Feature Article: Silverbacks, Connectors, and Hybrids: Understanding the Psychology of Network Development

Max Klau

Max Klau

By Max Klau, Ed.D., Senior Researcher for Leadership and Evaluation. City Year, Inc.
Contact Information: 10 Craigie St. Apt. 5, Somerville, MA 02143 Phone: (617) 413-6316

What is the connection between individual development and macro-level social system change?  This article presents an answer to this question by integrating the fields of developmental psychology and complex systems. The result is a model of psychological transformation that preserves a dual focus on macro-level and micro-level development. Drawing upon both visual and aural metaphors, the author introduces the different types of “nodes” in a psychological network: Silverbacks and Connectors, and explores how they must adapt to a more complex and interconnected environment. The article concludes with an exploration of the model’s connection to leadership theory.

The world is changing; everywhere we look, we find evidence of increasing complexity, interconnection, and interdependence. In order to adapt to this new environment—or, even better, to thrive in it—we need to understand the nature of this change. With this essay, I present one interdisciplinary perspective on the transformation we are witnessing. I also highlight the challenges individuals and organizations face in an effort to succeed in this changing world.

The ideas presented here represent an effort to integrate three scholarly interests. First, as a developmental psychologist I have been trained to focus on individuals and the way their cognitive and emotional capacities grow more sophisticated over time. Second, as a student of complex systems I have explored the way social systems undergo a related process of development from simplicity to complexity. This essay represents my efforts to build a bridge between these two fields of study, resulting in a model of how personal development and systemic development interconnect in important ways.

Finally, as a student of leadership I am aware that these ideas build upon a rich body of theory exploring how individuals influence and transform the systems in which they operate. In presenting this interdisciplinary perspective, I hope to provide insight and guidance to individuals hoping to more effectively exercise leadership in our increasingly complex world.

Understanding Development in Social Systems According to the field of complex systems, development towards complexity is simply a natural part of life. A relatively simple acorn eventually develops in into a far more complex tree; a human baby (already an incredibly complex system!) develops into a more complex adult, able to navigate a complex social, cultural, and linguistic environment. The small settlement of New Amsterdam eventually developed in the incredibly complex modern city of New York. This natural process can be seen everywhere.

Bar-Yam (2001) suggests that social systems may be understood as developing from relatively simple organizational structures to ever more complex and networked structures. A diagram of this transformation appears below:

Figure 1, Development of a Social System

Evidence of this transformation appears all around us: global businesses that are growing less hierarchical and more networked to compete; hierarchical forms of government such as communism in the Soviet Union or dictatorships in South America that have been replaced by democracies within the past two decades; mass communication, once controlled by a handful of powerful companies, has been transformed by the worldwide web so that individual bloggers can influence events around the world.
With this essay, I attempt to maintain a focus on this macro-level transformation while simultaneously “zooming in” on the individuals in this changing social system. Essentially, my question is this: From a psychological perspective, what does it mean to be an individual adapting to life in a more networked social system?

Understanding Individual Development

As a first step in understanding the answer to this question, imagine that you are a person in one of these structures. You are connected to the others in the system along two axes: If you look up and down, you will see that you are part of a hierarchical vertical structure, with people both above and below you. These are authority relationship, requiring individuals to negotiate relationships both downwards and upwards in the system. If you look outwards in any direction, however, you will see that you are also connected to others at your same level in a vast horizontal web. These are intimacy relationships, requiring individuals to maintain connection with a large number of individuals on the horizontal plane. As a “node” in this network, your task is to negotiate both types of relationships along these different axes.
It is important to recognize, however, that these two types of relationships involve radically different psychological demands. For example, scholars of the subject suggest that human authority relationships have their roots in the behaviors of our primate ancestors (Heifetz, 1994). Although there is a major difference in the levels of complexity involved, groups of apes, Fortune 500 companies, and modern nation states all expect authority nodes to fulfill five basic social functions: “1) choosing the direction of group movement, (2) protecting the group from predators, (3) orienting members to their status and place, (4) controlling conflict, and (5) maintaining norms.” (Heifetz, 1994, p. 53)

