Phil Willburn – Networked Leadership

Make Leadership Contagious


Phenomena such as happiness, smoking, obesity, or even homicides can spread through a population like an infectious disease.  Maybe its time we used the same methods to spread leadership throughout an organization.  Here is your 5 step process for infecting your organization with the leadership disease:

Step 1: Expect leadership from everyone.

Realize that leadership is a shared process. Anyone can take on leadership and provide needed direction and influence at any stage in organizational life. You should no longer expect leadership to come only from the identified “formal leaders.”

Step 2: Connect the network.

A disease can’t spread unless people are connected, or at lease near each other. By connecting employees outside of their teams, groups, divisions, and business units, you create the infrastructure that allows behaviors, such as leadership, to infect the entire organization.

Think about the contagion process like a forest fire: Natural barriers like rivers and roads keep the fire from catching in other places. The same is true in an organization. Barriers such as remote locations, communication issues, lack of awareness and trust can create barriers within an organization that stop the spread of a behavior. Makes sure you take down those barriers or build bridges that allow leadership to spread throughout your organization.

Step 3: Identify the well-connected subjects.

Why do pandemics flourish in cities? There so many closely connected hosts that the virus has many paths to infect people. Conversely, small villages in the middle of nowhere may have localized infections, but they wouldn’t add much to a pandemic.

You cannot make leadership contagious in your organization if you infect the village rather than the city. Don’t make your patient zero an offsite project team or a small decision making committee. They won’t have access to the rest of the organization to make a lasting impact. Also, don’t start in an ivory tower – board of directors, executive management team, and special project managers – these people live in well protected environments which are too insular for the contagion process to spread.

It’s important you find the well-connected people in your organization to start this process. Ideally these people would be connected to many parts of the organization and cross many boundaries. Think about the most popular operation or program in your company. Think about the biggest customers and their supporting employees. Here you will find well-connected people (super-connectors). In my experience, most organizations have no clue who these people are.

Super-connectors are not the people you think. They are not the charming well-spoken apparently well-put together individuals (don’t be fooled by their charming nature they don’t have the necessary deep relationships you need to spread an idea). Instead, look for the individuals who care about other people and are managing lots of meaningful relationships outside their prescribed work duties. Yes, introverts can hold this roll as well.

Step 4: Infect the first subjects.

Invest time and resources into your first subjects without removing them from their well-connected positions. The tendency of some organizations is to find these super-connectors and make them the next managers. However, this changes the nature of their role. They stop acting like super-connectors and start acting like managers. The secret of leveraging a super-connector is to gain buy-in from them without changing who they are. It is who they are that made them well connected in the first place. Leverage them as they are.

Step 5: Get out of the way and let it go viral.

The most important thing in letting leadership go viral in your organization is to get out of the way. Once the seeds are planted and the subjects are infected, the best thing is to let the connections that you deliberately made in Step 2 do the work. If you did your due diligence and made the smart connections across the organization, then the contagion process should take over and go.

You did everything right but it is not going viral. What should you do now?

Fan the flames if you need to. This usually comes in packages of corporate communication, branding, emails and so forth. Don’t mistake fanning the flames for actually starting the fire. It is only after you have started the contagion process that the idea or behavior can become infectious.

Make additional connections as time goes on. If you see the contagion stopping or stalling, it’s likely that the network infrastructure needs additional connections. Sometimes these people who have been “infected” with an idea or behavior will group together, and the contagion will stop spreading. This may be due to hompohily (birds of a feather flock together), but it is usually the lack of new people for the contagion to infect. Creating connections will enable it to spread once again.

Need some more details about how to do these 5 steps. Here are some resources

Center for Creative Leadership philosophy on Shared Leadership

Connecting the network through Network Weaving

Identifying organizational influencers (upcoming on my blog)

Network Interventions

Discussion (1)

There is one response to “Make Leadership Contagious”.

  1. Dick Willburn responded:

    · Reply

    Good work

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