Community Networks require leaders who have a genuine understanding that employing personal power is different from using positional power.
Many positional power forms or ‘levers’ that exist in traditional organizations are elusive in network-centric environments.
Power in Networks can found in spaces rather than forms. Spaces for nudging, influencing, locating, guiding, narrating, reinforcing, and synthesizing.
Networks aren’t agnostic about leadership or anti-leader, they require leadership that recognizes and is committed to moving into pivotal space with influence
For over a dozen years I served as the Executive Director of Lawrence CommunityWorks (LCW) – a traditional CDC that over time morphed into a kind of hybrid community network. We had many successes in that time but I had no lack of hard painful lessons to teach me that a different style of leadership was required. It was a process that challenged me – as a person – more than any other time of my life. The principal lesson? That to be successful I needed to genuinely check my ego, my compulsion to control, and my instinct to pick the shortest straightest route between two places. I wasn’t always successful, but the lesson at least was clear.
In my struggle to understand this I was struck by valuable metric – that when I exercised an ounce of command-and-control I could expect to yield a pound of ambivalence, detachment and, equally useless, capitulation on the part of all of people – staff, members, board – with whom I truly wanted and needed to co-create this enterprise. Why? Because genuine co-investment is very hard to achieve, the expectation of leader-control is so strong and so baked in to all of us and the perceived anti-dote to chaos is structure and positional power. To generate genuine co-investment the leader has to not only overcome his/her own instincts to control, but demonstrate and model time and time again, a different set of practices that demonstrate a commitment to “inhabit” rather than control. My partner Frankie Blackburn, who founded and led IMPACT SILVER SPRING in the DC area for 12 years often talks about the importance of those in positional power to ‘show up’ in a different way. “Over time if you repeatedly focus on harnessing your personal power while also exploring the personal power of others, you will begin to uncover new resources and solutions that you could never have imagined. If you practice this repeatedly, over time in interactions with others you begin to see the unfolding of a transformed community ecosystem.” At various times in the last 5 years or so, as I have transitioned out of LCW to work with groups around the country, I have been asked to comment on the key leadership behaviors needed in network environments. Below, I have charted a list of 8 Leadership strategies that I think are the work and challenge of leadership and stewardship – as well some systems and protocols that one can employ these roles. These are:
Self-Knowledge and Transparency – Our fundamental capacities for human interaction get tested when we are leaders in a network because these are the abilities that shape our personal power and we have to rely on personal power rather than positional power to lead. What are these capacities? Our natural curiosity, generosity, and self-awareness, as well as the ways in which we compensate for fear, stress, and uncertainty. Being a real, learning and growing individual in full view of others is a fundamental leadership behavior of a network environment. Repa Mekha, a dynamic Network Builder in the Twin Cities and Director of Nexus Community Partners says is this way…” It takes a whole lot of humility for all of us to come to the table not knowing that you have all the answers and when you can’t be the expert, but when we do, there is a multiplier and magnifying effect that gives you not just the collection of everyone’s opinion, but something greater.” Another way to put this is… get used to saying things like …”I don’t know.” In our Weaver Training at LCW, we all felt that these three words “I don’t know” when spoken in truth, were maybe the most powerful 3 words in a Networked/Co-Investment environment. These words are essentially an invitation to co-create and have the effect of creating a new space and an imperative to engage. In fact, in our weaver training we added something to these 3 words that made it even more powerful….we added “…But, lets find out together.”.
Holding the Narrative – 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 in the short term. 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 network leader has to do this and has to do it well. In many ways the narrative acts as the centrifugal force around which the network swirls. It creates a form of gravity that helps to hold all the parts in orbit and in reference to each other.
But where does this narrative come from? The leader’s first job is to feature ‘story telling’ as a critical part of the culture and create space for the myriad of stories to be told and shared by those who are engaged and or invited into the network. This is where the larger ‘narrative’ is born. The larger narrative – we sometimes call the ‘driving story-line” can only emerge from the lived and shared experience of the members of the network. Audrey Jordan, formerly of the Annie E Casey Foundation says that these stories are a “way of breaking down some of the ways we think about who that person is and who this person is based on a title or a role. When you find out what is really true about the other person, you open up a path to a whole different set of possibilities about shared problems solving. There is a whole lot of progress that comes from that.” But there is more. It’s not as simple as collecting stories, the leader is collating, synthesizing and dramatizing in order to shape a the driving story line – about who we are, where we have been, where we are now and where we are going - that is resonant and that helps “locate” the network in its moment of opportunity. And there is still more. Because a healthy network if generative, it is always changing and the stories that get generated each new day are different. So there is a constant need to curate the driving story line so that it is a current and genuine expression of the energy of the network members AND so that it serves its purpose as the driver and locater of action. In my role at LCW I felt that my most powerful ‘management tool’ was telling our story 5 times a day and up-dating our story each and every day. This is a powerful role – the narrator – and it can be done poorly or be abused. The check on the leader-as-narrator is that the story must hold and be resonant and be connected to the truth that people experience and witness. If the story doesn’t hold, its power to locate and motivate is diminished.
Cultivating a Demand Environment – An open co-creation environment will quickly invent its own rules of engagement which include its process and decision making structure, and over time people gravitate to structures that concentrate power. With growth, success, expansion, the trappings of institutional fidelity (structure, positional power) will get stronger and stronger. The leaders of the network have to counter-act this drift by actively cultivating processes that prevent concentration of power and decision making. For instance, mid-point in the transition of LCW to a network-centric environment, the Board of Directors embraced - as one of its primary board functions – the need to “cultivate the demand environment among members.” This function existed right alongside its roles in due diligence and policy making. This was not a panacea but was an important articulation by the organization that we needed to keep pushing the decision making back out to the edges of the network. At LCW there were other attempts to cultivate the demand environment – everything from a membership structure to an annual convention to a process we referred to as “resonance testing,” a protocol for how staff and members could generate new ideas and have them compete for capacity and funds. Some of these experiments worked, some for only a time and some didn’t work at all. The lesson is that the leader needs to lead a network-wide struggle to keep pushing the creative edge of the network out or the requirements of the institutional aspects of the network will dominate.
