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Connected Leadership – Our natural human yearning to connect

03 Oct 2018 | Doug Parkin Advance HE’s programmes are dynamic and responsive to our participants’ needs. Doug Parkin and Rebecca Nestor, Programme Directors, discuss how running one of our senior leadership programmes and interacting with participants on it has helped to shape the Connected Leadership model that frames the course to ensure it meets the evolving needs of both participants and the sector.

In your work, in your role, in your organisation, do you feel a part of things or do you feel apart from them? Is there an attachment, an investment, a sense of ownership and belonging, or is the cold hand of duty and abstract contractual necessity the main driver for your engagement? What surrounds the goals, targets and contribution rankings that make up the managerial landscape? Where are the connections?

In February 2016 we published our first blog on Connected Leadership arising from our work on the Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership programme (PSSL) we identified a series of themes that were emerging strongly as the underpinning principles of the course, and they were all about connecting. Interesting in itself is the fact that our own experience as facilitators running PSSL, working with some incredibly thoughtful and reflective participants, gave rise to the model, almost as a piece of action research, rather than it being a structural framework that we imposed. 

The model has worked extremely well both conceptually and as a way of developing and refining the focus areas and learning processes on the PSSL programme. Key to the model are four sets of connections:

  • Connecting with yourself relates to your values, history, emotional intelligence and personal priorities.
  • Connecting with other people is all about relationships, communication, empathy, influence and negotiation.
  • Connecting with the organisation concerns context, ethos, strategy, purpose, narrative and direction.
  • Connecting with the wider world involves listening, contributing and impacting – shaping futures, contributing to communities, society, the economy and the environment.

Leadership flows from the inside out. Who we are and how authentically we can connect with who we are is the basis for everything.  Based upon emotional intelligence, this “ability to perceive and express emotion, assimilate emotion in thought, understand and reason with emotion and regulate emotion in the self and others” (Peter Salovey and John Mayer, 1990[i]) is the powerful basis of the first connection. 

Beginning with self-awareness, personal values and emotional intelligence, the PSSL programme goes on to explore the other connections in the model. This brings in three further key leadership intelligences: a social and political intelligence for connecting with others, a narrative or cultural intelligence for connecting with the organisation, and an inclusive intelligence for connecting with the wider world.  In a complex, sometimes ambiguous institutional environment, it is the quality of these connections that helps leaders to engage others and release the energy for sustainable change.

The Connected Leadership Model

It has been rewarding to see how strongly the Connected Leadership model has resonated with people more widely. It cuts through the rather alienating, process-driven language of strategic planning and development and takes us toward something far more real, our natural human yearning to connect. It is messy and imperfect, it involves intuition as much as cognition, but it creates a basis for leaders to be strategic in a way that really engages with the complexity of ‘connecting people with purpose… and purpose with people’.

The very human side of this leadership idea can be illustrated if we substitute the word “connecting” with “belonging”. Ask yourself this question: What are you part of…? Whether a prestigious international multi-disciplinary research project, or a yoga class on a Thursday evening, it all matters. What we belong to is a huge part of who we are. What we belong to and the settings we inhabit make up a large part of our identities. And what do we do when we have free time? We look to reconnect with the things that matter. When we go on holiday we often use the time to reconnect with family, nature, the environment, art, history or perhaps some form of physical activity. This refreshes and renews us and helps us to rediscover our hidden energies.

The need to belong, sometimes referred to a little clumsily as “belongingness”, has been much explored as an aspect of social psychology linked to human behaviour and motivation. That “human beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong” (Baumeister and Leary, 1995[ii]) is a strong contention in many of these studies. And this in turn links with aspects of what has more recently been termed inclusive leadership, which gives us a simple but powerful ABC to follow: acceptance, belonging and community. All leaders should know this.

Social identity theory puts forward the notion that, “leaders and followers need to be bound together by both being part of a common ‘we’ ” and that, “leaders gain their status and their influence over others by being able to represent what this ‘we-ness’ consists of” (Haslam, Reicher and Platow, 2011[iii]). This moves things forward into thinking about ‘belonging together’ and the identity which we collectively share and embrace.  Within academic communities there is evidence to suggest that colleagues are, “more likely to perceive leadership behaviour among formal leaders who represented their own identity concerns” (Bolden et al., 2012[iv]). However, this ‘we-ness’ can be an elusive thing to capture and define, which is where narrative intelligence comes into play: being sensitive to both the formal and the informal stories within the organisation that tell us something about both identity and purpose and help ‘to make an us out of it’. 

Who is “us” in this context? When differences surface in a group or an organisation, the leader’s role may involve respecting these, recognising that there are different meanings of ‘us’ - but also searching for what binds us together across the differences, and finding ways to embody the commonality and to articulate it through narrative intelligence. Exploring narrative or cultural intelligence is central to the leadership challenge of connecting with the organisation.

Coming back to Connected Leadership, there is a tool or field guide that all leaders can use.  It is a simplification of the model, but a handy one nonetheless.  For Connected Leadership ‘just think LINK’ and apply these questions to your leadership situation or change challenge –

For Connected Leadership ‘just think LINK’

  • L – look into yourself
    • What are my strengths and weaknesses?
    • What feelings and responses do I notice?
    • How am I affecting and being affected by the emotional experience around here?
  • I – identify others’ needs
    • How do others feel?
    • Where is the time and space to listen and engage?
    • How do we need to communicate?
  • N – navigate the stories
    • What is the formal narrative?
    • Which often-repeated stories do people cherish?
    • How can we inspire both head and heart?
  • K – know your environment
    • What is our greater purpose?
    • Which communities do we support and serve?
    • How will we impact the future?

These questions are indicative rather than restrictive. Other questions may suggest themselves, but the progression of headings in LINK from self-insight, to our relationship with others, to our understanding of the organisation and its place in the wider world is a powerful sequence. To ‘know thyself’ is the root of leadership and this is a complex and dynamic task, especially when our social identity is constantly being negotiated and challenged. But connecting with others on an issue or agenda is more possible if you are genuinely engaged in the same process of trying to connect with it yourself. This work on connecting is part of what creates ‘we-ness’, the social identity of the group, connecting with purpose and building real responsibility around the things that matter.

Within the scaffolding provided by the Connected Leadership model, our Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership programme creates a secure forgiving space for new and aspiring senior leaders (academic and professional) to explore their motivation, purpose and values, and build personal resilience. Alongside this the programme provides some very realistic, practically-focused learning activities linked to situational challenges such as handling sensitive issues, negotiating with partners, and using active inquiry to explore current issues in higher education. 

Doug Parkin is co-programme director of our Leading Departments programme. 

If you are interested in the subject of connected leadership, it is a key part of our Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership programme  - find out more.


[i] Salovey, P. and Mayer, J. D. (1990). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9, 185-211.

[ii] Baumeister, R. F. and Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.

[iii] Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D. and Platow, M. J. (2011). The New Psychology of Leadership: identity, influence and power. New York: Psychology Press.

[iv] Bolden, R., Gosling, J., O’Brien, A., Peters, K., Ryan, M., Haslam, A. (2012). Academic Leadership: changing conceptions, identities and experiences in UK higher education. London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education

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