Network Leadership

The true network leader is able to say and demonstrate,
“It’s not about me.” And then, it isn’t about them. It’s about something much bigger that encompasses all


Network leadership is rooted in trusting relationships, collaboration, and shared power; it is adaptive, facilitative, and grounded in the wisdom of living systems. Network leadership is also distributed—anyone can demonstrate network leadership, from wherever they are, in many different ways. 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 and inspire new networks to form. They help the network to clarify its purpose and principles and to cultivate relationships of trust. They manage the network’s operations and maintain its online 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 connect diverse stakeholders and foster learning and action to advance a shared purpose. They are there not to tell people what to do but to support them to discover what they can accomplish together. Rather than defining rigid structures and rules, network leaders nurture a culture of reciprocity. Instead of command and control, network leaders seek to connect and collaborate. In contrast to the heroic style of individual leadership often featured on magazine covers, network leaders demonstrate great humility, sharing credit and acting in service of the whole. In short, they are 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.

Network Leadership Roles

Network leadership takes many forms. In particular, we see four primary leadership roles that appear at different moments in a network’s life cycle: catalyzing, facilitation, weaving, and coordination:

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

Facilitation is about guiding participants through group processes to find common ground and collaborate with one another. Facilitators design and lead convenings, hold space for different points of view, and help conversations flow.

Weaving involves fostering new connections and deepening relationships. Weavers engage with participants to gather input, introduce participants to each other to inspire self-organization, and build bridges with new communities to help the network grow.

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 are likely to 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.

Each of these four roles is explained in more detail in the chapters ahead: catalyzing is described in chapter 5, “Clarify Purpose and Principles”; facilitation appears in chapter 6, “Convene the People”; weaving takes center stage in chapter 7, “Cultivate Trust”; and coordination is integral to chapter 8, “Coordinate Actions.”

Principles of Network Leadership

Just as every complex issue is unique—involving different people, organizations, and dynamics—so is every network. While it would be impossible to develop a precise instruction manual for cultivating impact networks, it is possible for network leaders to tap into powerful principles that are at work in all living systems—including human systems. Following are four principles of network leadership we have experienced and observed across impact networks at every scale:

Foster self-organization

Promote emergence

Embrace change

Hold dynamic tensions

Each principle is described in more detail below.

Foster Self-Organization

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy left hundreds dead and thousands in the United States without food, housing, or power. In the days immediately following this devastating disaster, a network of tens of thousands of volunteers calling themselves “Occupy Sandy” quickly stepped in to distribute food and supplies to communities in need. What resulted was one of the fastest and most effective responses seen anywhere in the wake of a hurricane. Perhaps the most incredible part of this story is that Occupy Sandy didn’t even exist in the days prior.

Occupy Sandy was catalyzed by six volunteers who had met in the Occupy Wall Street movement. When the storm hit, they began delivering food to parts of New York that were being overlooked by other aid organizations, including the American Red Cross. As they got to work, they called upon members of the Occupy Wall Street network for support. An estimated sixty thousand responded.1

Participants quickly self-organized to identify the urgent needs of specific communities and organizations and to help get resources to the right places. Those who could not be there in person helped out by purchasing essential items through wedding registries set up by Occupy Sandy volunteers, contributing over $700,000 in donated goods.2 Information flowed quickly through the network’s online channels, and resources of all kinds—human, financial, material—were coordinated at speeds that would not have been possible under the oversight of a centrally controlled system. The effort was so successful that the American Red Cross began delivering supplies directly to Occupy Sandy for distribution.3

The success of Occupy Sandy demonstrates the immense potential of a self-organizing network. Self-organization is what allows networks to evolve into new forms and adapt to changing conditions. It also amplifies the gifts and creative potential of each person involved, which, in turn, increases their intrinsic motivation for the work. Self-organization is what gives networks a sense of aliveness. The capacity of self-organizing systems to combine the wisdom of large, diverse groups has led June Holley to assert that self-organization is “without a doubt, the aspect of networks that is most likely to bring transformation.”4

In a self-organizing system, leadership is distributed—it can come from anywhere, from anyone, at any time, manifesting in ways that may stretch beyond some people’s narrow definition of the word. Entrepreneurial actions to advance the work of the network are celebrated, as long as they are done transparently, collaboratively, and in alignment with purpose and principles. As a result, each person who participates in a network has shared opportunity—and shared responsibility—for supporting its development. This level of agency is particularly important in complex and chaotic environments when it’s unclear which action will make the most difference.

