9 Leadership Practices for Community Networks

Networks require leaders who have a genuine understanding that personal power is different from positional power. The positional power levers in effective networks are few and far between. On the other hand the spaces for nudging – influence, guidance, reinforcement – are wide and many and need to be occupied by a deft player.  Networks need leadership, they just don’t need the kind of leadership the one typically finds in traditional organizations.

As the Executive Director of Lawrence CommunityWorks for more than a decade – a traditional CDC that over time morphed into a hybrid CDC/community network – I had to learn a different style of leadership that challenged me – as a person – more than any other time of my life. To be an effective leader in this environment meant I had to genuinely check my ego, my compulsion to control, my instinct to pick the shortest straightest route between two places. But over time I learned a very valuable lesson – that an ounce of control by me would yield a pound of ambivalence, detachment and capitulation on the part of the group of people – staff, members, board – with whom I truly wanted to co-own the organization, the work, the decision. Why? Because the expectation of leader-control is so strong and so baked in. To generate true co-investment (a requisite condition for a true network), the leader has to overcompensate for these forces through a genuine, demonstrated commitment to “inhabit” rather than control. At various times in the last 5 years or so I have been asked to comment on the key leadership behaviors needed in network environments. This has led to a number of workshops and trainings for all kinds of networks in all kinds of places – through which these ideas have been shaped further. As a summary I have charted a list of 9 Leadership Practices that I think are the work and challenge of leadership and stewardship – as well as systems and protocols and contrivances that one can use in these roles. These are:

Self-Knowledge and Transparency – Our fundamental capacities for human interaction get tested in this role because these are the abilities that shape our personal power. Our natural curiosity, generosity, self-awareness, as well as the ways in which we compensate for fear, stress, uncertainty. Being a real, learning and growing individual in full view of others is the fundamental leadership behavior.

Holding the Narrative – More than any other construct, human beings get clarity and location and clues about what to do and how to act from a “narrative” – a story that is believable, that squares with evidence and that is actionable is the most powerful tool for motivation. with all the swirling parts and all the change and adaptation in a network environment it is very hard to recognize and hold onto a coherent narrative. The leader has to do this and has to do it well. The leader is adjusting and re-telling the story in every interaction.

Cultivating a Demand Environment – An open co-creation environment will quickly invent its own rules of engagement which includes its process and decision making structure, and in this people gravitate to structures that concentrate power. The leaders of the network have to actively cultivate processes that counteract the concentration of power and decision making. The Board of Directors at LCW eventually embraced “cultivating the demand environment among members” as one of its primary roles, right alongside due diligence and policy making.

Creating and Protecting Space for Creation: A successful network quickly gets busy “doing”  – programs, projects etc. The infrastructure then bends to that purpose – delivering things at a degree of quality and withing a time frame. This work crowds out new innovation and co-creation and its infrastructure is impatient with new ideas and with change. In the midst of this the aware network  leader needs to focus on and pry open new space for creativity and creation.

Shaping Provisional and Flexible Management Systems – One of the challenges of a network environment is that change is scary and when fearful people tend to grasp for clarity and location and predictability – which they feel they will get from structure. We need to define our roles! We need a better division of labor! We need more supervision! These things maybe true to a degree, but they are not the path to an effective, adaptive environment. The path is through high quality individuals with great communication skills who understand and share the narrative and act accordingly – this capacity requires a different set of systems.

Developing Descriptive and Provocative Language – At LCW we borrowed language from architecture, science, mathematics etc. to describe what we do or were trying to do. Calling a “program” a “value proposition” instead reminded us every time we used the language that there needed to be a “give/get” in everything we do. Using “form follows function” as a core management principal reminds us always that we should be building only the structure we need to get the job done – no more and no less – which keeps us nimble and flexible. My philosophy with language is that we use it to provoke thinking and practice – not to paper over distinctions. When we are sitting around talking about the meaning of a word – like on a recent night when a bunch of members were looking up the word  “contrivance” which we use to describe little devices we use to help people communicate better – I know we are in a moment of empowerment as a group.

Intentionality and Micro Practice – “Oh we do that!” “There is nothing new about that!”  These are the common refrains when we talk about some of the  community building practices in network organizing. There is nothing new about the idea that when people have really good relationships and connect well – good things happen. The trouble is its harder for people to find those spaces and we DONT do enough to create them. It matters what we say when people walk into the space.  It matters how we start the conversation when we are knocking on a door. It matters what we do when we start a meeting and how we end it and everything in between. It is the details that matter and how well we do things and how often we do things well.

Commitment to Peer to Peer Engagement – I was often in the habit of asking staff — “Why do you have to do that? Why are you in the middle of that? You need to get out of the middle of that problem or situation.” The leader in a network has to make sure that connections are being made and that “brokers and brokering” is happening less. How many peer to peer touches are happening – in a classroom, in a program environment, in a meeting? Create environments where people need to solve the problems they are part of creating – or shape the next thing that they want to happen, looking first to fellow members, class mates, neighbors FIRST for partners.

Real Time Learning – Networks adapt by learning and learn by doing. The quicker that cycle can happen the less expensive are the mistakes. It is often said “fail often but fail quickly.”  The network leaders has to create an environment where two rules are clear and present.  1. “Try it.” We will learn more in a half hour of trying something than in a month of talking about it. 2. “Let it Go” lets not get too enamored with the blush of our or others’ creative moments – lets let go of things that dont work and lets do it quickly to save pain and money and time.


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