In other words, social systems confer upon authority figures ultimate responsibility for ensuring safety and continued survival in a hostile environment. In the end, it is up to the U.S. President to determine how to best protect American citizens from the threat of terror; it is up to the superintendent to determine how to best maintain high quality education in a district in the face of government budget cuts; it is up to the CEO to determine how best to keep the company alive in the face of relentless market innovation and competition. Because “the buck stops here,” effective authority figures must be comfortable with competition, conflict, and the experience of isolation that comes with holding a position at the top of a hierarchy.

In contrast, social systems have radically different expectations of intimacy relationships. Individuals look to other nodes at similar levels in the hierarchy for emotional support, understanding, validation, and acceptance. Much of art, poetry, and music has been inspired by both the transcendent highs and devastating lows that individuals experience in the context of these intimacy relationships. Entire branches of clinical psychology explore the nuances of how individuals, couples, and families can get better at providing each other with these deep human needs. In order to be effective at managing these intimacy relationships, nodes must be comfortable with cooperation, consensus, and the experience of vulnerability and interdependence that comes with intimacy.

There is little point in arguing which type of relationship is “better” or more important. When you “zoom out” to view the network as a whole, it is apparent that both authority and intimacy are absolutely integral to network life. However, because the psychological demands of these two axes are so radically different, it is difficult for an individual to manage them both at the same time. In an effort to avoid the discomfort and ambiguity that comes with attending simultaneously to both axes, individuals often find it easier and more comfortable to focus on one axis while largely ignoring the other. The result of this division of labor is two subsets, each focused primarily on managing one axis while largely ignoring the other.

The first group I will call “Silverbacks” – a reference to authority relations among our close genetic relatives, the gorillas. As leadership scholar Ronald Heifetz writes,

“Living in small groups averaging from seven to eighteen members, the gorilla society centers around one adult male, called the silverback because of the silver hair on his back and neck. When in rare circumstances three or four silverback males live in the same group, a clear hierarchy orders their association…” (Heifetz, 1994, pp. 50-51).

From a psychological perspective, Silverbacks are focused almost exclusively on vertical authority relations. They are highly attuned to dynamics suggesting who is “up” or “down” in any circumstance, and put a great deal of effort into negotiating those authority relationships. However, they are essentially tone-deaf to dynamics playing out along the horizontal intimacy axis. They simply don’t think about it, and as a result have difficulty negotiating those relationships.

When you “zoom in” to take a closer look at a Silverback in one of the structures presented above, you will see something like this:

Figure 2, Close-up of a Silverback node in a network

The second group I will call “Connectors”. These individuals are primarily focused on horizontal intimacy relationships. They are very sensitive to issues of who is “in” and who is “out” in any circumstance, and put a lot of energy into managing these dynamics. However, they are often tone-deaf to dynamics playing out along the vertical authority axis; they simply don’t think about it, and therefore find it difficult to negotiate those relationships. If you zoom in for a closer look at a connector in a system, you’ll see something like this:

Figure 3, Close-up of a Connector node in a network

In addition to the use of both visual and musical metaphors, it is helpful to use the language of “strengths” and “blindspots” to understand the relationship between these two ways of engaging with network life. The terms (again borrowed from Heifetz) suggest that each node finds it easy and comfortable to negotiate one type of relationship, while finding it awkward and uncomfortable to negotiate the other type of relationship. Consider the following chart:

Table 1, Independent Strengths and Blindspots
Table 1: Independent Strengths and Blindspots

When viewed from this perspective, it is apparent that all of these relational norms are embedded within network life. However, to the extent that Connectors are psychologically tuned to the horizontal axis of the network, they will find it easy and comfortable to negotiate relationships based upon the norms of intimacy while finding it awkward and uncomfortable to engage in relationships based upon the norms of authority. Similarly, Silverbacks will find it most comfortable to negotiate relationships based on the norms of authority, while finding it awkward and uncomfortable to engage in relationships based upon the norms of intimacy.

