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Network Leadership and How to Connect Differences

Posted by Steve Waddell in Leadership on July 27, 2010

Probably no skill is as central to multi-stakeholder networks as the ability to connect across differences. For Global Action Networks (GANs), this means connecting between individuals and organizations with diverse cultures and ways of perceiving the world. And it brings up difficult-to-talk-about topics like “love” and “the spiritual”.

Cobus de Swardt, Managing Director for Transparency International, describes this on a very personal level that he experienced when he was in prison in South Africa for his opposition to apartheid. He was 18, and facing the prospect of being raped.

“I don’t think you can engage violence with someone you truly love…and so I ask ‘what does this mean?’ That if there’s a true bond with these people, I won’t get raped…so I’ll have to really work to act on this bond.

You can’t act out that you have a bond with somebody…if you think that they’re a total jerk, racist, then this will fail. I had to overcome something within myself. You have to seek out the common humanity with someone who you dislike, you might disrespect and have very negative feelings towards…you can’t “act out” that you have positive feelings. You need to truly believe it. For me that was my own biggest achievement because I had to overcome all my own prejudices. The process to social justice is in many ways more challenging to overcoming your own prejudices than the big social justice issues you fight on a big stage.”

This might seem very distant from the tension that comes with connecting between organizational sectors (government-business-civil society). However, many of the same leadership challenges arise. There is strong tendency to exaggerate, create stereo-types, and even vilify others in contrast to one’s own position and organization.

A Human Dynamics and Multi-Sector Perspective

One powerful insight that has helped me overcome this tendency arises from my work on identifying distinct attributes of these organizational sectors. When I matched this to the Human Dynamics work of Sandra Seagal and David Horne on individual learning styles, I understood that the sectors tend to be aggregations of different learning styles – physically-centered for business, mentally-centered for government and emotionally-centered for civil society. This insight provides an invaluable way for people to understand their differences so they can meaningfully work together.

From this perspective, people in business tend to simply “make sense of the world” (learn) in a very different way than people in the other sectors – no one sense-making approach is “right”; rather, they are complementary and collectively represent a whole-world perspective. However, these different sense-making approaches create enormous conflict, and GANs need to develop their competency to create collaboration across these learning styles to realize success. Seagal’s work has actually been integrated into the Swedish education system, with children being taught how to communicate across these learning styles.

This connecting also has a spiritual component that is brought out by another GAN leader and good friend, Sam Daley-Harris. Sam transformed himself from an orchestra musician into an organizer of what is one of the most important global networks addressing poverty: the Microcredit Summit Campaign. He and Muhammad (Grameen Bank) Yunus began working closely together 18 years before Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize.

I commend to you an inspirational 18-minute You-Tube video Poverty, Purpose, Pitfalls, and Redemption. Sam speaks of bringing meaning and purpose to one’s life by connecting with others and “taking action when you see something needs to be done.” He describes original micro-credit motivations involving “redemption”, as defined as “restoring (finding) one’s honor and worth, and setting one free.”

An on-going challenge for GANs is to maintain these love and spiritual components that are necessary for the critical work of GANs to create deep connections across difference. How can they cultivate these qualities and bring together bureaucratic, profit-maximizing and self-righteousness orientations…and realize effectiveness in their global change drives? Some of the answers lie with Human Dynamics and leadership that reflects love and spirit.


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