One of the primary responsibilities of network leaders, then, is to cultivate the conditions for greater levels of self-organization to arise. Network leaders have the humility to step back and follow the lead of others. In Converge we follow the maxim of the Enspiral network: “No one should lead all the time, and everyone should lead some of the time.”5 This is what distributed leadership is all about.

Promote Emergence

Murmurations of starlings, schools of fish, and swarms of insects swoop and swirl seemingly in unison. There are no instructions or control mechanisms dictating the movements of these groups. The patterns of their movement are emergent.

In the case of the starlings, mathematical models have demonstrated that their cohesion is due to each bird taking cues from six or seven of its closest neighbors.6 When a predator arrives and disturbs the flock, one bird initiates action and the other members of the group respond. The leader changes based on who knows what to do next. Meanwhile, the whole group stays connected through communication.

This is the magic of emergence. When it comes to engaging with complex issues, we may not be able to accurately predict what happens next. What we can do is connect with one another and stay in close communication so that we can move together and adapt quickly to changing circumstances—adjusting as we learn. In other words, we can stay emergent.

To understand why embracing emergence is so important, it’s helpful to think about it in the context of strategy. Management theorist Henry Mintzberg writes that all strategy is both deliberate and emergent.7 Deliberate strategies set their sights on accomplishing a series of planned actions to realize a set of well-defined outcomes. At the same time, strategy also tends to emerge over time as planned activities collide with reality and are then adapted to accommodate a changing experience. Emergent approaches to strategy recognize that we simply cannot predict the future, and that it is often necessary—particularly in the face of complexity—to learn your way into what needs to be done and how to do it.

One may think about emergent strategy as the act of “crossing the river by feeling the stones,” as the Chinese saying goes. Or as E. L. Doctorow said about the process of writing a book, “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”8

In the Western world in particular, we often assume that we know what needs to be done and how to do it. We have a tendency to focus on identifying strategic priorities and metrics and then driving activities to accomplish stated goals. In other words, the default mode is to be deliberate: we get organized and get things done. Yet, a purely deliberate approach is simply inadequate when it comes to addressing complex issues that are ambiguous, nonlinear, and constantly evolving. “Ironically, the act of predicting the path may be the obstacle to achieving the purpose,” writes Peter Block in Community.9

Consider the difference between a map and a compass. A map provides a model of the terrain, with precise locations for the mountains and rivers, and a clear path through the landscape. But maps are useful only when someone has traveled the path before and, therefore, when they can give an accurate description of what lies ahead.

When one is faced with new roads that have yet to be traveled, a compass is a much more useful tool. A good compass points toward a specific direction: your purpose, your North Star, the future you are creating. It does not tell you exactly how to get there, but it can help orient you when you’re faced with unexpected obstacles in a shifting terrain. When you’re unable to rely on a map to guide your route, the only option is to stay emergent, sensing into the world around you, taking it step by step, and adapting to what comes next.

You can foster emergent ways of working by prioritizing connection, sensing for clues of how the future is unfolding, and engaging in experimentation to test hypotheses and iterate strategies as you move forward. Each of these three ingredients of emergence is discussed below.

Prioritize Connection

The most vibrant conditions for creativity and new life are found in the places where different parts of a system intersect. The areas where ocean meets land in mangrove ecologies and where coral reefs meet ocean in reef ecologies are some of the most biodiverse natural ecosystems on the planet.10 In human communities, interactions between diverse actors yield new ideas and possibilities for action. One lesson we have learned is that instead of prioritizing the total number of connections, it is more worthwhile to focus on the diversity and quality of those connections. As activist and educator Grace Lee Boggs has said, “In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.”11

Sense into the Future

Sensing means tuning your awareness into what is happening and what is wanting to emerge. The key to sensing well is to ask good questions and listen deeply. Questions spark creative conversations that can transform our understanding of the world. “Questions, more than answers, are the pathway to collective wisdom,” writes Daniel Christian Wahl in Designing Regenerative Cultures.12 Meanwhile, the quality of your listening changes the nature of the conversation. When people feel deeply heard, they are more likely to be open and share more nuanced and intimate perspectives. As a result, new meaning arises that can help guide the direction of the network. “Look and listen for cues the network is sending you,” suggests Yadira Huerta of the Justice in Motion Defender Network. “The network is always trying to tell you where it does and does not want to go.”13

Engage in Experimentation

Ultimately, emergence is practiced through experimentation. According to Patricia Patrizi and colleagues, the key to fostering emergence lies in recognizing and accepting that uncertainty exists, going beyond a reliance on overly simplistic indicators, and developing the flexibility to act, learn, fail, and do better. “Paramount to this is the realization that deep understanding of complex strategic work can only emerge through action, reflection, and more action,” they write in Foundation Review.14 Starting in exactly the right place is not as important as just starting—experimenting, learning, and adapting as you move forward with new partners. Then, when promising experiments catch on, you can help them to scale.

