The virtues of a virtual leader

The virtues of a virtual leader

How do you lead (at every level of leading) a collaborative workplace in which power is widely distributed, and which is both productive and profound in the way it honours, encourages and demands interdependence and relationship as the vital energy of the organisation?

Lots of lists here, gathered over about a decade. Not properly digested and condensed but the bricolage may be a useful way to enquire into some of the challenges facing connected leaders today.

Network performance, a less direct kind of leading

In 2014, the CEB published ‘The Rise of the Network Leader’(*). Network contribution, they say, is at the heart of enterprise contribution. A network leader must focus not only on team tasks but on how their teams contribute to the performance of others – to network performance. It’s a combination of individual and network performance that adds up to enterprise contribution. Network leadership

involves establishing strong network performance by building, aligning, and enabling broad networks both internal and external to the organization. Network leadership is more about influence than control; it is also a more indirect than direct form of leadership, requiring leaders to create a work environment based on autonomy, empowerment, trust, sharing, and collaboration.

Network performance has many moving parts though. As Caitlin McDonald and I explore in the recently published LEF research on reconfiguring the collaborative workspace (**), ways of thinking about, and enacting collaboration can be mushy and muddled, often not engaging thoughtfully with consequences of misalignment:

Don’t focus on more collaboration, but more effective collaboration. As teams become increasingly distributed and porous, organizations are emphasizing collaboration as a key skill for success. It absolutely is. But performance measures, the real incentives to behaviour change, are typically geared towards individual contribution over collaborative effort. The people who drive team performance to an exceptional level often become perceived as bottlenecks, rated poorly for their individual contributions. This misalignment causes tension for individuals and between team members, ultimately draining organizational productivity.

Nimble organisations, powered by dense networks

Deborah Ancona and her team at MIT (***) talk about the inherent tension in pushing leadership, and resource allocation further into the organisation and redistributing power. High-level executives are often feaful and ambivalent at the chaos that might result. In the MIT team categorisation of entrepreneurial, enabling and architecting leaders, those who are most likely to to be working strategically to build network performance are the enabling leaders, acting as 'connectors' who can encourage 'creative collisions', spot 'structural holes' and connect projects and functional groups.

Connectors tend to travel to broaden  their already-wide networks and link people across functional and  geographic borders.

Vision, values and simple rules as guardrails make it possible for people to manage themselves and make it happen. Encourage people right from the off to invest in building their organisational networks. Give them the right enabling leaders. Then add the X-team model to this, externally oriented teams which reach across boundaries from day one, establish dense networks of connections to become a networked team. The result is that power has been distributed and can surge to where it's needed.

The edge that comes from enlivened networks

Building out and into work on communities of practice and networks by the likes of Rob Cross and Laurence Lock-Lee (****) , the well-connected leader also needs to assume other roles to contribute to building a well-networked organization. For example, to: model network participation and reciprocity; ensure network diversity; refresh and reform networks regularly; stretch and grow personal and organizational networks by moving people around; align and direct networks and consistently communicate purpose; reinforce the network narrative, reminding how those networks serve strategic goals;  know team network fragility – the network holes that might appear if those people who act as nodes, connectors, integrators and bridge-builders are moved, or move themselves.

Resonating with thinking around containers from my last post on hosting, thresholds and containers, Cross has some interesting things to say about gaining advantage from the edge that comes from networks and cooperation through informal structures. Premised on the assumption that a leader spends time understanding, as well as acting in, and between networks:

  • Manage the centre. Minimise bottlenecks and protect hidden stars.
  • Leverage the periphery. Rapidly integrate newcomers and reengage underutilised high performers.
  • Selectively bridge collaborative silos. Target key intersections in the network and leverage brokers and ambassadors.
  • Develop the ability to surge. Ensure that the best expertise in a network is brought to bear on new problems and opportunities.
  • Minimise insularity. Manage targeted relations with key clients and external sources of expertise.

From networks and collaboration towards cooperation

In 'Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity Without Getting Complicated' Morieux and Tollman (*****) make a good case for striving for cooperation, something beyond collaboration or coordination:

Cooperation means improving the effectiveness of others in the creation of a joint output by taking their needs and constraints into account. It involves creating an end product that’s more than the sum of its parts. The focus is on the result. In this respect, cooperation differs from collaboration and coordination which are about process. ….Cooperation is demanding activity. It involves taking individual risks because individual contributions to the joint output can’t be directly measured. People only cooperate when, by cooperating, they can win as individuals.

They set out six cooperation rules for leaders which are a useful elaboration of the CEB/Brown competences, and introduce the handy role and character of the 'integrator'

  • Understand what your people do – really understand it.
  • Reinforce integrators. Remove the rules and give your managers discretionary power.
  • Increase the total quantity of power by giving everyone a chance to use their judgement and intelligence.
  • Increase reciprocity by reducing resources and forcing interdependent networks, dependent on each other to achieve mutual goals.
  • Extend the shadow of the future by bringing the future nearer to the present and by tying futures together.
  • Reward those who cooperate and blame those who don’t – not for failing but for failing to ask for help.