Viewing vertical and horizontal relationships in this way makes it easy to understand why responsibility for these different types of relationships gets split between two subgroups in the network. However, it is important to understand the deeper implications of this model. If you accept this premise, then it is apparent that ways of being that each type of node assumes to be “true” is actually just one piece of a much larger reality. That is to say, the conviction that life is fundamentally a process of managing status in a hierarchy is not a truth; this is simply the facet of network life that Silverback’s “hold” for the network as a whole. For Connectors, the conviction that life is fundamentally a process of maintaining connections in a web is not a truth; it is simply the facet of network life that connectors “hold” for the network as a whole. In addition, when you “zoom out” to view the network as a whole, it is apparent that Silverbacks tend to “use” Connectors to manage the intimacy aspect of network life they find so uncomfortable, while Connectors “use” Silverbacks to negotiate the authority aspect of network life that they find so awkward. From the birds-eye perspective of the network, these underlying patterns of interdependence among different subgroups in the system become apparent.

Most importantly, it is crucial to recognize that the development occurring at the network level represents a macro-level transformation in both vertical and horizontal relationships. The simple division of responsibility presented above may be possible in a simple hierarchical network; however, as the network transforms towards greater complexity, individual nodes must transform themselves as well.

Clearly, there is an unmistakable connection between these depictions of different types of nodes in a network and traditional gender roles. The psychological tuning of the Silverbacks corresponds with traditionally male ways of engaging with the world, while the psychological tuning of Connectors corresponds with traditionally female ways of engaging in the world. Indeed, the ideas presented here grow out of my encounter with both gender-related research (for example, Carol Gilligan’s work in moral development (1982), and Deborah Tannen’s work in communication theory (1991)) as well as leadership research (for example, Ronald Heifetz’s analysis of authority dynamics (1994)). However, I have thus far avoided speaking about men and women for the simple reason that these underlying psychological dynamics need not—and increasingly do not—correlate with gender.

In today’s world, women can increasingly be found in positions of authority (as Supreme Court justices or CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, for example), and men can increasingly be found in traditionally female intimacy roles (stay-at-home dads or nurses, for example). Women can—and do—play the role of Silverback, and men can—and do—play the role of Connector, making it too complicated to assume that men are all Silverbacks and women are all Connectors. In labeling these subgroups as I have, my hope is to allow us to focus on the underlying psychological structure without getting lost in an oversimplified, unproductive, and timelessly controversial debate about gender.

Individuals in a Changing Social System: The Psychology of Network Adaptation

Figure 1 depicts a social system developing towards a greater level of complexity. In this section, I explore the connection between the macro-level transformation presented there and the changing psychological demands on individuals within each system.

Consider, for example, the earliest level of network development, the simple hierarchy. This may represent a military platoon, a factory at the beginning of the industrial revolution, or a country run by dictatorship. The main principle governing any of these simple hierarchies is that one individual node is in charge, and all others nodes occupy subordinate positions in the hierarchy. Communication flows only in one direction (down), and there is minimal communication along horizontal axes at any level of the hierarchy.

“Zooming in” on an individual in this hierarchy, it is apparent that the ideal participant is a Silverback who manages vertical relationships with great simplicity. Because communication only flows in one direction, there is no sense of partnership between the silverbacks at any level. Silverbacks are expected to defer unconditionally to those above, and demand similar unconditional obedience from those below.   If they disagree with a superior, they have little recourse but aggression or exiting the network. And they give very little attention to horizontal intimacy relationships.

