Leadership Networks

June 2, 2011

The other day while working with a group of managers on succession planning and development, background stories emerged that hinted at the question: Are leaders born or made? Nature vs. nurture is a persistent debate regarding the source of leadership. Managers, academics, and consultants all have views about which contributes more to making good leaders — genes or experience. One study (Arvey et al, 2007) looked at twins and found that the split was 30% genetics and 70% experience. You don’t need to look too long before you find a study that concludes there is a different distribution. Most recent studies about the nature vs. nurture debate conclude that at least some degree of whatever they are studying (leadership, parenting, creativity, intelligence, etc.) is attributed to each nature and nurture. Ok, so let’s go with that and not worry about what percentage is which. We could agree that we need to work on both, get good people with good experience, treat them well, and allow them to continue to learn from experience. This is essentially the position the managers ended up with.

The group explored the set of attributes that if obtained, would indicate that the candidate had what it takes to be a good leader. The focus of the group was naturally on individuals. I started wondering how relationships are part of leadership – not just something that leaders make or rely on but that relationships actually create leadership. Since complex systems consist of many diverse, connected, interdependent, and adaptive agents, then it seems like leadership could be viewed as an emergent behavior of the system. In other words, it is the relationships (connections) and quality of those relationships (interdependence) that actually creates leadership. When some groups, teams, and companies exhibit more or less (better or worse) leadership, it may be due more to the nature of the relationships than the nature of the individuals. How they interact and the patterns of interaction may be more important than who they are.

The implications of this notion that leadership is in the relationship are many. For example, if you don’t like the leadership exhibited, then one intervention would be to change the relationships. The diagram below is the interaction pattern of a group of managers that were responsible for part of a large company. We asked the group to state how often the interacted with each other; monthly, weekly, daily. The graph below depicts their weekly plus daily interactions. What they noticed was that some of their cultural differences within the group and lack of overall cohesion was explained by the structure of the interaction network. As you can see there are two distinct groups. The group decided that they should increase some interactions and develop better relationships across the two groups. Specifically, two of the key leaders are doing just that.

This second graph depicts the spread of a leadership development program throughout a company. This program was not decreed as a mandate from the top, nor was it even managed centrally. We intentionally let it spread throughout the company through the formal and informal networks. As one person learned what they gained from the program, they might take their whole team, encourage a peer to attend, or talk to their boss about how he or she might benefit. This program was successful not because of a leader’s insight but of the leadership in the relationships.

If leadership is in the relationships, where does that leave succession planning? I think that just like the nature vs. nurture debate, we can say that leadership is in the person and in the network. We still need to consider what experience, skills and knowledge people bring to the table. And we need to pay more attention to the role of relationships, the social network, in creating the leadership we desire. As people leave or change positions, the shape and quality of the social network changes as well. People involved with succession planning should consider how to create the new network as much as they consider selecting the right person.

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