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Network Leadership: 4 Roles for Decentralized Organizing

Network Leadership: 4 Roles for Decentralized Organizing

We work in increasingly decentralized ways, partnering across organizations and joining with others to accomplish things individuals can’t do on their own.

Moving beyond the traditional, hierarchical model of organizing has many blessings: in networks, people are free to contribute where they have energy, aren’t limited to a single role, and the potential for impact increases significantly when all types of resources—leadership, money, and talent—are leveraged across systems toward a common purpose.

Yet working in decentralized ways also has its challenges. How can a person help guide the development of a network when there’s no central authority? How does one lead in a collaborative environment?

Networks Must Be Nurtured

To answer these questions, it’s helpful to think of networks as like a garden. Unlike machines, which can be built to exact specifications, gardens can’t be forced to grow in a certain way. No two gardens are exactly the same because every plant grows in relationship with its neighbors, soil, and climate. It’s also impossible to grow a garden overnight: it takes time for the plants to develop, no matter how much attention you give them.

You can, however, cultivate a garden, providing the nutrients, water, and sunlight plants need to grow and thrive. You can tend to the garden—providing pollinators, using fertilizer, and pulling weeds—adapting your focus to attend to whatever the garden needs most at that moment. You can provide some structure in the form of stakes or trellises to give plants support as they grow.

Like gardens, impact networks are living systems—they have a life of their own. This is precisely why we think of cultivating networks as opposed to building them.

Cultivate– an agricultural term– means “to nurture and help grow.” It implies that you’re creating the right conditions for something to emerge and flourish, just as you would cultivate the land so that crops could grow, rather than building a structure, brick by brick, based on a predetermined blueprint.

Network Leaders Cultivate the Conditions for Networks to Thrive

The individuals who support networks so they can grow—the gardeners, in this metaphor—are network leaders. Individual leaders who steward the development of impact networks with humility and care are an indispensable aspect of what makes networks thrive.

Network leadership is adaptive and facilitative. Network leadership is also distributed: anyone can demonstrate network leadership, from any location, in many different ways. We see this in how any person can join a network and make a contribution, organize conversations, and lead a project.

This more inclusive understanding of leadership inspires self-organization and provides a source of creative potential that makes networks such a powerful vehicle for innovation and change.

That said, there are always certain individuals who willingly take on a greater level of responsibility to tend the network, on behalf of its purpose and for those who have chosen to participate. These individuals seed a vision for change. They help the network clarify its purpose and principles. They cultivate relationships. They manage the network’s operations and maintain its communication systems. Most important, they demonstrate an extraordinary degree of care for the network, nurturing its growth and constantly anticipating its needs and challenges. The people who cultivate the conditions for networks to thrive are called network leaders.

Network leaders don’t tell people what to do. Instead, they provide support, so people discover what they can accomplish together. Rather than defining rigid structures and rules, network leaders nurture a culture of reciprocity. As opposed to “command and control,” network leaders seek to connect and collaborate.

In contrast to the heroic style of individual leadership we’re used to seeing on magazine covers, network leaders demonstrate humility, share credit, and act in service of the whole. In short, they’re stewards of the network and its purpose. Network leadership is the fine art of taking responsibility for an endeavor while sharing that responsibility completely with others.

Four Key Network Leadership Roles

Network leadership takes many forms. In particular, there are four primary leadership roles that appear at different moments in a network’s life cycle: catalysts, facilitators, weavers, and coordinators.

  • Catalysts: Catalyzing is the art of crafting a vision and inspiring action. Catalysts are particularly instrumental in forming new networks; they bring people together for the first time to explore a group’s potential and get the effort off the ground.

Once a network is launched, catalyzing continues to be needed to organize new teams, raise resources, and foster new opportunities to expand the network’s impact.

  • Facilitators: Facilitation is about guiding people through group processes to find common ground. Facilitators design and lead meetings, hold space for different points of view, and help conversations flow.
  • Weavers: Weaving involves fostering new connections and strengthening relationships. Weavers engage with participants to gather input, introduce participants to each other to inspire self-organization, and build bridges with other networks to find ways they can connect their efforts.
  • Coordinators: Coordination is the work of organizing the network’s internal systems and structures to enable participants to share information and advance collective work. Coordinators establish and maintain network operations, support knowledge management, and assist network teams.

In some instances, a single person is responsible for tending to each of these four roles. In most cases, however, different people step into each of these roles at different moments in the network’s evolution. Any and all participants can demonstrate network leadership by leaning into any of these roles. It takes a village to manage complexity, so it helps if leadership is distributed.


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by David Ehrlichman // DAVID EHRLICHMAN is cofounder and coordinator of the Converge network. With his colleagues, he has supported the development of over 50 impact networks, taking action on issues as diverse as economic mobility, human rights, access to science, and healthcare reform. He is the author of Impact Networks: Create Connection, Spark Collaboration, and Catalyze Systemic Change and producer of the documentary short Impact Networks: Creating Change in a Complex World, which features interviews with six acclaimed network leaders from around the world. Learn more at <a href="https://www.converge.net/"converge.net.

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