A diagram of the ‘ideal’ Silverback in this sort of network would look like this (Figure 4):

Figure 4, Close-up of a Silverback in a Simple Hierarchy

The question of what an “ideal” Connector in this network would look like is a bit more complicated. It is difficult to “zoom in” on a Connector in this type of network because it is unclear how they fit into the picture. They are somehow outside, behind, or concealed from the public face of the network. (There are ways that Connectors may influence a simple hierarchy from behind the scenes, but that brings a level of complexity to this analysis that goes beyond my purposes here.) Publicly, we can assume they would be expected to maintain and preserve the hierarchy from behind the scenes. Because they have sole responsibility for tending to the intimacy aspect of network life, they are expected to simply defer to the needs of others in their efforts to manage those responsibilities. Because they are not expected to play a role in the authority dynamics of the network, they are expected to have little interest and ability to negotiate vertical hierarchy relationships. A depiction of the “ideal” connector node in a simple hierarchy would look like this (Figure 5):

Table 5, Close-up of a Connector in a simple hierarchy

In a simple hierarchy, these individuals are ideal in that they are able to function effectively as part of the larger network. However, as the hierarchy develops towards greater complexity, everyone involved must adapt to a new relational environment. So what do these adaptations look like? (In answering this question, we will assume that the “hybrid” phase is simply a temporary stage on the way towards this final stage of development).


The first type of adaptation that must occur is that individuals must be able to negotiate relationships with greater sophistication. Strategies that work well in a simple hierarchy are not sophisticated enough to effectively manage relationships in a fully networked system.

In the case of Silverbacks, this involves developing from a norm of “Defer/Attack/Exit” up and “Control” down, to “partnering” up and “partnering” down. The concept of “partnering” designates a far more sophisticated relational strategy. It implies a norm of collaboration and mutual exchange, as opposed to a norm of unidirectional commands and unquestioned deference.  A visual representation of this adaptation looks like this:

Figure 6

Connectors must make a related adaptation. The simple strategy of sacrificing must transform, once again, into a relational strategy of partnering. Again, the term suggests a sophisticated a relationship based upon collaboration and dialogue that attempts to strike a balance between attending to the needs of both self and other. A visual representation of this adaptation looks like this:

Table 7, Connector Adapting to Fully Networked System
Managing Blindspots Through Partnering

In addition to learning to use these more sophisticated relational strategies, Silverbacks and Connectors must adapt to a more complex relational environment by partnering with each other. Silverbacks may be tuned to vertical authority relationships, Connectors may be tuned to horizontal intimacy relationships, but as partners they can work together to tend to all aspects of network life. A visual representation of this type of equal partnership looks like this:

Table 8, Close-up of Partnership Between Connector and Silverback as an Adaptation to Managing the Demands of a Fully Networked System
Transformation Towards Managing Both Axes: The Hybrid Node

It is important to recognize, however, that the traditional division between managing authority and intimacy begins to break down as the level of complexity increases. At a certain point, it becomes apparent that no single individual is really in charge (for example, no single node “controls” the internet), but individuals can have a remarkably large impact on the system as a whole. In this environment, each individual must be able to manage both vertical and horizontal relationships with ever-greater subtlety and sophistication; in addition, individuals must become adept at partnering with those below themselves to empower them to take responsibility for all facets of network life.

In other words, the ideal individual in a fully networked system is a sort of Silverback/Connector hybrid, capable of effectively negotiating increasingly complex relationships in all directions. A depiction of this transformation looks like this (Fig. 9):

Table 9, Silverback and Connector Transforming into Hybrid

These diagrams present a visual metaphor for the transformations that must occur at the individual level as a simple hierarchy develops towards becoming a fully networked system. The images suggest several important implications. First, unless they adapt, individuals that function effectively in a simple hierarchy will find it difficult to work effectively in a fully networked system. Combine simple relational skills (for example, deference, control, or sacrificing) with managing only one axis of the network, and you have nodes that are tone-deaf to half of the relational dynamics in the network and unsophisticated in negotiating the dynamics that they do attend to.

