Thursday, 8 September 2011

Leadership in a Network World

In Thinking about Leadership Nannerl Keohane mentions “how groups of human individuals engage in spontaneous activities . . . without anything we would recognize as leadership, through the rapidly expanding capacities of social networking technology” and asks if such behaviour resembles “swarming insects” more than “a purposefully motivated group with a designated leader” (231). However, if the definition of leadership is to be able to move a group of individuals to accomplish certain goals, then the situations she mentions do require and indeed exhibit leadership, although it is different leadership than we may be used to. There are usually clear reasons for why one Twitter-user has over a million followers and another has barely any, and why one has their posts retweeted hundreds of times while the other hardly ever gets one retweet. Rather than leadership which depends upon formal hierarchical structures, this is leadership that depends upon catching attention and creating interest.

Douglas Hesse describes this form of leadership in “The Place of Creative Writing in Composition Studies”, calling it “an Elbovian parlour where writers gain the floor by creating interest, through the arts of discourse” (41). In the traditional Burkean parlour, the author would be listening to the discussion and its participants for a while and getting familiar with the dialogue, before deciding to “put in her oar” and become a full participant in the conversation. The new one envisioned by Douglas Hesse is one where the author takes the stage through sheer force of aesthetic form, and thereby is able to shift the dialogue or create new fora of discourse around herself. In other words, she becomes a leader for new groups that she has created. In “The Economics of Attention” Richard A Lanham makes the claim that leadership which depends more on rhetoric than institutional authority is the hallmark of the information age where the scarce commodity that moves society is not land, labour, or capital, but attention. It is not surprising that the largest emerging companies in this new economy (like Apple, Google, and Facebook) are those who have been able to catch and keep human attention. This clearly gives the humanities and rhetoric in particular, a clear advantage. According to Lanham “Rhetoric argued that, since attention constituted the central social power, the orator who allocated it must be the central figure in the polity, and his training the fundamental training for civic life.” If you can catch and keep attention online you have influence, power, and can easily transform that attention to economic gain.
This ability to create new groups and structures by aesthetic form and persuasion is not limited to the Internet or the advertisement industry. W.L. Gore Associates, inventors of product lines like GoreTex, have made it a characteristic feature of their company to discourage leadership by position. Rather, leaders emerge somewhat spontaneously and become leaders by attracting “followers”. Terri Kelly the CEO of Gore claims that the employees are encouraged to seek out the projects they would like to do and the people they would like to work with. People acquire influence and leadership in the company partially by their character and their ability to present a convincing project and making people excited about that project. They may not be the ones who had thought of the project first, but they are the ones who were able to formulate their vision for it and make others interested.

Here is a lecture about that leadership stucture, and you better pay attention. According to Gary Hamel from the London School of Economics this is company structure of the future.