Embrace Change

In our world of rapid and unpredictable change, the ability to adapt and evolve is an essential quality for survival. The capacity of systems to withstand disruption is referred to in many fields as robustness, which is derived from the Latin word robus, meaning “oak,” a symbol of longevity and strength in the natural world. We prefer to use the term resilience, defined by the Stockholm Resilience Center as “the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop.”15 Resilience is a measure of how well a system can absorb shocks and use disturbances to spur renewal and innovation.

Given the complex and evolving issues that impact networks seek to address, a greater emphasis should be placed on increasing a network’s resilience than on achieving sustainability. Whereas sustainability enables a network to continue more or less in its current form, a resilient network can withstand disruption and shift course as conditions change. Two approaches for increasing a network’s resilience are to decentralize connections and create redundancies.

Decentralize Connections

When there is a dominant hub in a system, it provides a single point of failure that makes the whole system vulnerable to collapse. The dangers of overly centralized systems became painfully clear during the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis when the failures of just a few major banks and financial institutions threatened the collapse of the entire financial system.

Networks that have not moved past a hub-and-spoke structure, as defined in chapter 1, are also at risk of collapse if the central hub were to disappear. To avoid this risk and increase resilience, seek to move past the hub-and-spoke stage as quickly as possible. Focus on fostering strong relationships and decentralizing connections so that the network is not dependent on any one person (including yourself).

Create Redundancies

Redundancy is usually cast as negative, seen as a superfluous or unnecessary waste of resources that should be designed out. “Yet in living systems,” writes Wahl in Designing Regenerative Cultures, “redundancies at and across multiple scales are vital, as they decentralize important functions by distributing them across the system as a whole and thereby make the overall system more resilient.”16

Forests remain resilient to disturbances by maintaining a dynamic diversity of development stages within their ecosystem: some parts of the forest are in mature stages, while others are in earlier phases of growth. Even machines are built with redundant components as fail-safes for crucial tasks. Most airplanes have three different flight computers that function independently, each manufactured by a different company and containing a different processor. If any one component fails, the redundant components immediately take over to keep the plane in the air and on course.

When I was contracted to map the connections between staff members of a large school district and its network of parent volunteers, using social network analysis, the importance of redundancies became abundantly clear. One of the most important insights that the network map shown in figure 4.1 revealed was the degree to which the school district’s connections with an important minority community, Hmong Americans, were due to a single staff member. While this staff member created an essential bridge with the community, it was a particularly narrow bridge given its dependence on a single node. If this person were to leave the school district or become unavailable, the district would be at risk of losing many critical relationships.


FIGURE 4.1. Connections between a school district’s staff members and its network of parent volunteers. Staff members are represented by the largest squares. Parents are represented by the smaller squares, with Hmong parents indicated by the slightly larger, darkest-shaded nodes. The critical staff member is circled. If the school district were to lose this staff member, it would also lose its connections with many Hmong parents.

Upon seeing the map, the school district first recognized that it needed to do everything it could to retain the critical staff member. Second, the school district committed to increasing the diversity of connections between staff members and Hmong parents—to create what’s known as a wide bridge. Creating redundancies in networks through wide bridges allows resources and information to continue flowing even when certain individuals are unresponsive or unavailable.

Hold Dynamic Tensions

As impact networks evolve, they are bound to face a number of dynamic tensions: “dynamic” because they are always in flux, “tensions” to signify a relationship between ideas or qualities with seemingly conflicting demands or implications. If managed effectively, these tensions, also known as polarities, can be a powerful source of energy. Having “no tension in a system signifies no aliveness, no learning, no evolution,” write Giles Hutchins and Laura Storm in Regenerative Leadership.17

Hundreds, or even thousands, of different tensions could arise as networks develop, but we have seen six in particular that show up time and time again:

Building trust and taking action

Participation and pace

Self-interest and shared interest

The parts and the whole

Planning and emergence

Divergence and convergence

When faced with polarities like these, the human brain likes to simplify things and see them as separate. The dissonance of holding seemingly opposing ideas at the same time is difficult. This is zero-sum thinking: for every winner there must be a loser; for every right there must be a wrong; there is only this or that with no gray area in between.