In addition, it is becomes apparent that the transformation towards becoming a Hybrid will affect Silverbacks and Connectors differently. In addition to learning how to “partner up” and “partner down,” Silverbacks must move into their blindspots on the horizontal axis. Adapting to the more complex network requires learning how to effectively manage the norms of intimacy: connection, consensus, and cooperation. They are likely to find this effort awkward and uncomfortable, especially since they must continue to manage relationships on the authority axis. Connectors face a related challenge. In addition to learning how to “partner” as opposed to “sacrifice” on the horizontal axis, they must move into their blindspots as they take responsibility for managing the norms of authority relationships: autonomy, conflict, and competition. All this while continuing to tend to intimacy dynamics.

From Theory to Reality

Up to this point, I have relied on visual representations and abstract theory to explore the connection between individual adaptation and network development. But what exactly do these processes look like in the real world? In this section, I present two case-studies designed to illustrate how this theory plays out with real people.

The insights I present here grew out of my work as a course assistant for a class on leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The class included students from many of Harvard’s schools (business, education, medicine, public health, and divinity, as well as from KSG), and was highly experiential in nature. A key component of the pedagogy was a weekly small group meeting. The formal task of these groups was to have one member present a personal leadership challenge; the group would then consult to that individual to explore how they might best address the challenge. However, the purpose of the group was to give everyone a chance to practice diagnosing group dynamics and think systemically.

Every week, all participants wrote a guided reflection paper exploring events at the meeting. As a course assistant, I would read all the papers and grade participants according to the degree to which they accurately assessed dynamics in the group. The experience provided a remarkable opportunity to explore the internal workings of groups, and to note the connection between an individual’s internal experience and the way that experience influenced events in the group at large.  I present the following two stories, taken from that experience, with the intention of showing how the theories presented here play out with real people.

A Case Study in Transformation: John the Silverback

“John” not his real name) was a high-level manager in a government agency. He was in his early 50’s, tall and outspoken, and had a head of thick silver hair. At the very first small group meeting, he sat down at the head of table and immediately took control of the meeting. He laid out an agenda for the 90-minute session, and took the liberty of interpreting almost every comment made by other group members during the meeting.

When I read the group papers reflecting on that session, I found that John felt quite proud of his effort to manage the meeting. “I have no idea what the purpose of the session was,” he wrote, “but I’m sure we had a very effective meeting.” He noted that the group made it through the agenda, stayed on time, and provided consulting to the case presenter.

The other group members had less positive feelings about the session. “John took control of everything!” one member wrote. “Every time one of us made a comment, he would respond with his own thoughts. We could hardly get a word in edgewise!”

As the course continued, John continued to assert control over the sessions, but the rest of the group was growing increasingly frustrated and angry with what they viewed as his efforts to dominate the discussions. “John has to run everything! He thinks he knows better than all of us!” another member wrote.

In addition, the reflection papers revealed some simmering unexamined issues within the group. For example, about half the group was American and the other half was foreign (from Europe, Australia, and Asia). The foreigners had begun sitting together at the far end of the table, and they each expressed frustration with their inability to be heard at the sessions. While some American members had noticed this dynamic at work, John remained oblivious. In fact, he was growing both angrier and ever more confused by the growing resistance to his actions. “I don’t understand what’s wrong with these people!” he exclaimed. “I’m trying to run good meetings—we cover the agenda, we stay on schedule—why don’t they just follow along?”

As the weeks went by, John continued to receive low grades on his reflection papers. While other participants were growing more sensitive to the group dynamics at work and writing ever more accurate analyses of events, John remained stuck in his single-minded focus on controlling the meetings—and fighting back the growing number of challenges to his leadership. About half-way through the semester, he could take it no more. He called me at home on a Sunday morning, furious about his most recent low grade. “What do you want me to do?!? I’m just trying to run effective meetings! Why do I keep getting these low grades?”

