Network Leadership


By Cameron Paterson

 The basis of this article is a statement made by Harvard Professor Richard Elmore in 2011. He claimed, “The future of schools lies in networks rather than hierarchies, in lateral rather than vertical organisations. Networks cannot be managed the same way that hierarchies are managed. Social networking is a different way of organising.”

The What and Why of Networks

Alcoholics Anonymous is a network, Get Up is a network, the Men’s Shed is a network, ISIS is a network, TeachMeets are a network, even trees have social networks (McGrane, 2016). Networks are not just about technology, they are about connecting and collaborating.

A paradigm shift is occurring in the way in which people are connected, moving from hierarchically arranged groups to diverse social networks (Wellman, n.d.). As global interconnections and complexities increase, hierarchies are being supplanted by more lateral interactions. Hierarchies require unity and coordination, whereas networks require diversity and autonomy.

Today’s fast and exponentially growing information currents “are like electronic grains of sand, eroding the pillars” of rigid hierarchies and top-down leadership (Husband, n.d.). New connections distribute information and power, violating organisational borders and confines. Successful organisations of the future are likely to have a more adaptive, teaming network, which depends on the power of peer-to-peer relationships. While there is still a need for “stability, predictability and order, organisations now also need the flexibility, adaptability and innovative culture to prepare for uncertain and unpredictable futures” (Hasan & Kazlaukas, 2014). More nimble, network-like structures are the key to succeeding in the face of today’s fast-moving, volatile environment and helping schools move on from the linearity of education’s outdated practices and processes. What sort of design is needed to turn schools into more effective networks that can rapidly mobilise, spotlight new learning and bring it to action?

Leading Networks in Education?

  • Are educators explicitly teaching people to work in teams? Teams now proliferate across domains previously dominated by commands. The strongest influence on teacher professional practice is advice from colleagues, and teachers get better by working in teams on teaching issues. However, norms of autonomy and privacy are entrenched among teachers and the isolation of cellular classrooms discourages professional interdependence. Teachers cannot become better teachers in isolation from each other. Deeply embedded structures have to be challenged and teaching must become infused with a genuinely collegial, collaborative ethos.
  • Are educators becoming more intentional about informal learning? “Workers learn more in the coffee room than in the classroom. They discover how to do their jobs through informal learning: talking, observing others, trial-and-error, and simply working with people in the know (Cross, 2007). Eighty percent of learning is informal and it is often left to chance. Recognise the degree of dependence on informal networks.
  • Are educators designing for flexibility and responsiveness? Schools were not constructed to be fast and agile, and they were not designed for an environment where change has become the norm. John Kotter advocates introducing a second, more organic, agile, network-like structure that operates in concert with the hierarchy (which is still needed for reliability and efficiency) to create what he calls a “dual operating system”. “The successful organization of the future will have two organizational structures: a Hierarchy, and a more teaming, egalitarian, and adaptive Network” (Kotter, 2014). This new network structure is dynamic: initiatives merge and disperse as required with contributions from all parts of the organisation, liberating information from silos and the hierarchy.
  • Are educators fostering diverse connections? People who link or bridge otherwise distinct groups and those who possess the capacity to initiate and maintain ‘boundary-spanning relationships’ have richer access to information and resources, and greater creative capability than those with a more insular network structure. These ‘border crossers’ who can access a diversity of networks are able to introduce new ideas, knowledge and practices that can lead broad-based change. Howard Gardner refers to searchlight intelligence. That is, the capacity to connect dots between people and ideas where others see no conceivable link. The recent US election has made clear the importance of being aware of filter bubbles, the personal, unique universe of information that one lives in online. People need to consciously connect with people whose views they profoundly disagree with.
  • Are educators devolving decision making? Teachers need to be released from Stockholm syndrome. The military now uses the term Strategic Corporal, which is the notion that leadership in complex, rapidly evolving environments devolves lower and lower down the chain of command to more effectively incorporate the latest on-the-ground data into decision making. Too much education reform remains top-down, imposed on schools without drawing on or supporting the development of capacities within the system. It is necessary to shift the narrative and reform from the bottom up. Jelmer Evers and Renee Kneyber (2016) argue that flipping the system places teachers where they need to be – at the steering wheel of educational systems worldwide. Leaders enable teacher voices to be heard, rather than drowned out by outsider ‘experts’ or government rhetoric. Leaders galvanise and embolden those in the profession to be active agents in their own contexts and the wider education landscape.
  • Are educators embracing complexity? Unpredictability is incompatible with reductionist administrative models. Many of today’s biggest challenges come from complex ‘wicked problems’ that are ill-defined and sometimes impossible to solve. Complicated problems require a hierarchy, whereas complex problems need a more networked response. For example, when a fire crew arrives at a house fire and they are faced with a standard fire, they use standard good practice. When they arrive at a house fire and face a fire behaving unpredictably, in a manner they have not witnessed before, a more networked response is required. Complicated problems are solved with good practice, complex problems are solved with emergent practices (Wilson, 2016). While businesses are learning to balance short-term profitability with long-term sustainability, educators are still coming to terms with the fact that implementation and best practice is something done when one knows what to do; learning is what is done when one does not know what to do.
  • Are educators crafting a narrative, a compelling case for change? Educators have much to learn from the principles of successful social organising. Leading is not done by sitting in front of a computer and leadership cannot be tweeted into existence. Movements begin with a narrative; humans are hard-wired to tell stories.


Richard Elmore now warns that people’s conceptions of what is possible are inhibited by their beliefs about what is practical in an antiquated institution that pays disproportionate attention to practices entrenched in an industrial, colonialist society. As he so eloquently states, “Learned helplessness in the face of this dysfunction is the disease of a dying institution” (Elmore, 2016).

Education is moving from a narrow pipeline metaphor to an incredibly diverse web of outside networks and knowledge is becoming literally inseparable from the network that enables it. Reminiscent of Ivan Illich’s (1971) learning webs, knowledge is now distributed across networks of connections, and learning consists of immersing oneself in networks by creating and sharing.

The change is less about new technology than it is about internal architecture and culture, and somehow these hard-to-control networks contain the seeds of a dynamic solution. The future of learning lies in networks, and networks require a new form of leadership, prioritising peer-to-peer relationships to build creative capacity.

What it means to be educated, and the role schools play in this, is rapidly changing. It is a wonderful time to be an educator.

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Cameron Paterson is responsible for the strategic leadership of learning and teaching, innovation and promoting excellence in teaching practice at Shore School in Sydney, Australia. He has taught high school History for more than two decades. Cameron is a faculty member at Harvard’s Project Zero Classroom and an online coach for Project Zero courses. In 2015, he was a top 50 nominee for the Global Teacher Prize and in 2016, he received the 21st Century International Global Innovation Award for Teaching.

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