A more nuanced perspective is to embrace the duality of life by choosing both-and thinking instead of either-or thinking. Every aspect of life consists of interactions between seemingly opposing yet complementary forces. This inherent duality of life, called yin and yang in ancient Chinese philosophy, can be found in the reality that there can be no light without darkness, no up without down, no life without death, and that we must breathe in and out to survive.

With each dynamic tension, two perspectives that seem to contradict each other are both true and valuable. For instance, both trust and action are important, and we care about individuals’ needs and shared interests. An essential role of network leaders, then, is to sense and acknowledge polarities as they arise, to hold the tension between seemingly opposite paths, and to embrace both-and thinking when making decisions about what to do next. Dynamic tensions aren’t problems to be solved; they are polarities to be aware of, integrated, and held with care throughout the life cycle of a network. Six dynamic tensions that are common in impact networks are discussed in more detail below.

Building Trust and Taking Action

As previously discussed in chapter 1, trust is the single most important ingredient of successful collaboration. Even still, many people think of trust as merely the soft stuff, something that is nice but not necessary. They come to the network with an urgency to identify and execute on a project immediately, to get to work.

What they fail to recognize is that building trust is the work. Nearly every instance of collaboration will result in some disagreement about the right thing to do or some miscommunication that can damage the relationship. If a basic level of trust hasn’t yet been established, those moments can derail the entire effort.

When enough trust is established before actions are taken, participants are more likely to assume positive intent and continue working together even if they disagree. At the same time, working together—even in small ways—also promotes greater levels of trust. Trust develops as people tackle challenges together, find common ground, and support each other’s work. Trust and action are two sides of the same coin.

We integrate trust and action by using the mantra “Go slow now to go fast later.” In other words, we take the time to build deeper levels of trust early in a network’s formation in order to speed the rate of action down the road. Meanwhile, as relationships are developing, we also look for small, short-term ways that participants can support each other’s work. Trust and action, when advanced in tandem, become a virtuous cycle.

Participation and Pace

Networks are at their best when they engage a broad spectrum of stakeholders. However, including more people may mean that things move at a slower pace (at least initially) than they would with a smaller group. It takes time to share current thinking, develop common language, evolve collective understandings of challenges, and determine a course of action. It also takes more time to develop trusting relationships without the same level of intimacy felt in small groups.

The larger that networks are, the more time it may take to build trust and get to action. On the other hand, quick actions pushed forward by only a few are less likely to succeed. Network leaders have an important role to play in ensuring robust participation while maintaining a workable pace that results in forward motion.

Self-Interest and Shared Interest

Because of the drive to take action together, participants will often default to spending the majority of their time figuring out their collective purpose and then working together on behalf of those shared interests. However, altruistic concerns alone are rarely enough to justify participants’ continued engagement in a network, given busy schedules and competing priorities. For people to continue participating over the long term, the network will also need to advance their self-interests in some way—for instance, by facilitating valuable connections, generating new learnings, or advancing individual and organizational priorities.

People are sometimes reticent to explicitly state their self-interests out of fear that they will appear selfish. Network members need to be able to be honest and forthright about what they need to get in order to make participating in the effort worth their while. Meanwhile, participants can also share what they can give to help the network succeed, as well as their legitimate constraints (the ways in which they are limited in their ability to contribute freely to the effort). Over time, with meaningful reciprocity, people will deepen their participation. Without it, participants eventually leave the network. Recommended practices for creating a culture of reciprocity are described in chapter 8.

The Parts and the Whole

Networks take shape as many individual parts connect together to create a larger whole. Yet sometimes the parts and the whole may feel in tension. What the network needs and where the group is going can sometimes feel at odds with what a given individual wants or needs in that moment. At different points, some people may feel unsure about where they fit, like a missing puzzle piece searching for its place in the big picture.

Network leaders can help navigate this tension in two ways. The first is to give more attention to the part and where it fits within the whole. By exploring the different layers of purpose that people bring to a network—including their personal motivations as well as their organizational aspirations—it may be possible to find some overlap with the collective purpose of the group. The second is to create more clarity within the network about why it exists and how it is evolving. It’s much easier to see where a puzzle piece fits if you have a clear image of the whole puzzle to refer to. This can help individuals find a place where they can plug in—or, they may recognize with more certainty that the network is not a fit for them at that time, likely saving them precious energy and additional frustration.

