Leadership at the Edge: creating an economy of leadership

by Philip Boxer

I want to propose a way of thinking about leadership within an edge-driven organisation by drawing on the work done by John H Clippinger. In his forthcoming book on edge organisation, he states his objectives as follows:

The overall mission of this book is to provide the principles, techniques and justification for transforming hierarchical, command and control organizations, into highly agile, self-synchronizing networks. In contrast to well-entrenched economic and organizational models that assume human beings to be selfish, individualistic, and rational actors, this book considers human beings to be innately cooperative, having evolved innate strategies of collaboration, trust, and reciprocity that have proven to be highly adaptive.

His aim is to enable high-value teams to operate at the edges of organisations, focusing on the social conditions under which teams can be effective.In what follows, I propose to build on his eight forms of network leadership.

Clippinger draws on Searle’s work on making the social world, in which institutions are defined as contexts creating the mutual conditions under which particular propositions can be treated as being true.  He also draws on Coase’s work on the nature of the firm, which defines institutions as creating economies in the way knowledge is transferred as it relates to the coordination of particular task systems – economies that are superior to market economies.  As Langlois further elaborates, these economies apply not only to hierarchical control exercised within the single enterprise, but also to networks of coordination across independent organisations (the example Langlois uses is General Motors’ Volt electric car).  These networks of coordination are edge organisations, creating economies of alignment.

Clippinger argues that eight forms of network leadership role are necessary to creating the mutual conditions for effective joint action by a network.  In the following I organise these leadership roles in a way that creates an economy of leadership:[1]

I relate four of Clippinger’s roles to the formation of a network (the quotes are from Clippinger):

  • The Visionary – “The role of the visionary leader is to imagine futures, determine what is limiting about the present, and show what is possible in the future. The visionary leader imagines new possibilities, creating new institutional facts and realities, and therefore plays a critical role in moving networked organizations in new directions.”
  • The Exemplar – “Also referred to as “Alpha Members”, these are individuals who exemplify the standards and qualities that characterize the best competencies of the peer network. These are the role models that others imitate.”
  • The Connector – “These network leaders participate in multiple social networks, connecting not only with a large number of members, but a highly diverse number of members as well. They are critical for identifying and accessing new resources and helping to get a message out.”
  • The Truth-Teller – “In every network organization, someone has to keep the network honest. This entails the very challenging task of identifying free riders and cheaters. In knowledge-based organizations, it is also about ferreting out half-truths, spin, blunders, and lies.”

And I relate the other four to the enablement of a formed network (again, the quotes are from Clippinger):

  • The Enforcer – “Enforcement can mean physical coercion, but more often entails psychological or peer pressure. Clearly, force and military means are the enforcement methods of last resort, but are necessary in order to buttress other forms of enforcement, which can vary from guilt and shame to legal redress. Most networks have their own forms of redress and enforcement that entail exclusion.”
  • The Fixer – “This is an individual who knows how to get things done and measures him or herself not just by how many people they might know, but rather by how they can get things done that others cannot. Such individuals are results oriented.”
  • The Gatekeeper – “For every network there are membership rules: criteria for being included, retained, elevated, and excluded. The gatekeeper decides who is in and who is out.”
  • The Facilitator – “In order for a network to grow and evolve, it must be able to add new members and reach across network boundaries in order to do so. The facilitator role is pivotal in creating communities or sub-networks that provide the greatest form of network value. The role of facilitator in many respects resembles that of the “community coordinator” in the development of communities of practice, a method developed for helping to create and leverage knowledge.”

In subsequent blogs, I will develop the characteristics of these leadership roles further and relate them to each other as a leadership economy – an inter-related set of leadership conditions necessary to the healthy development of an organisation.[2]

[1] The Coasian view of the network describes that with which the members of the organisation identify themselves, while the Searle view of the network’s institutional characteristics approach it in terms of discursive practices. The Lacanian ‘discourse’ adds unconscious valencies to the way discourses are taken up.  Arranging the leadership roles in this format reflects a correspondence I propose between the network forming roles and the Lacanian four discourses, and between the network enabling roles and the perverse forms of these four discourses.
[2] The strength of these inter-relationships is based on the valency the different roles have for each other and provide a way of explaining the stability of particular organisational cultures, i.e. it is the particular way in which this configuration of roles is held that defines the organisation more than the work of the organisation.

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