We now know that trees communicate – and not just as individuals from root to leaf but also with their neighbors. The research of Suzanne Simard (among others) has helped us to see pathways and languages we’ve never understood. A forest is a living, complex system that we are only now beginning to understand. The science is both awe-inspiring and provocative, particularly as our collective awareness of other types of networks – both technical and human – are changing the organizational structures in which we work and live.

Certainly, the concept of network leadership isn’t a new one. Non-hierarchical structures surround us, but hierarchies offer a functional, practical and socially reinforced means of structuring our organizations. We refer to unconventional structures as “flat,” when we, perhaps, ought to think of them as multi-dimensional. Additionally, within our organizations, functions such as learning and development have scaffolded and locked in these hierarchical structures. As a result, leadership and leadership training have focused primarily on managing down and, to a much lesser extent, reporting up.

The question, then, is whether there might be a leadership gap in reaching out and across. It’s also worth thinking about whether network leadership may, depending on how it’s defined, be an oxymoron. Peer networks, cohorts and communities of practice are often facilitated or refereed, but we try to avoid the words “leader” and, certainly, “manager” in those contexts. We may talk about influencers, champions or thought leaders but argue that leadership is distributed in a network model. Depending on how you look at it, however, this non-hierarchical model could promote exponential growth in leadership development; distributed leadership opens the door to the collaboration of several leaders with varying degrees of influence and expertise.

Our understanding of network structures in organizations is outpacing the evolution of our leadership development programs. Here are five questions that can serve as a starting point for reassessing your priorities and evaluating outdated programs:

1. Who are the leaders in our organization?

In a strict hierarchy, there may be room for a limited number of leaders. Some organizations have focused on the development of “high-potentials,” because the mindset is that just a few of your team members will be both capable of and interested in leadership. What if the organization could accommodate anyone with the desire or aptitude for leadership? How might more leaders contribute to the collective leadership of the organization within a particular market? How might that collective leadership shape culture? It’s important to remember that what we might refer to as network leadership differs from what we have called personal leadership or personal effectiveness. Personal leadership is about individual goal-setting and achievement, while network leadership is about collective growth and achievement.

2. What does a leader in our organization do?

While most of us know that leaders have many other tasks besides managing people, we continue to use a working definition that equates leadership with people management. We target the needs of first-level leaders, mid-level leaders and senior leadership. A conventional curriculum is tiered, and we all know that higher tiers bring more power. The sometimes invisible lines of influence are more difficult for us to articulate and value. If we’re going to accommodate a greater number of leaders, and a greater variety of leadership, we need to understand the dynamics of influence. If we can understand how influence works in our organizations, we may be able to design optimal networks and not just live with the ad hoc networks that emerge organically to fill a void.

3. How can network leadership benefit our organization?

Understanding the “job to be done” for leadership begins with understanding the value narrative for your customers and clients. That narrative then informs the macro-story of “why” for the organization and branches into multiple short stories generated, owned and sustained by specific networks within and even outside of your organization. A compelling story becomes that viral element that can be heard, picked up on, adopted and adapted by others in the network. Leaders use these stories to motivate, influence, communicate purpose and vision, etc.

4. What types of learning approaches reinforce network leadership?

If we’re selecting high potentials, if we’re targeting managers only, if we’re focusing on individual growth and ignoring team and network development, we’re reinforcing the same types of leadership on which we’ve focused for generations. The following table illustrates some of the key shifts in learning approaches.

 Conventional Leadership Training vs. Networked Leadership Training

5. How might the leadership competencies for network leadership differ from those valued by conventional leadership?

If content is shifting from top-down, principle-based leadership content, to what is it shifting? For starters, we’re breaking down content into more targeted and practical competencies that are better suited to the needs of networks. We have more data about how we work, we see the influence of neuroscience and our values have shifted to prioritize culture over individual achievement. The resulting new soft skills look a little different as a result of this pivot in perspective:

Conventional Leadership Competencies vs. Networked Leadership Competencies

One other shift is that the network power dynamic is likely to privilege the competencies and content driven by the members of that network, increasing the likelihood that learning will have real-time applicability.

While the org chart may serve an important function, it is important not to mistake it as the organization itself. We work in teams, tribes, collectives, cohorts and communities, each with their own unique dynamics. We exchange information, make commitments to each other, share expertise, collaborate and learn. Of course, we communicate along formal channels, but we have only just started to understand the myriad invisible threads connecting us.