Planning and Emergence

In an attempt to resolve their discomfort with uncertainty, some participants will want to build a strategic plan, rushing to identify metrics and goals that attempt to predetermine the path of the network. While planning is valuable, too much planning renders you constrained and unable to adapt. When strict plans and predetermined outcomes dictate the actions of the network, creativity withers, energy drops, and potential is lost. However, too much emergence with no forethought or structure can feel like chaos. Some degree of deliberate strategy is needed to ensure that activities are well thought out.

To integrate planning and emergence, we encourage network leaders to remember the motto “Deliberate process, emergent results.” Activities can and should be intentionally planned, but at the same time we can allow the outcomes of those activities to emerge organically. Navigating these two polarities results in what we call planning for emergence—sensing into the past, present, and future to identify and pursue high-potential opportunities while maintaining a spirit of experimentation in order to adapt quickly to new information.

Divergence and Convergence

It’s natural for network leaders to focus much of their attention on finding ground where people can agree and work together. This is the process of convergence—the act of bringing ideas together, finding overlapping perspectives, and making selections and decisions. But creating space for disagreement is central to generating new insights. This is the process of divergence—the act of differentiating, of asserting independence, and of expressing multiple points of view.

Entrepreneur and author Margaret Heffernan asks a provocative question: How do groups think together? For the most part they don’t, she says. “And it isn’t because they don’t want to—it’s really because they can’t, because the people inside of them are too afraid of conflict.”18 In a culture that avoids conflict, dissent is discouraged and new ideas are stifled. Only when people are willing to express different points of view (divergence) can the full spectrum of insights come to light. From this place, groups can begin to see how their ideas fit together (convergence). This act of convergence causes new possibilities to arise (emergence) that did not previously exist. Divergence allows for convergence, which leads to emergence, as shown in figure 4.2. This cycle of divergence and convergence is central to how groups come up with ideas, weigh options, and make decisions. It is how networks think.


FIGURE 4.2. Divergence (expressing different perspectives) allows for convergence (bringing ideas together), which leads to emergence (discovering new possibilities).

For this reason, it’s necessary to focus not only on where people agree but also on where they disagree, creating spaces that inspire people to be brave, speak up, and share what’s on their mind. As we explore our differences, creativity and insights emerge.

• • •

Network leaders will encounter many dynamic tensions throughout their network journey. We know from physics that tension occurs when force is applied to a system. Imagine a tightrope walker approaching a rope strung between two trees. If the rope is completely slack, it’s not possible to walk across it. But if we stretch the rope until it’s taut between the trees, the tension created by our pulling energy is the same energy that supports a tightrope walker. We can see the flexible strength of tension when the tightrope bends but doesn’t break under the weight of the walker.

Dynamic tensions in impact networks offer a similar kind of energy. Tension, at its root, means “to stretch.” As with the tightrope, stretching creates flexible strength that allows networks to manage pressure without breaking. Tension doesn’t exist solely as an indicator of discord. Instead, it offers an opportunity to shift from zero-sum thinking into a network mindset, where structure comes from trust and diversity engenders innovation. In healthy networks, tension fortified by trust creates a durable alloy.19

One dynamic tension that we have not yet discussed is the tension between stepping into leadership and engaging as a participant. You may be uncertain about leading and wonder: Am I really the right person to take on the responsibility of cultivating a network? I’ve had these doubts as well. But the simple fact that you’re asking the question is a sign that you might be the right person after all. To quote the prolific writer Seth Godin, “You are more prepared than you realize. You probably aren’t ready, and you can’t be ready, not if you’re doing something worthwhile.”20

You may be hoping that people will spontaneously self-organize, but the reality is that leadership always matters. Leadership is needed to catalyze a new network, to facilitate conversations, to weave connections, and to coordinate actions. Leadership is needed at every stage of a network’s evolution; it’s just a different kind of leadership than we usually see in hierarchical environments.

The world needs more network leaders who inspire people to come together, who promote self-organization, who foster emergence, and who put purpose above profit or status. Network leadership is about leading in partnership with others and in service of the collective. Leading in ways large and small. Leading to lift others up so they may lead in the future. This is how network leaders cultivate networks that contribute to a world that works for all. If you’re willing to try, part 2 will show you how.

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