A Forest of Social Leaders

A forest is defined as much by the space as it is the trees: it’s an ecosystem, with every part in balance with the whole. As a system, it’s constantly in motion, from the wind that sways the branches of the trees, to the beetles scuttling around in the leafmould, from the rain falling through the canopy, to the network of roots spreading deep underground.

A Forest of Social Leaders

Last week was a writing week: i worked on the manuscript of the ‘Change Handbook’, which immersed me in thinking about Organisations as systems, interconnected, and in various states of health. The hierarchy of the organisation provides a structure, defines a space, but it’s the social system that gives us the rich strength. In the context of the Social Age, our role is more one of ecosystem management than facilities management, so an understanding of how the forest is made is valuable.

Two weeks ago i shared the notion of ‘Social Leadership Trees’, a loose metaphor for the Organisational ecosystem: with the idea that each of us stand as trees in the landscape, each different, each a connected part of a wider, complex, ecosystem. The formal organisation gives us boundaries and structure, but the social ecosystem is more organic, constantly in motion.

Some trees are tall, some young, short, but each is subject to the same ecosystem pressure: if we take too much out, if we poison the water, or pollute the air, we all suffer. Similarly, whilst the individual contribution of one person may not be great, each person does contribute to the overall health of the ecosystem and, crucially, to the vista of the forest.

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Social Leadership Trees: Growing Capability Across An Organisation

I like the idea of Social Leadership being organic: not one thing that we learn, but rather a continual growth. Also, that it spreads, takes root, as a social movement, spreading through an organisation. Today, i am exploring that idea, building on the notion of Social Leadership Circles that i shared last week, but evolving it, as i #WorkOutLoud. This is an exploration of those ideas.

Social Leadership Trees

My intent is for both an idea, and an approach, to developing Social Leadership at scale, within the everyday reality of most organisations. It’s clear to me that Social Leadership, at both an individual, and organisational, level, is best developed as it is exercised, within a community. In my last book, ‘Social Leadership: my 1st 100 days’, i laid out that journey, a guided reflection, and set of activities, to set down the authentic roots. But the reality for most organisations is that they will need a range of approaches: interventions for Executives, for formal Leaders, and for broader teams. A model which allows us to grow this capability is one that is rooted at a local, tribal, level, each individual becoming more interconnected, leading to that connectivity at scale.

Social Leadership - my first 100 days

Social Leadership is an organisational capability that is grown over time, with the roots set down by every individual who engages. And once we have it, we have the foundations of the Socially Dynamic Organisation.

Four Aspects of the Socially Dynamic Organisation

Let me explore some of the ideas behind Social Leadership Trees (and why i decided against ‘circles’, ‘webs’, ‘tribes’, and ‘clubs’!).

Trees grow, and we can nurture that growth. They are part of a wider ecosystem, and both contribute to the health of that system, and rely upon the overall connectivity of it. They are cyclical, and carry their growth as rings. Trees both burst into blossom, but also shed their leaves, in annual cycles of renewal, and that is a central theme of Social Leadership, which i address at the very first stage, ‘Curation’. We do not choose our space forever, we choose a foundation to build upon. I like the idea that some leaves we shed, and some just get blown away as we are battered by the wind. But overall, it’s a continual cycle of growth, shedding, and renewal.

Ankor Watt

Trees adapt to their environment: near to me are wind pruned trees on the clifftops, growing low, almost sideways, with the tops sheared off by constant buffeting winds, but adapted to their environment. When i visited Angkor Watt, i saw trees intertwined through the ancient stones, flowing through, and around, the physical structure of the building, much as Social Leaders operate in systems that flow through, and around, the formal structure.

Trees set down roots: i have previously used the metaphor of setting down roots to describe our authenticity. It’s through our actions over time, our humility, our willingness to invest in our community, that our authenticity is grown. The notion of time, and growth, is important. You cannot cheat it.

Then there is the idea of propagation and spread: i’m using a notion of SEED communities in the new work on Dynamic Change, so that ties in well to this idea. The idea that we do not provide all the answers, but rather create the community spaces where ‘sense making’ occurs, where answers may be found.

I have also been keen that Social Leadership is a power and authority that can be provided, and supported, by the Organisation, but is also one that can be claimed in opposition to formal power. Anyone can choose to be a Social Leader, and any organisation can choose to nurture and support it.

