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A Different Kind of Leader

  • By Vision Synergy

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.

Typical managers “do not immediately grasp that this [transition] will involve relational — not analytical — tasks. Nor do they easily understand that exchanges and interactions with a diverse array of current and potential stakeholders are not distractions from their ‘real work’ but are actually at the heart of their new leadership roles.” This brings a huge challenge.

The Harvard Business Review said the leadership transition from a traditional, organizational leader into a network leader “is simultaneously one of the most self-evident and one of the most dreaded developmental challenges that aspiring leaders must address.”

Organizations wanting to be involved in a network have a great advantage if they can come to understand how to engage and interact effectively within a network and why network leadership requires a different approach, mindset, and set of practices and competencies.

How Organizational Leadership Differs from Network Leadership
Claire Reinelt, in a blog titled “How is network leadership different from organizational leadership and why is understanding this difference important?,” provides a chart on the differences between organizational leadership and network leadership.

  • Role. In place of the Organizational Leadership (OL) pattern of leading by position and announced authority, Network Leadership (NL) leads by service in a role and by modeling desired behavior.
  • Collective. NL emphasizes collective leadership and group decision making, whereas OL emphasizes the individual in leadership. NL is highly participatory with many voices heard.
  • Facilitative. OL leads by authoritative control, as in a boss, while NL facilitates a process. Professor Janice Popp of the University of Calgary goes so far as to say that “The difference between an organizational leader approach and a network leader approach is that an organizational leader sees a problem and fixes it; a network leader sees a problem and starts a process.”
  • Emergent. An OL approach is prone to be directive in determining the course to follow, whereas a NL approach is highly responsive to emerging directions, avoiding hidden and personal agendas. This NL approach better positions the network to adapt to dynamic and changing environments and to adeptly respond to crises. It balances providing direction with letting things emerge. It takes time for things to surface while recognizing that we cannot push too fast and must wait for collaborative initiatives to develop.
  • Relational. The NL role recognizes the inherently relational foundation that rules within networks, whereas the OL role views tasks as transactional. NL is people-first versus the task-first orientation of OL.
  • Bottom-up. Networks tend do better when the goals are set by its members, bottom-up, rather than by select leadership teams or external bodies (top-down). Mutual ownership of the priorities, objectives, and decisions is key.

Mandell and Steelman write that “The need for quite particular and specialised skills for participating in and managing networks is consistently stressed in the literature. People need to be appointed to ‘coordinate’ networks on the basis of their skills to do so, or access to appropriate training, rather than their general availability in an organisation. As the network gets more ambitious, so the skill requirements increase.”

Core Network Leader Competencies
visionSynergy identified six core competencies for network leaders that span the life-stages of a network, from the Exploration Phase to the Formation Phase and on to the Operation Phase. Those key network leader competencies include the following.

In the initial Exploration Phase, when a network leader explores the field in preparation for forming a network, the critical competencies are:

Network leaders as catalysts conduct thorough research to understand the ministry area and its challenges, become aware of work already going, identify potential partners, and strengthen their own credibility with these other leaders.

Catalysts develop a network of relationships with those who are influential, already involved, or sincerely interested in the common ministry concern. Catalysts take the time to make connections, build trust, and listen carefully to others.

Catalysts constantly listen to God in prayer and discern how the individual calling of each potential partner can connect to a compelling vision of what can be done together. Catalysts are attentive to the level of interest among all potential partners to determine if the time is right to call a meeting.

In the Formation Phase, when a network forms and commences its connection-building and activities, the critical competencies include:

Network leaders as champions work through consensus to develop a sense of common ownership. They decide together whether or not to move forward as a partnership. They encourage consensus-based decision-making. They come to agreement around the big vision, the primary obstacles or challenges, and the achievable objectives that can be accomplished together.

Champions work to secure commitment from their own organizations or spheres of influence. They clearly see the benefit of the partnership for themselves and/or their organizations. They advocate for the partnership vision among their own colleagues and associates. They secure commitment from others in order to contribute knowledge, talent, and other resources.

Good facilitation of the formation meeting(s) by the catalyst(s) is critical to the successful launch of a partnership. Likewise, champions who lead discussion groups, working groups, or other meetings are good facilitators of group discovery and decision-making.

In the Operation Phase, during a network’s longest phase when it concentrates on attaining its operational objectives, the core competencies of network leaders are:

The partnership Facilitator is attentive to the many partners involved. Facilitators foster frequent, interactive communication among the partners. They keep progress visible for all participants — widening the breadth and depth of commitment and strengthening trust in the process of working together.

Facilitators keep the focus of the partnership on results while strengthening personal relationships. They effectively organize and motivate the partnership to work together on specific objectives through various action groups.

Facilitators constantly evaluate the partnership with regard to the process (how well the partners are working together) as well as the results (what the partners are actually accomplishing). They create regular reports that keep all partners informed and encouraged.


The high challenge of serving as a network leader prompts each person aspiring to serve in this way to seek out training, mentoring, coaching, and advising from those who can guide them. A strong first step is seeking out a community of fellow network leaders. visionSynergy facilitates an online learning community of hundreds of mission network leaders and welcomes the reader to learn more about network leadership by joining Synergy Commons.


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