Empower Your Leaderful Network with the Four C’s

Joe is a leading thinker, author, educator and consultant in the leadership field. About 18 years ago I met him when he was on the business faculty at Boston College; he’s now at Northeastern University. We worked closely together with the executive management program, Leadership for Change. I continually have been impressed by his thoughtful and principled approach to leadership, and his formulation of the concept of “leaderful practice” as an approach perfect for networks. – Steve

Consider the following proposition: When people who have a stake in a venture are given every chance to participate in and affect the venture, including its implementation, their commitment to the venture will be heightened. How might a network be shaped using this approach?

Traditionally, leadership has been the prerogative of an individual. Leaders controlled their teams, were sole authorities, and made all the key decision dispassionately. The leaderful practice model offers an alternative approach. It is characterized by four operating tenets known as the four Cs.

The first tenet, that leaders be concurrent, stipulates that there can be more than one leader operating at the same time in a community, so leaders willingly and naturally share power with others. Indeed, power can be increased by everyone working together.

Leaderful practice is not only concurrent, but is also collective. Since a group can have more than one leader operating at a time, we can conclude that people might be functioning as leaders all together; the entity is not solely dependent on one individual to mobilize action or make decisions on behalf of others.

Leaderful practice is also collaborative. All members in the community, not just the position leader, may speak for the entire community. They may advocate a point of view that they believe can contribute to the common good of the community, but they are equally sensitive to the views and feelings of others. They thus seek to engage in a public dialogue in which they willingly open their beliefs and values to scrutiny. It is through dialogue that collaborative leaders co-create the enterprise.

Finally, leaderful managers are compassionate. By demonstrating compassion, one extends unadulterated commitment to preserving the dignity of others. Each member of the network is valued, regardless of his or her background or social standing, and all viewpoints are solicited regardless whether they conform to current thought processes. In practicing compassion, leaders take the stance of a learner who sees the adaptability of the community as dependent upon the contribution of others.

Change within a Leaderful Network

So, we have the ingredients for establishing a leaderful culture within a community. Unfortunately, leaderful practice is not typically the default option when it comes to exhibiting leadership. The individual heroic model still persists. So, it is a challenge to introduce leaderful practice when people and institutions aren’t ready for it.

Consequently, institutional change needs to be mobilized by internal or external change agents who can encourage the endorsement of a culture of learning and participation within the system in question. Change agency, in turn, needs to occur at multiple levels of experience: individual, interpersonal, team, organization, and network. When people learn to lead together in the world, they can shape their local communities for the better, that is, in ways that are more responsive to their mutual needs.

For the readers following Steve Waddell’s Networking Action blog, you know that life in the 21st Century is becoming increasingly networked whereby we may begin to think of ourselves as parties to webs of partnerships. Social networks, in turn, are typically characterized by collaborative practices in which the parties learn to share resources in ways that are mutual to the participating entities.

There are always cases in which one of the institutional members of the network mobilizes the participation of others, but most social networks are self-organizing resulting in members participating to further their self and collective interests. I have applied the name “weavers” (adapted from Cheryl Honey’s community weaving practice) to designate those individuals who play a critical role not only to organize networks, but to sustain them once formed. Network weavers work with others to mobilize and to document exchanges within the network. Using tools such as social network analysis (SNA), weavers can point out where there are gaps in knowledge resources, where bottlenecks may be occurring within communication patterns, where access to new resources may be necessary, where special expertise may be required, or where clusters of connections may be formed from which the network can learn.

The process of change at the network level is dynamic and not as controllable as was the conventional bureaucracy. Sharing among network members is often emergent rather than planned. Variety and adaptability take the place of efficiency to allow for continuous change. As Steve persistently reminds us, what holds the network together is social capital based as much on trust as on rules and regulations. From trust evolves a sense of shared meaning making, which is what tends to mobilize the creation of new knowledge.

All the levels of change discussed in my own The Leaderful Fieldbook instigate the necessary competencies for networks to flourish. At the individual level, learners become more reflective and more aware of their cultural assumptions; at the interpersonal level, they dedicate themselves to inquire more with others; at the team level, they become more committed to supporting teammates while performing the work of the team; and at the organizational level, they begin to identify systemic patterns and advocate for change. When successful, members of the network exhibit what we might call “network citizenship behavior,” or special efforts made on behalf of their network over and above routine network services. Network citizenship behavior is thus a likely consequence of leaderful practices applied by weavers and members to sustain and strengthen ties in multi-stakeholder networks.

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