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The importance of a network's leader should not be minimized and the style in which a network is led can be key to its success. In their report Leadership and Networks: New Ways of Developing Leadership in a Highly Connected World, the Leadership Learning Community discusses the limitations of “heroic leadership” (where one leader holds all decision-making power) in addressing large-scale problems. This traditional model of leadership is valuable when addressing straightforward, precise problems. Because networks and coalitions are typically addressing complex, adaptive issues, a bottom-up, collective leadership style has been found to be more effective.

Collaborative Leadership is an intentional, inclusive, participatory process of leading that involves all stakeholders in problem solving and decision making. This type of leadership is often seen in contexts where no one person is in charge. It is also seen when addressing a problem so large and complex that no individual person or agency could have enough power or knowledge to address it alone. It empowers all network members to identify and tap into their unique qualities and circles of influence to increase the reach and advance the work of the network. Collaborative leading requires all network and coalition members to be fully engaged in the network, transparent in their efforts, and act as leaders.

Falling between these examples is the recognized leader who operates from a cooperative vantage. Many qualities have been attributed to successful leaders (for example bridge building, strong communication skills, organization, commitment, respect, empathy, and others) and there is some variance between disciplines. Yet one quality appears on nearly every list of characteristics of successful leaders: being true to oneself. Successful leaders play to their strengths and don't make promises they cannot keep. From this fundamental starting point, there are a variety of leadership styles that can be adopted and have been shown to be successful in networks and coalitions. Some examples include:

  • Participative Leadership identifies leaders who serve as the final decision-makers, but who act more like facilitators than dictators. They solicit input from all factions of stakeholders, including peers, subordinates, community members, among others and use that input to inform decisions.
  • Servant Leadership operates from a place of meeting members' needs. Service is the driver behind this type of leader's behavior in all aspects of their life, and this drive inspires them to lead. This is a sharp contrast to the leader who is driven by the desire to lead.
  • Transformational Leadership taps into the values and sensibilities of network and coalition members, inspiring them to invest in and move the work forward. Network members will draw satisfaction from their contribution which feeds their drive to continue their involvement. As involvement and investment grows, members eventually transform into leaders themselves.

Resources to Learn More

Developing a Plan for Building Leadership
Provides considerations to keep in mind when building leadership and what qualities to look for in prospective leaders.
Organization(s): Community Tool Box