Coaching leaders in the networked economy: reflecting on learnings from the A-N coaching course (LOL 1)

When you’re at sea and need to find your way, it is key to first locate yourself i.e. know your current position.  Before we had GPS, mariners did this by getting a “fix” – taking a compass heading on three widely spaced objects and determining where these headings intersect to get a “fix” on their current position. Those objects then become landmarks or anchor points around which to navigate. This is an organising principle in complexity: start from where you are and find an emerging path forward vs focusing on the ideal outcome or destination. But in order to do that you need a way to locate yourself first.

During an Advanced Analytic-Network (A-N) Coaching course I attended last week, Dr Simon Western mentioned that a key reason for creating this coaching framework is the seemingly pervasive sense of “dislocation”, of feeling out of place, that he has encountered amongst the executives he coaches.

This description immediately resonated with the group, and it makes sense when one looks at the dynamics of the so-called Networked economy that today’s leaders must function in.   To make sense of this sense of dislocation, I find Ronfeldt’s TIMN model helpful as a frame. ( I was introduced to it by Harold Jarche who uses it extensively in his Perpetual Beta work)

The premise is that new forms of communication enable the evolution of new societal forms. When a new form emerges, it doesn’t replace existing forms, but changes their dynamics e.g. the emergence of Institutions changed the Tribal dynamic but didn’t replace it; similarly the emergence of Markets again shifted the nature of both Tribes and Insitutions. So Ronfeldt theorises that we are currently living in a tri-form society (T+I+M) transitioning to a quadroform society (T+I+M+N).

The pervasiveness, volatility and real-time nature of today’s networks seem to be creating a transition more universally disruptive and dislocating than the previous ones. It certainly seems to be happening at an accellerated pace, driven by the exponential advancement of technogy. In this networked world, individual and collective identity boundaries are blurring, networked tribes are emerging that look very different to the tribes we are used to. Organisational and even regional boundaries are shifting.

In a very real sense, leaders are finding themselves in uncharted territory (or as one executive said recently: our new normal is continually having to navigate “white water”) where existing tools and “ways of leading” are no longer sufficient. Yet at the same time they are still trapped in a normative leadership scripts that demands of them to project a persona of “confident knowing”.

In this context, those of us who work as coaches or thinking partners to leaders need to focus our efforts helping our clients (and ourselves!) find anchor points; and a sense of coherence and location.

The five frames of Western’s A-N coaching framework offers a useful scaffold for an emergent coaching journey. It’s a meta-framework that is not linear or formulaic, and therefore seems a very useful approach to use from a complexity perspective.   It is based on solid research and theory drawn from multiple disciplines including group relations; psycho-analytics and network theory.   Uniquely, it acknowledges that in today’s networked society, and individual cannot be separated from their context and networks. This is important if one works from a complexity informed perspective, as complexity arises from the interactions between things, not the things themselves.

Complexity is about rich interconnectivity i.e. When things interact, they change one another in unexpected and irreversible ways.” Uhl –Bien & Arena, 2016


So thinking about navigating the complexities of leading in complexity as being akin to the mariners of old, needing to navigate uncharted waters, the landmarks we use to obtain a “fix” when we use this framework are:

  • Our inner self – the Depth Analysis lens: Connecting to what gives our lives meaning and purpose. We look within and explore the unconscious patterns that shape who we are. The coach becomes a witness and a mirror.
  • Our relational self – the Relational Analysis lens: Recognising that we co-create each other through relationships. What are the relational patterns that influence how we relate to others? We are never free from social context. How do we take up and relate to authority?   The coach serves to help the client become more aware of scripts or patterns that influence how they relate, we sow the seeds of change vs seeking to change the client.
  • Our networked self – the pervasiveness of the Zeitgeist of connectivity and inter-dependence is disrupting and transforming our identities, subjectivity and social relationships. In a way, we are all Cyborgs now, navigating complex techno-social-eco networks. Vertical relations give way to lateral, leading to the emergence of new forms of leadership that is fluid and dispersed. In this context, we cannot ever coach an individual separate from his or her context. Influencing networks is a key leadership task (vs controlling form the top) and it starts with leaders who are able to situated themselves within their networks.
  • The unique leader within – the Leadership Analysis lens: we all have normative understandings of what leadership is and/or should be. In this frame we work to discover the unique “leader within”, informed by the other 3 frames. We work to discover and draw out unique leadership potential and active followership. A key objective here is to expand the coachee’s ideas about leadership, acknowledging normative models, but challenging them as well.

Once leaders have located themselves and connected to these anchor points, they are able to show up differently in the world. Using the final lens (Strategic Analysis) they can create intentional and emergent strategies to start evolving forwards to (in the words of Western’s AN-C purpose statement) act in good faith and co-create a good society.

(This post barely skimmed the surface of the richness of Dr Western’s content and the learning experience – I will continue to learn out loud as I reflect and integrate the learning in coming weeks)

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