‘The Chess-board and the Web – Strategies of connection in a networked world’

I was attracted to this book by the author as I had read her book ‘Unfinished Business – Women, Men, Work and Family’ last year and I thought it was a great expose of the issues involved in why there are so few women at the top. Her latest book deals with how society is moving to a new world order; one in which networks are replacing hierarchies in terms of power and influence. I was interested in what lessons for leadership it contains.

Her experience as Director of Public Policy in the US government and as Dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs are brought to bear on the very ambitious objective for the book of “forging a new paradigm for strategies in the 21st Century”. No mean feat! However, her lack of corporate experience does make it much more relevant for foreign policy rather than corporate strategy. Saying that though, there are some lessons for leadership that I will cover in this article.

Lessons for Leadership

Firstly let me summarise the main premise of the book. A new world order is emerging in which the power of the network overlays the old world order which is one of hierarchies, most particularly those of nation states. The Arab Spring gets bandied around a lot as an example of the power of the network and Facebook and Google make a few fleeting appearances with respect to their rising power compared to states and governments.

Much of the first part of the book is devoted to the different types of network that exist and there’s a handy Cheat Sheet to summarise what is a very “scholarly” section of the book. I wish I’d seen it before I’d waded through it. (It’s on page 63 for those of you that scan-read.)  A corresponding theme in the book is the distinction between “Homo economicus” and “Homo sociologicus”. The former, an old world view, is predicated on the belief that man is essentially rational and out for himself whereas Homo sociologicus would have it that humans are actually wired as much by the need to belong and connect as by individual goals.

“… hierarchies are about power OVER whereas networks are about power WITH.”

Young Girl Old Woman WE Hill 1915

‘Young Girl – Old Woman’ WE Hill, 1915

Slaughter recommends “seeing in stereo” to be able to switch between these two world views and uses the picture to the right, which seems to show both a young woman and old woman simultaneously, to demonstrate the flexibility of thinking required.

She compares and contrasts hierarchies and networks in numerous ways and the most salient distinction seems to me to be that hierarchies are about power OVER whereas networks are about power WITH.

 

These interlacing themes act as a backdrop to the chapter which, I believe is of most interest to people in business; “A Different Way to Lead”.  She starts with her favourite definition of leadership from a fellow academic Nannerl Keohane in her book “Thinking about leadership”.

“Leaders determine or clarify goals for a group of individuals and bring together the energies of members of that group to accomplish those goals.”

The 5 Cs of Leadership

She then sets out her 5 Cs of Leadership as Clarification, Curation, Connection, Cultivation and Catalysis.

Clarification

What’s notably different from leading in a command and control structure is that clarification is not necessarily done by the leader. Instead, the leader’s role is to curate the right resources, which includes the right people, who can themselves clarify the group’s goals. The Clarification process is an iterative one and goes on constantly through the life of a given project. The leader’s role is to ensure the goal is refined through facilitated discussion and working through disagreements.

Curating

This becomes an essential leadership skill in the networked world and it’s all about separating out the signal from the noise (to quote Nate Silver’s fascinating book). An interesting dimension is the need for the curation process to be both broad and narrow. You have to keep tabs on disparate ideas from outside as well as keep tightly focused on the internal stakeholders and processes. It’s a bit like wearing varifocals.

Connecting

Although a fairly obvious skill for a network leader, she promotes a new, enhanced brand of connecting called “synergy spotting”. Compulsive sharing is part of the new order of leadership. And it’s not all about what you can get from it. As she puts it “ this urge to connect and share can create and re-inforce a culture of generosity that undergirds the architecture of participation”. As you can see we are very much in the land of Homo Sociologicus here and perhaps a criticism of the book might be that it seems at times a tad idealistic in today’s world where sabre-rattling seems to be the order of the day.

Cultivating

Her guru General Stanley McChrystal (who apparently defeated al Quaeda in Iraq by using collaborative network thinking) in his book Team of Teams lays out the characteristics of a “leader-gardener” as someone who creates an environment in which people can flourish. This is an analogy that resonates with the “leader as coach” philosophy which has dominated leadership thinking for the last couple of decades. She expands on the cultivation skills necessary for effective network leadership as being ; delegation and empowerment, trouble shooting and conflict resolution (weeding in the gardening analogy) and setting and enforcing boundaries. Incidentally, the only gender reference in the book at all comes here where Slaughter posits that cultivation may come particularly easily to women, as the gender traditionally in charge of raising children.

Catalysing

Sometimes the cause ignites itself as in the cases of the Arab Spring and Occupy movements but in other situations it is necessary to add the agent that will generate a reaction. This could be in the form of leadership attention. Slaughter uses a military example but to translate this into a corporate world, one might look at Carolyn McCall’s initial focus on correcting EasyJet’s reputation for lateness. She attended daily 8am conference calls for months to focus specifically on this until the cause of the problem was identified and rectified. (I believe it was too few pilots and so not enough back up when someone was sick.) In this section, there is quite an interesting observation about the importance of persuasion. “The first step toward persuading others is an evident and sincere willingness to be persuaded yourself”. By modelling acceptance in this way, the leader demonstrates the importance of being prepared to change your view.

In Summary

To sum up, I think it would be hard to argue against the 5 Cs of leading a network, as, in themselves, they all feel very sensible. However, standing back from this and considering the book overall, I do think it suffers from a lack of the very skill she proposes herself, which is “seeing in stereo”. My feeling is that she’s seeing with reading glasses on instead. She sees the hierarchical stuff close up and with great clarity, but the understanding of networks seems to me to be from a distance, all a bit fuzzy.  For example, I have a feeling that the whole notion of leadership might be a bit old school in itself. Maybe leadership is going out of fashion? To elucidate on this kind of angle and give the book true stereo vision (if that is a thing?), she might have been well advised to have a co-author to represent the millennial digital natives. When I congratulated my son on being elected the cricket team captain at his cricket club, he laughed and commented that I placed way too much importance on being a leader. To him being a leader was not cool at all,  just the mug that did the admin!

Geraldine Gallacher is the Managing Director of the Executive Coaching Consultancy and can be reached on geraldine@executive-coaching.co.uk.


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