I told him that I was reading all the papers every week, and knew that there were a lot of forces at work of which he remained quite unaware. Because the purpose of the course was to grow more sensitive to both recognizing and intervening in these dynamics, John was going to have to show evidence that he could diagnose these dynamics at work. I suggested that at the next meeting, he try an experiment: Sit on the side of the table (instead of at the head), and spend more time observing events instead of trying to control events. Reluctantly, he agreed.

John’s next paper was a revelation. “I noticed for the first time today that all the foreign students are sitting together at one end of the table,” he wrote. “Near the end of the session, one of them explained that they have felt isolated all semester and have had a hard time being heard. We ended up having a meaningful discussion about why that is, and decided as a group to spend more time exploring the issue next week.” John also expressed surprise at the quality of the session, despite what he experienced as his abdication of authority. “Today, somebody else stepped in when we went overtime on an agenda item. And we managed to get through everything on the agenda, even though I wasn’t in charge!”

The other reflection papers also noted a dramatic change. “John did everything different today!” wrote one member. “We had a whole different type of discussion—for the first time we heard from some of the foreign students, who had been almost silent up till now. And other people stepped up to keep us on track when it became clear that John wasn’t going to play that role!”

The second half of the semester for this group was dramatically different from the first half. Collectively, they began openly discussing dynamics they had explored only in their reflection papers. Over time, everyone began feeling responsible for managing the technical elements of the meeting (setting the agenda, keeping the group on time), as well advancing the deeper purpose of the group (diagnosing group dynamics and thinking systemically). Communication flowed in all directions, as opposed to just back and forth between John and the group. By the end of the semester, this group had reached a remarkable depth of interconnection, and had developed a sophisticated capacity for collective self-awareness and self-regulation.

From Silverback to Hybrid: John’s Transformation and its Impact on the Group

Over the course of the semester, John underwent a transformation. To use the theory presented here, he began the course as a simple Silverback. He was completely focused on authority dynamics, and made every effort to control those he viewed as being below him. And he was utterly tone-deaf to other dynamics of the group, remaining largely oblivious to dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, voice and silence. By the end of the semester, however, he was a different group member: he was able to partner along the vertical axis (even, at times, assuming a subordinate position to other group members), and had grown notably more sensitive to the many other dynamics at work in the group.

Significantly, John’s transformation had a profound impact on the group as a whole. By changing the way he managed authority in the group, he allowed a transformation towards a fully networked system. Communication began flowing in all directions, and the members of the group began working together to collectively maintain the productivity of the group. John became a partner, working with the group to explore issues, as opposed to a dictator, struggling to force everyone to see the world through his (limited) lens.

Another Case Study in Transformation: Jane the Connector

Jane was the assistant director of a small local non-profit. She was in her early 40s, and brought a quiet intelligence to the leadership course. Jane did not say much during her first small-group session of the semester (she was in a different group from John), but she received an “A” on her very first reflection paper. It was immediately apparent that she had a uniquely sophisticated capacity to sense dynamics at work in the group, as well as the ability to diagnose and articulate those dynamics. Jane noted where people sat, who spoke out, and who remained silent. She realized that some comments generated heated debates, while others led the group to immediately switch topics. These are skills the course was designed to teach, and Jane articulated these insights the very first week!

As the weeks, went by, however, Jane continued to participate only minimally during the small group sessions. She would engage in some long discussions with her group-mates outside of the formal sessions, but she had little to say during meetings. Before long, other members of the group were starting to write about her in their reflection papers. Several members included comments along the lines of, “Every time Jane speaks, she says something really smart and insightful. I wish she would speak up more…” In my feedback on her reflection papers, I began encouraging her to engage more with the group. “Another insightful and accurate analysis,” I would say. “Why not try to bring this dynamic up with the group?”

