Leadership Networks

Improving and Evaluating Results with Social Network Analysis

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SNA and Leadership Networks


We are pleased to share our paper, "Social Network Analysis and the Evaluation of Leadership Networks, " which has been published in The Leadership Quarterly  Volume 21, Issue 4, August 2010, Pages 600-619

Social Network Analysis and the Evaluation of Leadership Networks (PDF)

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Connective Associates LLC
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Leadership Learning Community

[Ed note: If you just want to print the paper, we recommend downloading it as a PDF here.] 


Leadership development practitioners have become increasingly interested in networks as a way to strengthen relationships among leaders in fields, communities, and organizations. This paper offers a framework for conceptualizing different types of leadership networks and uses case examples to identify outcomes typically associated with each type of network. One challenge for the field of leadership development has been how to evaluate leadership networks. Social Network Analysis (SNA) is a promising evaluation approach that uses mathematics and visualization to represent the structure of relationships between people, organizations, goals, interests, and other entities within a larger system. Core social network concepts are introduced and explained to illuminate the value of SNA as an evaluation and capacity-building tool.


The emergence of leadership networks is a response to a rapidly changing world that is increasingly interconnected and that requires greater learning and collaboration for solving complex problems. Leadership networks provide resources and support for leaders, and increase the scope and scale of impact leaders can have individually and collectively. Nurturing and catalyzing leadership networks is increasingly a critical focus of many leadership development efforts, especially those that seek to develop leadership with a capacity to influence policy and bring about social and systems change.

In this paper we examine four different types of leadership networks: peer leadership networks, organizational leadership networks, field-policy leadership networks, and collective leadership networks. The choice to focus on these four types of networks grows out of our experience as consultants with clients who fund, run, and catalyze leadership networks. Often our clients are interested in using network mapping or other tools to increase the awareness of leaders about the power of networks, to further catalyze relationships and connections, and to strengthen the capacity of the network to act collectively. There is also growing interest in knowing what difference leadership networks are making.

As consultants, we often have multiple roles with our clients that include network monitoring and evaluation, and network facilitation and capacity-building. Some of our client relationships are multi-year, giving us a better opportunity to understand how networks change over time and how members begin to better use their networks to think and act strategically and collectively to achieve desired results.

From a scientific perspective, our research methods are non-traditional because we actively co-construct research projects with our clients to answer the questions they are asking about their investments of money and time (Ospina et al., 2002). While this approach gives us valuable access to leaders in the network and rich insights about how networks work, it does not conform to research studies that rigorously test hypotheses about leadership network development with experiments and control groups. We hope that our study will provide a framework that can be tested and further developed through additional research.

The rest of the paper is organized as follows: In the "Classifying Leadership Networks" section, we briefly describe our classification of four different types of leadership networks. The "Introducing Social Network Analysis" section overviews network metrics that can be used to examine leadership networks; that section is followed by "Evaluating Leadership Networks," which identifies general categories of questions that can be used to explore various dimensions of leadership networks. The body of the paper consists of four sections, one devoted to each type of leadership network, including its defining characteristics, its value, appropriate evaluative methods, and examples. We conclude the paper with a section discussing issues and risks of SNA and leadership network evaluation, a section outlining areas for future research, and some concluding remarks.


Classifying Leadership Networks

Our leadership network classification framework is rooted in our experience in the field of leadership development and has also been influenced by the work of Borgatti and Foster (2003), Plastrik and Taylor (2006), and Provan and Milward (2006), all of whom have developed their own ways of classifying different types of networks. We have chosen to use different terms because we believe these are more intuitively understood and consistent with language used in the leadership development field.

The classification scheme is intended to be helpful to those who fund, run, or participate in networks so that they can better understand how to strengthen and use their networks effectively. Some networks may fit neatly into one of these categories, and others may be hybrids. The goal of the framework is not to create an ideal towards which networks should strive, but rather to provide a tool for network analysis. The body of this paper explains how various SNA-based evaluative methods can be used to make visible various aspects of leadership networks, and how that information is useful to network members, weavers, and sponsors.

Peer Leadership Network: A peer leadership network is a system of social ties among leaders who are connected through shared interests and commitments, shared work, or shared experiences. Leaders in the network share information, provide advice and support, learn from one another, and occasionally collaborate together. Peer leadership networks provide leaders with access to resources that they can trust. Leadership programs often seek to catalyze peer leadership networks to expand the trusted ties that leaders have with one another.
Organizational Leadership Network: An organizational leadership network is a set of social ties that are structured to increase performance. Employees, for instance, develop informal leadership networks within their organizations (relationships not visible on the organizational chart) so that they can get the advice, ideas, or resources they need to solve problems more quickly and increase their individual and organizational performance. At the inter-organizational level, leadership networks enable different organizations with shared interests to produce a product or deliver a service more efficiently.

Field-Policy Leadership Network: A field-policy leadership network connects leaders who share common interests and who have a commitment to influencing a field of practice or policy. These networks seek to shape the environment (e.g., the framing of an issue, underlying assumptions, and standards for what is expected). Effective field-policy leadership networks make it easier for leaders to find common ground around the issues they care about, mobilize support, and influence policy and the allocation of resources.

Collective Leadership Network: A collective leadership network is a self-organized system of social ties among people attracted to a common cause or focused on a shared goal. Network members exercise leadership locally. As the number of local groupings grows and there is increasing interaction, these groups begin to align and connect to form larger networks. These networks are often rooted in a sense of community and purpose; they may be driven by a desire to achieve a specific goal, or simply by the desire of each member to belong to something larger than oneself.
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