A New Approach to Network Leadership

Some great new work finally gives a comprehensive framework for network leadership. It takes us from the heroic and hierarchical models of leadership that do not work for networks. But it not only brings out the dispersed, visionary, collaborative, and entrepreneurial qualities and skills critical for network leadership. It also distinguishes the types of network leadership capacities by individuals, teams, organizations, communities and fields of practice. The latter is particularly relevant for large change strategies, since a field of practice refers to a change issue such as corruption, water, finance and fisheries.

Knowledge for Network Leadership

In 2009 a colleague, Grady McGonagill, led an in-depth review of leadership development programs for the Bertelsmann Foundation. “The following perspectives,” he writes in his report, “illustrate the redefinition of leadership to emphasize the importance of shared, collective leadership:

  • Leadership is an activity, not a role. It can be enacted by anyone in a system, independent of their role (Heifetz 1994)
  • ‘Heroic’ leadership leads to ‘over-management,’ defense of turf rather than concern with shared goals, and weak teamwork and coordination; by contrast, shared “post-heroic leadership” releases the potential power of everyone (Bradford and Cohen 1998)
  • Leadership arises within communities of practice whenever people work together and make meaning of their experiences and when people participate in collaborative forms of action across the dividing lines of perspective, values, beliefs, and cultures (Drath and Palus 1994; Drath 2001)” (McGonagill and Reinelt Forthcoming, p.4)

This led Grady and Claire Reinelt of the Leadership Learning Community to develop an insightful way to summarize the knowledge relevant to leadership for Global Action Networks. To give greater definition to “collective leadership,” they created a matrix that emphasizes distinct capacities are needed at different “levels” of the system and different levels of capacity development.

This matrix is reproduced in the Table with two lines shaded to indicate the parts particularly relevant to GANs. (Click on the Table to enlarge it.) Of course GANs have to have capacity in the other boxes as well, but the ones shaded are where GANs should focus on excelling. The bottom row refers to the issue arena that the GAN is working in.

The Table helps GANs ask themselves how they are doing with respect to the shaded leadership development challenges in particular, and then set strategies for addressing them. Currently most GANs are “doing” the shaded activities, but without a capacity development strategy to make sure they excel at them.

Another wonderful thing about the matrix is that it suggests interventions that GANs have been working on, but without being as explicit about how their work is distinctive. It emphasizes that “leadership” is not just a characteristic possessed by individuals, but that the GAN itself has leadership and a role in developing leadership.

Outstanding Network Leadership Challenges

How can these capacities be nurtured and developed with the diverse stakeholders and experts that networks engage? What are cultural challenges of leaders in a global world that values diversity, and how can the challenges be addressed? How can ambiguity, dilemmas, and paradoxes inherent in much of networks work be addressed while maintaining visionary direction?

These sorts of question have been at the heart of an innovative leadership program called Leadership for Change that I had the fortune to initiate. The decade with a wonderful Boston College faculty and my decade of work with GANs have made an enormous contribution to my own appreciation of a new approach to leadership that is particularly relevant to GANs. The network leadership knowledge as well as the capacities are still developing, and Grady’s and Claire’s framework helps us move that agenda forward in a much more disciplined way.


Bradford, D. L. and A. R. Cohen (1998). Power up : transforming organizations through shared leadership. New York, J. Wiley.
Drath, W. H. (2001). The deep blue sea : rethinking the source of leadership. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
Drath, W. H. and C. J. Palus (1994). Making common sense : leadership as meaning-making in a community of practice. Greensboro, N.C., Center for Creative Leadership.
Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, Mass., Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
McGonagill, G. and P. W. Pruyn (2010). Leadership Development in the U.S.: Principles and Patterns of Best Practice. Bertelsmann Stiftung Leadership Series. S. Vopel. Berlin, Germany, Bertelsmann Stiftung,.
McGonagill, G. and C. Reinelt (Forthcoming). Supporting Leadership Development in the Social Sector: How Foundations Can Make Strategic Investments.

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