By the middle of the semester, members were actively asking Jane what she thought about an issue currently under discussion. Jane would make a brief comment, followed by a disclaimer (“…but that’s just my theory about things, anyway…”). The combination of powerful insights and hesitant, limited participation frustrated everyone, including Jane.

Eventually, Jane came to an important realization about her behavior. In one of her reflection papers, she wrote, “I realize that I don’t speak up because I am afraid that people will listen to me. What if people start looking to me for answers? Who am I to tell people what to do?” She considered herself to be successful and effective in her career and life, and was amazed that this underlying fear was such a major influence on her experience.

In the final weeks of the class, Jane took the risk of speaking up more. She was surprised to find that her peers were not only willing to listen to her views, but actively requested her input and advice. Thanks to her increased level of participation, the group began exploring issues it had avoided for months, and reached a deeper level of insight and self-awareness. And Jane gained a valuable opportunity to practice—and grow more comfortable with—stepping into a position of influence and authority.

From Connector to Hybrid: Jane’s Transformation and its Impact on the Group

Using the theory presented here, you could say that Jane began the semester as a simple Connector. She was incredibly sensitive to horizontal dynamics at work in her group: who was in and who was out, who spoke up and who remained silent. From day one she showed a remarkable level of insight into the types of dynamics that other individuals (John, for example) took months to recognize. However, she chose to keep her thoughts almost exclusively to herself, out of a fear that she had no right to speak up. “Who am I to tell people what to do?” she wondered.

By the end of the semester however, Jane had stopped silencing herself and began sharing her insights with her peers. The change required that she partner with her peers in a more sophisticated way, and also resulted in her stepping into a position of informal authority within the group. She had long ago earned the trust of the group such that they were willing to give her the chance to play a larger role; eventually, she built up the courage to seize the opportunity.

Thanks to her transformation, the group was able to more effectively accomplish its purpose. She both deepened the level of interconnection and raised the level of discourse. There is little doubt that the group made progress it would not have made without her more active and commanding participation.

Seeing the Whole: Individuals, Wholeness, and Quest for Dynamic Balance

As I noted earlier, there is little point in engaging in an argument about which relational axis is “better” or “more important” for a group. Both vertical authority relationships and horizontal intimacy relationships are absolutely integral to network life. My purpose here is to move beyond a debate about “competition vs. collaboration” or “consensus vs. conflict”. Rather, my intention is to focus on the underlying wholeness and interconnection of these axes. If you accept the premise that complexity in social systems involves a transformation from simple hierarchies to interconnected networks, then the challenge at both the macro and the micro level is to move away from relationships of simple deference and control and towards omni-directional partnership.

The ideal situation is that of dynamic balance, in which network as a whole collectively works to incorporate both competition and collaboration, both consensus and conflict over the long term. I used the term dynamic to highlight the fact that at a particular moment one of these elements may overshadow the others, but over time an organization values and supports the full spectrum of relational capacities.

There is a growing literature exploring the importance of learning how to manage these seeming paradoxes. The significance of thinking in terms of “both/and” as opposed to “either/or” is increasingly well understood (see, for example, Built to Last by Collins and Porras (1994)). For my purposes, I won’t go any further in exploring this phenomenon than to say that the theory I present here reinforces that way of understanding organizational life. Fully networked systems cannot emerge in the absence of the ability to hold the strengths of both Silverbacks and Connectors in a dynamic balance. This means that the individuals in the system must learn how to work together to collectively contribute to this organizational capacity.

It is important to note, however, that in order for networks to develop towards achieving this dynamic balance, individuals within the network must develop towards greater understanding and sophistication in deploying their own individual strengths and managing their personal blindspots. Silverbacks must realize that negotiating authority is not a truth; it is simply one piece of a larger whole, and their strengths in managing that axis are accompanied by inevitable blindspots. Similarly, Connectors must recognize that maintaining a horizontal web of relationships is not a truth; it is also one piece of a larger whole, and their strengths in attending to that one axis are accompanied by inevitable blindspots. Each must develop both greater sophistication in managing their strengths and greater capacity for partnership to manage blindspots.