4. 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 the growing institutional infrastructure – and those whose job it is to maintain it, become increasingly impatient and intolerant to new ideas and change. With success, the job of the network leader shifts from ‘opening up space’ to ‘protecting space’ and ending things that need to be ended; closing out the programs, committees and other remnants of yesterday’s innovation. With success, “space” becomes more and more precious. So any practical ways to ‘shrink and optimize” routine and predictable aspects of the infrastructure are helpful. At LCW we took the step of creating a tool called “the Folks Protocols” – a system of providing staff with one page recipes for everything that we over and over again (like check requests) or that have predicable elements (how to organize our annual meeting and convention.) In the new NeighborUp Network in Cleveland, Tom O’Brien and the Neighborhood Connections staff have created a similar system call “The How To’s” that is helping them bring operational efficiency to the network. These systems help a busy staff waste less time on routine work and save energy time and space for to creation and remain responsive.
Shaping Provisional and Flexible Management Systems – One of the challenges of a network environment is that change is constant, change is scary and when we are scared we all tend to grasp for clarity and location and predictability. We need to define our roles! We need a better division of labor! We need more supervision! We need management to decide things! These are the common refrains when we have run out a string – a coherent narrative and we find ourselves in new territory. Something that happens in a network on a regular basis.
Often more structural clarity needed, and adjustments toward more structure can be a part of the answer. However in a moment where people are feeling the chaos and vertigo of shifting conditions, we often over-react. And if we over-react with new structure we risk creating bulk and putting in place structures that degrade our ability to adapt and respond. At LCW we always tried to pause and ‘fight for the 3rd way.” Often this meant 2 things: First, re-organizing on a team basis but with teams that were more aligned with the current imperatives and more able to handle the increased level of complexity that we were facing. Second, re-doubling our focus on our communication and coordination skills and capacity. Even though we did – over time – create more systems and structure, my mantra in these moments was “structure is not our way out of this.” The trade -off for more adaptive capacity is more provisional ‘open architecture’ ways of guiding the work process. Open architecture in turn serious up the ante in terms of the personal skills of those involved as leaders and stewards. Our goal was to create an apparatus that made ‘good behavior’ more possible and likely. Nonetheless, unless and until we more fully evolve as ego-free humans the social requirement of complex, network centric environments will continue to be a challenge.’
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. On one hand it was marketing; we needed to distinguish what we were doing from the great flat gray landscape of language that plagues the ‘helping professions’ especially in community work. Does ‘empowerment’ mean anything anymore? Isn’t everyone doing it? On the other hand, we had to remind ourselves about the distinctive aspects of what we were doing, and more descriptive language was helpful in that task. Calling a “program” a “value proposition” reminded us every time we used the language that there needed to be a “give/get” in everything we do. It pulled us away from the ‘dependency culture’ of much of human services in small ways, but consistently. Using “form follows function” as a core management principal reminds us always that we should be building only the provisional structure we need to get the job done – no more and no less. And that this is what will keep us nimble and flexible.
I was often confronted – when I would come up with new language to describe something we were doing or wanted to do – with “people will never get it.” Sometime they were talking about member of the network. Sometime they were talking about funders. My view was that – given how flat and non-descript the language of our field – we had no choice but to use language to provoke questions rather than to answer them. We needed to create a ‘lean in’ rather than a ‘sit back’ moment. When we are sitting around talking about the meaning of a word – like on a night a few years ago when a bunch of members were looking up the word “contrivance” which I said best described little devices we use to help people communicate better – we all learned a lot about another word... ‘intentionality’ and how to be more intentional in our practice. 7. 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. And there is truth in it. There is nothing new about the idea that when people have really good relationships and connect well – good things happen! The trouble is it doesn’t happen enough – or the right way - and we don’t make it happen enough! Today it is so much harder for people to find those spaces to really connect well and we don’t spend enough time or attention to make sure when it does happen, it happens for effect. It’s not that there is a lack of meetings happening in community life. It’s that the vast majority of those meetings are terrible. We are sentient creatures – we feel before we think. Our feelings drive our thinking, our behaviors and our choices. If people are not feeling free to speak their minds or that it’s safe to get more involved or that it will pay off if I come back to the meeting or the program next week – then there is little we can do to change their minds. It matters what we say when people walk into our meeting 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. The network leader has to concern him/herself with the details of how things happen. Says Frankie Blackburn, “Details are important because they are the genuine expression that you really do care if another person feels comfortable, welcomed and included. If you miss a detail when it comes to creating a positive environment, then people can wonder if they are just a prop or token element in the flow of things. And, this is the exact opposite of what we are trying to achieve.” 8. Real Time Learning – “Fail Fast” is a mantra repeated in many circles these days. It may be better to say fail fast and as cheaply as possible. Our community networks do not have R&D budgets, or departments organized to conduct the ‘basic science’ experiments that feed our long term learning curve. All we usually have a is a group of intrepid and entrepreneurial people who work too hard, get paid too little and who struggle to find the resources to do things well. In this environment we have to squeeze every drop of learning out of each and every thing that we do, AND we have recycle that learning back into our work quickly. The quicker that cycle can happen the less expensive are the mistakes. 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” let’s not get too enamored with the blush of our or others’ creative moments – let’s let go of things that don’t work and let’s do that quickly to save pain and money and time.