Leadership in a Networked World

I was invited to deliver the keynote address at the ninth annual conference of the Alliance of Nonprofit Excellence, held in May 2014 in Memphis. 

It’s an honour for me to be here with you today, amongst colleagues and new friends, amongst so many of you who live the daily – but not mundane – life of thinking about and acting towards, social change. As you know, across the world, social justice activists have powerful and pungent slogans to describe their work. One such slogan, used by women’s rights advocates in India is: ‘jiski ladai, uski agvai’. In other words: “our struggle, our leadership”. And in being here today, I’d like to offer my reflections about one of the most profound struggles we share in this room, the struggle to understand our own leadership in a complex world.

What does it mean to be a leader? Frankly, I’m conflicted and ambivalent myself about even the use of the word ‘leadership’ – it is so loaded with meaning and expectation that it feels as though it sometimes stops action, rather than inspires it. In fact, it seems to me that when we talk about leadership, we are asked to be yoga gurus or contortionists in our need to be many things at once: decisive yet collaborative, charismatic yet humble, impactful yet risk-taking, strategic yet process-driven, transformational yet transactional [add stuff said during exercise]… I’ll admit – just to all of you – that it amazes and overwhelms me occasionally that we remain act-ers and do-ers despite the weight of these seemingly contradictory expectations that others have of us, and more significantly, that we have of ourselves. So as I begin, I want us to take a moment to salute each other – to recognise that – no matter what we call each other or ourselves – each of you brings to this room an extraordinary wealth of wisdom and experience, and that together you make significant social change happen here in Memphis, across the greater Tennessee area, across the United States, and whether you know it or not, more globally.  Thank you for being you.

And yet, as we salute each other at this wonderful conference celebrating the dynamic power of networks, let’s ask the question – what are networks? People think of networks in many different ways, and have many different definitions, and you will explore some of those throughout today. A 2012 analysis of ‘Leadership and Networks’ by the Leadership Learning Community – which is well worth reading – defines a network as ‘a set of relationships that are characterized by both strong and weak ties. Strong ties are characterized by high levels of trust, reciprocity, and sense of community, whereas weak ties cross boundaries and are a source of new ideas, information, and resources.’

In other words, you are (possibly) creating a network as you sit in this room, and you are all part of, and have been part of, networks throughout your careers and your lives – whether you recognise them or not. In fact, I will be provocative and say that one of the reasons we don’t notice the networks that we’re already a part of, is because we have historically tended to celebrate and reify a certain kind of leadership that is about the heroic individual: whether we believe it to be true or not, we’ve created a mythology of leadership that is about solitary strength and about taking tough decisions on one’s own, and as a sign of recognition and credibility, we receive awards as individuals, for individual forms of leadership. In talking about networked leadership and what that means, let’s not forget that these are important facets of leadership, but they are simply not the only facets of leadership, and increasingly, they are not the most strategic facets of leadership.

So do you have what it takes to be networked leaders? I think you do, we all do. We all have what what it takes to be networked leaders, whether as qualities or skills. The qualities and skills that are often talked about in networked leadership include being active listeners, active mentors, consulting or decentralising decision-making, building trust, building transparency, managing conflict, being adaptive and agile, being unafraid to question and challenge one’s own and other people’s assumptions… [Bring in some of the qualities they mentioned during the exercise] These are not new and astounding insights to anyone of you here in this room. And this range of skills and qualities is available to all of you. The key question is why do we need to use these qualities and skills, towards what end? Do they help us be more effective, more powerful? Do they help us get the work done better?

As the Leadership Learning Community reminds us, networks may be critical, but they are not the solution to all problems. Quoting Ron Heifetz, the wise man who said Leadership Has No Easy Answers, networks helps us with adaptive challenges rather than technical challenges. Technical challenges are those ‘we know how to solve’, while adaptive challenges are complex, and require changes in attitudes, behaviour, policies and systems. In other words, the work all of you do every day. Networked leadership then helps you coordinate and cooperate across traditional silos of individuals and organisations, across ‘issues, sectors and social conditions’.

So for me, the framework that I’ve created for myself to understand the leadership of those I admire, are through three principles:

1. Connection: people-ideas-resources.
Networked leaders connect people, ideas and resources. They make unlikely connections likely.

2. Collaboration: principle-process-strategy.
Networked leaders believe in collaboration as a principle, and work out what that means in practice (however painful) and most importantly, recognise what it means as strategy: that collaboration can lead to complementary not conflicting efforts, and create far greater impact and scale than an individual leader or organisation could manage on their own.