Six Simple Rules describes the ideal integrator as a ‘centre of tension’. They are the kind of people who are loved or hated by others, never met with indifference, unbothered about being liked, and able to use their power and influence well. Very much liking their idea that it's not being likeable, but being respected, urgent, connected and committed, that determines the network talent of an organisation.

Virtue and virtual

Ghislaine Caulat (******), writing on virtual leadership, circles back to the etymology of the word virtue:

The interesting thing, however, is that the word 'virtual' is an old word, first appearing the late 14th century and meaning: 'influencing by phsyical virtues or capabilities', from virtualise and virtus 'excellence, potency, efficacy'. In the mid 17th century, the word's semantic field expanded and incorporated the word 'essence.'

Caulat argues persuasively that virtual working is a neglected aspect of leadership and offers eight invitations for learning to lead differently. Each invitation invites in-depth enquiry into the way leaders work with time, space and attitude, their own, that of others, and those of the organisation.  There's much to mine from each of these invitations, and I'll likely use them as a way into some more thinking out loud over the next few weeks. A couple of headlines here to start with though:

  • invest substantial time in building virtual relationships and trust;
  • develop personal online facilitation skills;
  • be ready to shift from control to connect.


Caulat also asks of the leader that they reassess their personal leadership identity in a virtual world. Before being connected with others you must connect with yourself.

The German term 'Innigkeit' is hard to translate, but it captures well some of this quality of stillness, innerness, centredness, being open to operate from essence not dominate with personality.  In 'The Fear-Free Organization', Paul Brown and co-authors (*******) list certain qualities which are a precondition to developing healthy, mutual relationships and a willing vulnerability and interdependence.

  • Self-awareness – knowing your internal states, preferences, resources, stories and intuitions;
  • Self-regulation – managing your internal states, impulses and resources;
  • Motivation - emotional tendencies, such as commitment and optimism, necessary to reaching goals;
  • Empathy – awareness of the feelings, needs and concerns of others; a willingness to serve;
  • Social skills – influencing, relationship, communication, conflict management and being a good change catalyst, collaboration, cooperation, and building team spirit and capability.

Brown emphasizes how much relationships at work matter. It is from relationships that we get energy and it is that energy that flows not just within us, but through the organisation:

As mind, brain and body are intricately linked together, every personal interaction creates changes in our neural wiring and neurochemistry. Simply put, good relationships make us feel good. They also support our physical system at all levels. Dysfunctional, disordered and toxic relationships bring us down and massively compromise the immune system. How exciting to know that while you are working with colleagues on an interesting and engaging project your brain is being tickled and tantalized by the experience... Relationships at work matter very much indeed.

There's a consolidated list of competences drawn from the CEB and Brown and co here.

It takes time

Much of the work to connect – to oneself and to others – means slowing down and taking the time to become more aware of self and others. That’s a challenge if your organization feels reassured by watching you run up and down campus, in and out of revolving doors, as you rush from meeting to meeting. But busyness gets in the way. Autonomy, trust, sharing and cooperation all depend on deep connections. That involves slowing down to put those connections in place and taking regular time to tend to them. A bit more being. A bit less doing.

Ready to read a bit more?

Here's a tiny invitation into the vast and inspiring world of Nora Bateson's thinking and practice around liminal leadership and warm data. As Bateson says, there's no glory in liminal leadership. Are we ready to risk ourselves?


(*) CEB 'The rise of the network leader: reframing leadership in the new work environment' Executive Guidance for 2014

(**) 'Reconfiguring the collaborative workspace: making the most of time, space and attitude' by Dr Caitlin McDonald and Victoria Ward with contributions from Joseph Cook, LEF 2019

(***) 'Nimble Leadership' by Deborah Ancona, Elaine Backman and Kate Isaacs, HBR, July - August 2019 'X-teams: new ways of leading of leading in a new world' by Deborah Ancona and others, Ivey Business Journal, September-October 2008

(****) Rob Cross and Laurence Lock-Lee are both rich sources of insight, border crossing between insights from social network analysis, leader, communities of practice, the social organisation.

(*****) ‘Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity without getting Complicated’ , Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman, Boston Consulting Group, 2014

(******) Ghislaine Caulat's 'Virtual leadership: learning to lead differently' Libri Publishing, 2012

(*******)   'The The Fear Free Organization: How to Use Insights from Neuroscience to Transform Your Business' Paul Brown, Joan Kingsley and Sue Paterson, Kogan Page, 2015

The connected leader, ways of being' a consolidated list of competences drawn from the CEB Executive Guidance and Paul Brown's chapter on relationships

Thanks to Andy Ward for directing me to the CEB research, Hilary Scarlett for putting me onto Paul Brown, to Clive Holtham for Ghislaine Caulat,  to Julie Allan for introducing me to the work of Nora Bateson, and to Alim Khan, Siobhain Smiton and Shantrez Miller Gillebo for their advocacy and encouragement in different ways, in pursuing this enquiry into connectedness and leadership over the years.

Photo by Omar Flores on Unsplash