The network leader is one of the fastest-emerging and most critical leadership roles in ministry and mission today. Networks — not agencies — are now shaping highly important mission and ministry strategies. Networks and their consultations are fast becoming the main gathering points for Christian leaders from around the the city to around the world. In them, Christians connect, share information and resources, establish standards, and collaborate with one another for greater impact.
We must understand the distinctive role of the network leader who leads these relatively new forms of organizing. This role sometimes goes by other terms — network facilitator, system leader, association or alliance leader, network coordinator — but this article will use the broad term of network leader.
Networks are not institutions
“Networks are not institutions, they cannot be expected to do what institutions do,” says A.K. Bernard. Nor can networks be led as if they were organizations or institutions. In fact, networks and partnerships operate so differently from traditional organizations that they can easily fail if traditional leadership strategies are used. These differences drive the need for a different kind of collaborative leader with unique skills and ways of working.
Many ministry leaders newly assuming collaborative leadership roles discover they are ill-equipped to lead a complex network. They have never had training or experience facilitating a large set of organizations as it develops commonly-shared goals resulting in significant action. Additionally, many have not received mentoring, coaching or advising from experienced network leaders.
Recognizing the Gap
Today’s increased demand for networks has uncovered a deep gap in training, mentoring and coaching for people who want to develop enduring and effective mission networks. These differences demand a different kind of collaborative leader with specialized skills for “the network way of working,” as the Network Leadership Training Academy terms it.
Perhaps it is not obvious to traditional leaders that interorganizational leadership calls for a new set of skills and approaches. An organizational leader, we often assume, ought to easily transition to leading a network of organizations. But the reality is often very disconcerting as they realize that interorganizational leadership calls for a different set of skills and approaches. “Many organizations are finding it challenging to adopt a network approach to leadership, and leadership programs are not supporting organizational leaders to develop those skill sets,” says network analyst Claire Reinelt.