3. Courage: discomfort-uncertainty-vulnerability
Finally, networked leaders accept that being connected and collaborative is a messy business, that there are no simple answers, it’s not easy to have control. They are (relatively) comfortable with discomfort, recognise the uncertainty of the different contexts they’re in and deeply open – and therefore vulnerable – to both the challenges and opportunities of being in non-hierarchical, unpredictable, sometimes chaotic collective environments.

What does this mean in practice? What are the opportunities and challenges that are involved? As I thought about what to say to you today, I thought I’d tell you two and a half stories: first, the story of leadership in the Wikimedia movement – the largest collaboratively edited free knowledge network in the world, and the online encyclopaedia that helps you win bar quizzes and settle family disagreements. Secondly, the story of leadership in a Dalit, or lower-caste women’s community in India – in which women have created a federation through which they have transformed the way they are seen: as community leaders, as farmers, as political representatives. And finally, a little glimpse of my own story, and the unlikely journey that brought me from rural south India to being in front of you, through the communities and networks of the women’s and social justice movements to the network of networks that is the free knowledge and Wikimedia movement, as someone who has always seen herself as a connector, a bridge across worlds. Sometimes, that ‘connecting’ gets called ‘leadership’.

First, Wikimedia and Wikipedia:
* Just the facts that give you scale: Wikipedia is currently the 5th or 6th most popular website in the world (depending on who you ask) – the only one run by a non-profit.
* As of April 2014, Wikipedia includes over 31.3 million articles in 287 languages that have been written by over 45 million registered users and numerous anonymous contributors worldwide. At any given time, there are over 80,000 contributors editing Wikipedia in different languages from around the world, and every month, half a billion people read WP.
* The Wikimedia movement includes not just Wikipedia but eleven other Wikimedia projects – Wikimedia Commons, Wiktionary, Wikisource, Wikivoyage… – that contribute to the largest collaborative free knowledge platform in the world. For instance, if you look up the article Memphis in enWP, nearly 1600 people have edited it since it was created in April 2002. In Wikivoyage, 235 people have contributed.

Interestingly, and less known, the Wikimedia movement also includes over 40 organisations world-wide, both geographically and thematically organised, that support  ‘offline’ activities like organising editing workshops or photo competitions – the spectrum of work from individuals to organisations, from offline to online, make up the multiple networks that create the Wikimedia community or movement. Leadership in this movement is a fascinating and multi-faceted thing: because of its complexity, different aspects of work for Wikipedia need different kinds of leadership. WP is like many complex networks – in that depending on where you’re located in the network, it looks different to you, and leadership also looks different.

Let me tell you the story of Yger – this is not his real name, it is his online name (in the WP world, you often have two different names, and sometimes two or more different personalities depending on whether they’re online or offline). Yger is a retired professional, the founder of a national WM chapter in Europe and currently on one of my grants committees as a key member. He also happens to be the most prolific editor of the Wikipedia in his language – a Wikipedia that has over a million articles. Yger fascinates me because he is what I called a ‘multi-lingual’ leader – not simply in terms of spoken languages, but in terms of leadership in multiple contexts that need different vocabularies and understanding, in this case particularly both offline and online community.

And one of the things I admire most about him in the past year that I have worked with him is his trying – often at great personal cost and frustration – to also be a ‘multi-cultural’ leader in spaces where his particular brand of forthrightness was not always welcome or appropriate. In addition, he challenges me, his colleagues on the grants committee and the rest of the organisation and community around key strategic questions about the future of our movement. I don’t always agree with Yger, but I always admire him.

At the same time, the Wikimedia movement is one that truly values – and is built on – the passion and commitment of thousands of often anonymous contributors, many of whom are seen as leaders in the community. Here’s a fascinating instance in which ‘’janitors’ are leaders – in the ‘administration’ of Wikipedia, the task of cleaning up, of making sure people are playing by the rules, is considered one of the most important roles, and Wikipedia admins are affectionately called ‘janitors’, since the tools they use are like the janitor’s mop – constantly involved in messy clean ups. In addition, there are international stewards who often get called upon to manage online conflict. There is incredible humility involved in being a part of this passion economy – there are no by lines, no easy credits, often conflict-ridden situations managed by text and without recourse to face-to-face reconciliation, and yet people contribute day after day, moment after moment.