From this perspective, it is easy to see the deeply interdependent relationship between Silverbacks and Connectors. Imagine the dynamic that would emerge if John and Jane started off in the same small group. John—highly focused on authority dynamics at work in the group and blind to many important other forces–aggressively asserts his control over the meeting in a desire to provide direction and protection. Jane—greatly attuned to the many other dynamics at work—stays silent.

However, as the complexity of the network increases, both individuals must adapt to a more complex environment. John must move from controlling those below him to partnering with his group-mates. The change is scary for John, because he experiences the shift as an abdication of his perceived responsibility to provide direction and protection. It also opens the door for an exploration of dynamics to which John is tone-deaf and uncomfortable exploring. Jane, on the other hand, finds the transition scary because she may be asked to actively tend to authority dynamics, an axis that she is uncomfortable managing.
In an ideal situation, a group works together to grow ever more sophisticated in balancing authority with intimacy, competition with collaboration, consensus with conflict, task with process. With insight and practice, groups learn how to engage with each other in manner that develops and preserves this dynamic balance. Only through this effort to achieve wholeness at both the personal and systemic level can organizations effectively operate as fully networked systems.

Final Thoughts

In an article called “Everything I Thought I Knew About Leadership Was Wrong,” Perot Systems CEO Mort Myerson describes the transformation in his leadership style that has occurred over the past several years. Looking back on his years running the technology company EDS, he states:
I listened to some of our senior leaders talk about how they handled people on teams who didn’t perform. I heard talk of “drive-by shootings” to “take out” nonperformers; then they’d “drag the body around” to make an example out of them. They may have meant it only as a way of talking, but I saw it as more: abusive language that would influence behavior…[W]e made sure we won virtually every negotiation that decided what would be delivered; and our tone was often paternalistic, almost condescending…During my years at EDS I communicated the way most CEOs do: I showed up on stage every six months and delivered a pep rally speech. I wrote memos that went to the top dozen people in the company and had meetings with them every two weeks. (Meyerson, 1996)

His new style of leadership is quite different. He describes his work at Perot Systems in the following way:
The essence of leadership today is to make sure that the organization knows itself. There are certain durable principles that underlie an organization…[b]ut they have nothing to do with business strategy, tactics, or market share. They have to do with human relationships and the obligation of the organization to its individual members and its customers…Sometimes you do better if you leave people with alternatives. You do better if your customer or your competitor doesn’t feel taken advantage of. You do better, in fact, if your customer feels like your partner…I want to be accessible for two-way communication that’s honest, open, and direct…Today I travel with my laptop and get e-mail from all over the company. I get thousands of messages per month, some of them trivial, many important. Everyone in Perot Systems knows they can e-mail me and I’ll read it–me, not my secretary. (Meyerson, 1996)

The transformation Myerson describes provides another real-world example of both the theory presented in this essay and it’s relevance as a theory of leadership. The old organization can be described as more or less a simple hierarchy; control was exercised by the individual(s) at the top, and communication flowed primarily downward. The Silverbacks in the network were focused primarily on autonomy, competition, and conflict, and seemed tone-deaf to issues of cooperation, connection, and consensus.

In the new organization, much of this has changed. The simple hierarchy has developed into a complex and interconnected network. The challenges of partnership, cooperation, and connection are given at least as much attention as the challenges of competition and conflict. And as a CEO working within this environment, Myerson has had to transform himself from a simple Silverback to a Hybrid, capable of partnering in all directions in a far more complicated relational environment. Only by undergoing this transformation has both Myerson and his organization been able to lead in a world that is increasingly more networked, interconnected, and complex.

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Click here to read Max Klau’s biography.