So how does it work?

At some levels, Organisations will actively develop Social Leadership, through programmes. At others, they will support individual, and group journeys. And some people will simply claim a space. But overall, our journey to become more Socially Dynamic is based in the actions of individuals: so we grow, we make the journey, and we are battered by the elements of our everyday reality as we do so. But scars and all, we grow.

My Social Leadership Journey

As we do so, we shed old leaves, and grow new ones, and we grow out our authentic roots. We may support, and grow, other Social Leadership trees around us, forming a grove, changing part of the overall landscape. As we find our voices, we will reach out to others, connecting up the different parts of the forest.

Trees grow in balance with the ecosystem around them: but they also effect that environment. In a toxic culture, it will be hard to develop Social Leadership, but as we do so, we will drain some of that toxicity, in the only way that counts. Through our actions.

And in systems which learn to thrive, we create a secondary effect: forests are vibrant ecosystems, not just full of trees, but the sound of birdsong, and the sight of wild flowers. It’s this notion of interconnectivity that has led me to this metaphor, and i’ll see where i can grow it from here.

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Intent into Action

The challenge of moving from ‘intent’ into ‘action’ is one that lies at the heart of countless self help books on habit formation and change programmes. Intent is easy to have, action harder, not specifically because it requires us to do something new, but often because it requires us to stop doing something old.

Intent into Action

I mention this as i’m running a full week Innovation workshop in Munich, and everyone has great intent. We are a group of excited individuals. But that gap, from intent into action, is the one that kills organisations. This week i am focussed on how Social Leaders may support their intent by building a social movement, an engaged Social Community.

With the support, the sense making, and the moderation, of this community, we may find it easier to make this journey.

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States of Innovation

I’m grounding my new work around Innovation in two frameworks: ‘States of Innovation’, and ‘Cultural Agility’. Today, i want to explore States of Innovation further, a model which uses a grid to explore the current state in relation to two dimensions: the context of change, and the nature of disruption.

States of Innovation

The horizontal axis describes the context of change, ranging from ‘known state’ (the world as it used to be) into an unknown state (the world as it is today, the context of the Social Age).

States of Innovation

Broadly, this axis charts how Organisations are slipping out of their known world, and into the largely unknown one, but crucially it distinguishes between ‘change in a known space’, and ‘change in an unknown one’. I’ll come back to this in a minute.

The vertical axis describes the nature of change, or more specifically, the nature of disruption. This axis is most heavily influenced by my own work on Black Swans and the limits of formal systems, as well as broader notions of a VUCA world (and stands in debt to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s work in particular on Black Swans: my work is a pale shadow of his). When we combine both axes, we have two frames of change: the ecosystem, and the nature of disruption itself.

The black text in the four corners describes outcomes, ranging from perfectly adapted, through to failed, and it’s driven by understanding the things that organisations do well, within a known space, and those things that they do badly within that known space.

Once a market emerges, people inhabit it (or perhaps, to be pedantic, perhaps when people make an offering within it, they create a market), but once established, much competition takes place within a known space. Banks typically compete within a known space, coffee shops do the same. So they are innovating, and out competing each other, but broadly within a known space.

But disruption often (and probably increasingly) comes from outside that known space, for a range of reasons. Much of the context of the Social Age has democratised competition, removed structural barriers of power, democratised communication, collaboration, and the mechanisms of innovation (prototyping, design, marketing etc) essentially making it easier to enter a market, or innovate a new one. Collectively, this weakens the bedrock that sits underneath an established organisation.

States of Innovation

Whilst all of this is happening, Organisations do what they do best: they codify their strength, they drive for consistency, conformity, replicability. They drive down costs, outsource, and accrete strong hierarchies that allow them to control diverse resource. They build strength, but a very particular type of strength. They become Brittle Systems.

The Limits of Hierarchy: Brittle Systems

Optimised organisations inhabit the top right quadrant, and to be clear, they are excellent organisations, filled with the brightest people, at a peak of their success. But what if the context of their success, and the nature of their disruption, is evolving?

That’s where we end up: drifting to the left, or drifting downwards. I suspect that many organisations are moving to the left in particular: they have great codified strength, and hence momentum, and they are often large, and wealthy. They don’t notice the increased friction that drags on almost every aspect of what they do. They are actively sub optimised in a changing world.