I could talk for hours about Wikipedia and the Wikimedia movement, but here are a few key lessons for networked leadership:
* Networks are not just about the internet – they are not new, they have always existed, but we have not always paid attention to them. Our past notions of leadership have not given us the chance to celebrate the impact and reach of networks we are already part of. But yes, one of the critical ways in which we do think about networks right now is the online space – and you’ll explore that a lot more through the rest of the day.
* Networks have both nodes and edges, where nodes are people, organisations, attributes (including multiple identities), while edges are what do people do: from the every day work to larger level strategic work.
* Networks have structural features: there are connectors, boundary crossers (for instance, the central node may not always be the most powerful or useful… someone who’s a peripheral node in one network may be at the centre of another key network…), iand nstitutionalisation (for example, chapters in my Wikimedia example)
* Networks are not flat, they have layers, are nested, and are not homogenous (either as people or as organisations)
* Networks are both functional and structural – and they are one way of achieving what we want to achieve

One of the most difficult challenges of networks is that of representation and legitimacy. Who speaks for the network, when? Even as you collaborate, even as you consult, there will always be a majority of voices either silent or under-represented, and leaders in these networks have to make informed choices together about what constitutes a credible set of ‘community views’. At the end of the day, in such a complex network, there cannot be, as Donna Haraway says, ‘no view from nowhere’. There must be situated knowledge – we honour and acknowledge multiple perspectives, even as we know we are probably receiving and acting upon only a fraction of those perspectives. There is always risk involved, but if you do not act – there can also be paralysis.

Another story I’ve always been inspired by is that of a rural women’s federation in Karnataka, the state in south India where I grew up.  Most of the community in this region came from the Dalit castes – considered ‘untouchables’ in the caste hierarchy – and the women as a result were particularly without access to resources, with the children undernourished and weak. In an extraordinary feat of what I’d like to call ‘gentle negotiated change’, a visionary activist – interestingly, a man – started working in these communities nearly 30 years ago, setting up nutrition and cooking classes at the local temple. Naturally, since it was the local temple, the women of the village were allowed by their husbands to attend, and took along their kids. Also, since it was the temple, they would all bathe and come as well-dressed as possible for the nutrition classes. With this strange whimsical beginning, the women of that region slowly gained confidence to speak for themselves, and created what I consider an inspiring network of social change – a federation of women who inspire each other to be farmers, to be tank engineers, to be political representatives, to be leaders.

So one of the leaders of the group – Papamma – told me a fascinating story about how the group understood their shifts in power. She said that when a woman from the group first went to meet the local govt. officer, she was never allowed into his office, but asked to wait outside, rarely seeing him. Then, she went with a friend and she felt stronger, but still didn’t see the officer. In the meantime, the Okkuta or federation grew in strength, and became well-known across the region. Finally, when Papamma and her friends went with the federation of women to the local officer – not only did the officer want to listen to her, but he invited her inside and gave her coffee.

This ‘federation’ went from being a few women from a few villages in 1994 to being a federation of nearly 400 village level collectives or ‘sanghas’ spread across 200 villages, with over 7000 women. It not only grew in size, but transformed power dynamics of caste and gender stereotypes in the area. The federations forced husbands to stop beating their wives, local officials to become more accountable to their constituencies (they started doing audits of schools and hospitals), created their own micro-credit network, and had members standing for local elections and winning. Most significantly, they focused on water and land rights as a key issue for women – and when I last visited in 2009, they had created an entire cadre of women tank engineers who restored the water tanks in the region (the main source of water) and had fought the long and hard battle for over 200 women to gain land in their own names. Not in their husband’s names, not jointly, but in their own names. For a federation with over 80% of its members being Dalit, this was an extraordinary achievement.

What was particularly interesting was how this newly empowered set of women managed their own empowerment experience: Papamma herself, for instance, became quite the local hero, and ended up being the first Dalit woman to ever get the Ashoka fellowship for entrepreneurial leadership. Yet as the network grew, other women grew uncomfortable that Papamma became seen as the sole representative of the network, and they worked explicitly with each other and her to decide when she should step back and let others take over that role. Over time, I saw more than one woman become the group’s spokesperson, and more important, multiple voices of leadership were not just organically grown, they were actively encouraged.

