Elizabeth Warren and The Grass Ceiling of Networked Leadership

After Elizabeth Warren’s poor showing on Super Tuesday and suspending her campaign today, there is a lot of hang wringing about why she faired so poorly— analysis of her political strategy, her personality and authenticity, and her gender — all of which have validity. Some of those truths feel personal to me as a female leader with a similarly analytical personality (if you want those opinions you may get an ear full). If people can’t support her, then that is probably true for me as well. That is a tough pill to swallow.

I want to offer a slightly different perspective, based on my work with community programs in large organizations. Elizabeth Warren uses a collaborative and networked leadership approach, which is focused on bringing people along with her, developing a network of leaders, and eschewing the traditional power brokers (big funders and typical political strategists). This networked approach to leading counters the hero-driven approach of most political campaigns and leadership models. This is neither a model we see very often nor one we understand. It draws from an abundance mindset instead of a scarcity, zero-sum mindset. Its power is derived from bringing people together, not from money or structural and competitive positions. It’s what is sometimes called ‘soft’ power instead of ‘hard’ power.

It’s the power of community.

Warren’s networked style of leadership is about acting as the voice of the community rather than as the sole decision-maker. It’s ultimately a facilitative role rather than a domineering role (this is where Warren breaks with Sanders, from my perspective). Warren’s campaign developed many of its policies by bringing in the affected and interested parties and working with them on a viable approach, which Warren then promotes.

This approach is similar to mine when I work with organizations to build communities of their customers or employees. What I found early on, is that shared purpose is critical — a mission that provides a compelling reason to come together — but it is not enough to keep people engaged. To keep a community engaged, you need to create value and impact together. You have to empower and challenge people to be leaders themselves. You saw this in Warren’s grassroots campaign; bringing in thousands of volunteers, creating a huge national network and connecting them so that they could support and challenge each other. Warren has both an online community for supporters to share information and for volunteers to get work done. What is striking to me is that the culture of these communities is energetic, supportive, constructive, and very positive. It’s an empowering place to be and it compels people to get more involved.

What Warren has done in creating this community is impressive on its own. It is the nirvana state that many of our clients are striving to reach. It’s much harder than what I see of the movement Bernie Sanders has built — largely because I don’t see him including a diverse network in building policy. He has his point of view and you are either with him or against him. It’s not collaborative and it’s more of the zero-sum thinking that has created so much division in our country. It feels more like a cult from the outside — belligerent, defensive, and competitive and in that sense the same type of hero-leadership model we are used to. It is clear and perhaps that is why more people understand it and can engage with it. It doesn’t challenge them to lead themselves, which asks a lot more of someone.

But what happens to these new communities and emergent, inclusive movements? Sooner or later, they run into the existing structures of their environment — whether that is election funding for Elizabeth Warren or corporate governance for the communities with which we work. They hit what John Stepper, working within a large bank years ago, termed ‘The Grass Ceiling’. In other words, they start to challenge the system and the system is designed to ensure the status quo. The systems ends up biting back — throwing cold water and deflating the efforts of those to change it from the bottom up.

Warren understands this system and its issues more than anyone — and ‘big structural change’ is one of her key messages. But how do you change a system from outside when the system controls who gets a voice? It is one thing both Warren and Sanders are after and it’s one of the reasons both are raising campaign funds from individuals because neither wants to be beholden to the systemic power brokers.

This is not just a dilemma for Warren and Sanders but also for the large organizations with whom we work. Everyone realizes that change is required and a small, engaged group is starting to make change happen — and then executives put the breaks on because it’s too different and they think they can just stabilize first and THEN try a new model… once they get things settled down. Those energized by the new approach get deflated and scatter. And the settling down never comes.

So what’s the answer?

In the U.S. culture, particularly in business culture, we like quick solutions and quick solutions are almost always mandates. But people don’t change by mandate. People change when they SEE and FEEL a better approach — when they are compelled and energized to change. Getting enough people to see, understand, and use a different approach takes time. It requires one-to-one relationships and trust.

The most successful community approaches we see slowly fold more of the organization in, integrating one process at a time into their community and creating ecosystems of communities that are changing the engagement and leadership approach of the organization. On a daily basis, it is hard to see progress because it looks so small. But steps compound and it’s probably not a coincidence that there are a lot of marathon runners that are also community professionals. Slowly but surely, they are seeing success and ROI — and also addressing some of their organization's most complex objectives.

These community approaches build slowly at first but as they reach tipping points, value and impact accumulate more quickly.

So how do I diagnose Warren’s campaign challenges?

There were some predictable strategic challenges — a lot of candidates, a double standard regarding women’s leadership, name recognition, and a particularly anxiety-provoking race where the single biggest priority for most voters was a competitive one.

But I think Warren’s approach needed more time — and didn’t necessarily fit neatly into the demands of the election cycle and its curious rules. Looking at our research, she is still in the early stages of building her community and it hasn’t quite gotten to the scale needed for national elections.

For me, whatever she decides to do next, I still think she won. She championed some critical conversations in this country around wealth, race, health care, child care, climate, and education. She showed her supporters that in this crazy, toxic environment you can create a network of positive, supportive, and enthusiastic people that feels like the culture we want our country to have. She showed us that a couple of emperors had no clothes and whose structural authority and wealth came with little moral authority.

She showed us that there is a different way to lead by calling on each of us to be leaders.

For that, I will be forever grateful.

Connector of ideas & people. Fascinated by social dynamics & false truths. Co-Founder of The Community Roundtable. Mother to The Puzzle Master.

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