Formal change programmes, strong formal leadership, and established formal models of learning, performance support, induction, and assessment, all hold them in the known space. But the known space is an illusion, a transient reality that is fading fast.

Our legacy organisations were built with a codified strength, in a known world: for the new world, where change is constant, power is rebalanced, and engagement is evolved, we will need a new type of organisation, a Socially Dynamic one. Best of the old, and best of the new. But crucially, one that does not ground it’s strength in mass, but rather in interconnectivity, in community. The strength of the Socially Dynamic Organisation does not come from system and process, it comes from engaged and interconnected people.


I’m using the States of Innovation framework to help organisations understand that much of what they experience is a subset of the whole truth. We operate within, and are hence blinded by, the ‘known knowns’, and the familiar world in which they take place. But we are increasingly assailed by unknown unknowns, and, worse, exist in structures of power that don’t understand the new reality and are unable to engage in it fully because the type of power they wield is wrong.

Innovation and Culture

From here, i tie into the work on Cultural Agility, which looks at the types of culture that an organisation needs (possibly multiple concurrent types), and also, of course, to Social Leadership, and the Dynamic Change framework.

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Building Social Leadership Circles

Social Leadership grows as a movement: not imposed from the top, but rather connected through every level. It does not follow the boundaries and structure of the formal hierarchy, but instead reaches out through bonds of trust, and new conversations. It is powered not by rules and process, but by reputation and humility. The exertion of Social Leadership is not through words, but action.

Social Leadership Circles

I’m playing with models of developing Social Leadership at scale: how do you start? Perhaps with the idea of Social Leadership Circles: a cohort that you build, to make the journey into Social Leadership in good company. Because developing Social Leadership is a journey: experiential, collaborative, and rooted in action.

I like the idea of building small circles, maybe thirty people, because the Social structure of the organisation is not limitless: we seem to collapse the wider entity down into tribal structures, bonded through experiences, and our development pathway could mirror that structure. We can create separate groups, Social Leadership Tribes, either organised centrally, or emergent from the community. Claimed spaces.

Social Leadership - my 1st 100 days

When i wrote ‘Social Leadership: my 1st 100 days’, i intended it to be a journey taken in company. The book does not contain the answers, but rather it creates the space and structure for us to find our own answers. Perhaps that journey is one that is best undertaken within a Circle or Tribe.

Social Leadership 100 - Skills for the Social Age

A Socially Dynamic Organisation will not have one type of strength, but rather a diversified strength, held in divergent views, immersed in strong ‘sense making’ communities. As we build our own Social Leadership tribe, we must reach out, to interconnect, between different conversations: parallel journeys being taken, each of which can learn from the others.

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Why Kindness Counts

Again, today, i found myself shying away from saying ‘kindness counts’, or rather i found myself apologising for saying it. Whenever i use the term, i fear it sounds weak, it sounds like a predictable liberal statement, more about ‘niceness’ than ‘effectiveness’. But nonetheless, i think that it’s true. A Socially Dynamic Organisation is one that is highly effective. It wins by any set of rules. And within it, kindness truly does count.

Why Kindness Counts

Not as an afterthought, used to apologise, but with forethought, to guide our actions and, hence, shape the culture.

Kindness counts, not simply when it is easy, but when things are truly hard. It counts because it moderates our actions, and it helps us achieve balance in the things that we do. And it counts because it puts people, and our relationship with them, at the heart of our thinking and action.

I don’t feel i should need to explain why kindness is a good thing, but i can certainly observe when it is missing. In all the noise of the modern world, and in the busyness of our dynamic systems, it’s easy for the one thing to get lost that we can value the most. A culture of kindness.

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The Control of Consequence

Consequence’ is a dominant force that acts upon us: our sense of ‘formal’ consequence, that which is applied by and within the hierarchy, and ‘social’ consequence, that which is applied by our community itself. Of the two, i suspect that social consequence is the most significant driver, or moderator, of individual behaviour. Today, i’m #WorkingOutLoud to share an extract from ‘The Change Handbook’, looking at ‘consequence’ as one of the 32 Resisters and Amplifiers of change.

The Control of Consequence

Actively understanding, and varying, consequence, can be a useful tool in change.

The Sphere of Consequence

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