Amongst the many lessons I learnt from this group was the significance of the collective, and also the significance of knowing when to share leadership – when to step forward, when to step back, when to step sideways – even when it feels powerful and enticing to keep it at the level of individual charisma and credibility. If some of the most marginalised women I knew could analyse their privilege so sensitively, I knew I had to be doubly aware of my own positions of privilege – and where they were of use, and where they could abuse.

So with both these stories, you can see the way in which principles of connection, collaboration and courage overlap and work.

With my own half story, as it were, I simply want to say that I stand before you somewhat surprised that I’ve made this unlikely journey from a childhood on the Deccan Plateau in India to being in front of all of you today here in Memphis, keynoting this fantastic conference. I’m surprised, grateful, privileged. I recognise that I have taken the lessons of the women’s movement in India and across the world into the Wikimedia movement, and experienced both the resonance, the commonalities and the difference.

I have been academic, activist and now grantmaker… But if there was one job title I would give myself, it would be that of Connector – I recognise that I have connected people, ideas and resources across multiple worlds of gender, class, race, region, religion, language… and that others have called that ‘leadership’. Now I do it across online and offline worlds.

Like Yger, much of my every day in the Wikimedia movement is spent on line/on wiki as well as meeting people face to face – both matter in a community like ours. Like Papamma, I recognise that I have to learn when to step forward and when to step back, and most interestingly – especially at times of conflict – when to step sideways. (The Wikimedia movement is one of the most opinionated communities in the world, not shy of expressing their opinions either online or offline!).

A lot of my time right now is spent developing systems of participatory funding and managing conflict in those systems – I’ve become, if you like, a little bit like a Wikimedia movement janitor, doing my best to clean up the messes that are inevitable results of human beings trying to be open, to be transparent, to be the whole greater than the sum of their parts but also struggling with their own anxieties and insecurities, their own dynamics of power.

Like all of you, I have multiple roles simultaneously and I have to occupy them with some degree of skill and confidence. But as I step forward, I also have to step back – I recognise that what I do here, telling you these stories as a connector, is to do my best to embody leadership as humility and as amplification: I can only represent the extraordinary movements I am privileged to be a part of, by amplifying the stories of the many who are not in this room today, and who together make the world we live in a better one.

Over the years of building, inhabiting and leveraging communities, networks and movements, I’ve realised for myself that one of the most powerful insights I can share is the courage to say that it’s easy for people to tell you that you should be a networked leader – but this is not easy work. It is not easy to put my own ego aside, to keep doing this delicate dance of stepping forward and back. And yes, it does require some level of the contortions that I started out speaking to you about. Only connecting and collaborating can lead to both intimate and systemic change of the kind that transforms women’s political power and creates free systems of knowledge.

Ego aside, sometimes the most courageous questions you can ask yourself as a leader are: am I doing enough? Are we doing enough? Is what we are doing enough? If you feel the answer to this question is no, then look around you. The people, the ideas and the resources you need may be in the same room as you, and you did not know.

But this form of leadership has to accept uncertainty, it has to accept messiness, it has to accept a certain kind of vulnerability. Accepting vulnerability can also, frankly, be hugely liberating. After all, we have to accept that we stop being control freaks, that perfection is not just the enemy of the good, the ‘good’ in a networked world, can actually be the best. Leadership is no longer a one way street, a zero sum game – we are both leaders and followers, we are inspired by each other and become inspiration for each other.

Ultimately, it’s a journey about ourselves and the worlds around us. I wanted to leave you with my own vulnerability as an activist and leader – at a moment in which I questioned myself, my own place in the movements I loved and my own leadership, I wrote this words as a reminder that even as we sometimes see leadership as a solitary journey, it is actually a journey together – it is a journey of networked inspiration.

The Spaces of Change
Somewhere in the midst of travel
There are moments of meeting –
When comrades, friends, fellow travellers
touch each other
and move on.

In the midst of our travel together
There must be moment upon moment
touch upon touch
smile upon smile
Quest upon question?

Where is the stillness we have lost in action –
Where is the silence we have lost in words?
Where is the laughter we have lost in struggle –
…and where is the passion we have lost in practice?

Can I reach out to you, my friend
And know that in your struggle, I will find my voice?
That in my laughter, you will seek your passion
And that in our journey
we will live our lives
fully and well
as honestly as we possibly can.

After all –
In the spaces between words
there is thoughtfulness –
In the spaces between silence
there is strength.
In the spaces between stillness
there is waiting –
And in the spaces between action
there is always –
always there is hope.