixed stocks
  • Active listening — listening is generally hugely undervalued
  • Problem setting and framing, not assuming you can problem solve
  • Be driven by the problem and or curiosity rather than by yours and others skillset
  • Don’t reduce the problem to fit the existing competencies you and others have, but expand ourselves instead (transformational competence)
  • Build wise groups and create conditions for collective efficacy
  • Develop competency in the old and the new — this involves warning of the threats of not-changing, heralding the new and encouraging commitment and passion.

This is a lofty list — when we publish that work it will talk much more about what these things look like in practice and what they enable.

A few people I’d like to acknowledge that I see really embodying this kind of leadership are Kit Collingwood and Imandeep Kaur. There are many more people of course but I’ve personally experienced their leadership on projects.

I’m also hugely grateful for the Action Learning Set of ‘Digital Leaders’ I’ve been part of for 18 months that Janet Hughes and I set up. And the informal learning group I’m a part of, of phenomenal women leaders in the social sector,with whom I meet every month and have learnt so much from — Catherine Howe, Anna Birney, Rowan Conway, Alice Evans, Anna Randle and the elusive Helen Goulden!

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