Leaders and their network

Why knowing your network is important for leaders

Leaders and their network

As mentioned in the last post on developing leaders, I came across an article combining leadership development and social network analysis. Those who know me as Dr. Katerina Bohle Carbonell and have taken my class Evaluating Evidence for Organizational Performance, know that one of my main research interests is social network analysis, the investigation of relationships, and making sense of this networked world.


  1. Regularly take the time to reflect on who you interact with and why. Take notes. Don’t trust your memory.
  2. Observe people and pay attention to whom they interact. This will increase your network awareness and give you a better understanding of communication and collaboration norms and who is influencing decision-makers.

What is a social network?

In short, a social network is a collection of dots and lines. At least that’s how it looks in an image. But if you look beyond the design elements of a social network graph (also called a sociogram), you notice that this type of graph is like a map. It tells you:

  • who is interacting with whom
  • who is influential
  • who is connecting silos
  • who is holding all the power
  • who is a gatekeeper
  • who is mobilizing people
  • who has enough of work and mentally checked-out

A sociogram can show you if a team is aligned and has a shared vision, or if there are subgroups. You can use it to put a number on how inclusive your organization or team is.

The figure below shows a sociogram of a team. Each square is a person, the lines with the arrows show who is asking whom for information. You can clearly see that this team has two subteams and five people who never reach out to other team members.

There are two ways to understand how a network influences people and their actions (at least from a management perspective):

  1. Network flow model: The idea here is that stuff, like information or social norms, are passed on from one person to another. Good examples are the diffusion of innovations (or viruses) in a community (contagion) or the access to specific information or resources thanks to your connections (capitalization).
  2. Network bond model: The other way you can look at a network is that it provides a magnetic force attracting people to each other. The result is a de-individualization in favor of the “greater good”.  An example is when people (or companies), who in some way are connected to each other, start copying each other’s behavior or processes (convergence). Another example is related to power and how the position in a network can be exploited for personal or group gains (cooperation).

Two types of leadership networks

Like any individual, leaders can have different networks. These are not mutually exclusive, but just a different slice (or ‘lens’) to look at who you interact with. Firstly, leaders have a peer leadership network. A peer leadership network consists of leaders who have shared interests, commitments, work, and/or experiences. For example, people you get to know during a training program, or other decision-makers are your current employer or former employer.

Another network leaders have is the organizational leadership network. This network is not only composed of leaders but consists of anyone a leader interacts with in order to increase his or her performance. For example, a colleague who is really good at solving tricky problems, or someone who can bridge silos or a mentor from a different company.

Why should leaders know their network?

My goal with this newsletter is to translate scientific studies into understandable managerial evidence. Unfortunately, most articles discuss leaders and their network make propositions. Of course, these propositions are based on sound theoretical frameworks and evidence from other studies, but the propositions aren’t tested. For example, if leaders know who the bridge builders are or how deeply siloed the company is, they can make better decisions. Many articles who advocate for leaders to know their network share a common idea: Leaders need to develop network awareness, thus knowing how information is shared among employees, in order to make better decisions. In short, leaders should know the informal organizational chart, the sociogram, so that they understand who is slowing down processes, who has access to other teams, etc.

Three ways leaders benefit from knowing their network:

  • Leaders who seem to be inaccessible might just be overburdened with work. This can be measured using the social network metric of in-degree centrality.
  • The leadership team in a company might not be diverse, because employees from under-represented groups do not have access to leadership resources, such as mentors. This can be measured using the social network metric of External-Internal Index.
  • Leaders need information from different groups. Leaders who are not well-positioned have low bridging power, as measured through the social network metric of betweenness centrality.

If you like to know more about organizational networks and how they can help your organization, have a look at Rob Cross’s work. It’s not specific about leaders, but it does provide advice for leaders.

Articles that informed this post

  • Borgatti & Halgin (2011). On Network Theory. Organization Science, 22 (5), 1168 - 1181
  • Cullen-Lester, Maupin & Carter (2017). Incorporating social networks into leadership development: A conceptual model and evaluation of research and practice. The Leadership Quarterly, 28, 130-152.
  • Hoppe & Reinelt (2010). Social Network Analysis and the Evaluation of Leadership Networks. The Leadership Quarterly, 21, 600 - 619.

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