“The individual-centered command-and-control models of leadership are outmoded and must be replaced,” says Mila Baker, Ph.D., author of Peer-to-Peer Leadership: Why the Network is the Leader. She believes that the top-down mentality is a throwback to the pyramids (both Egyptian and org-chart!). Her book is rich with examples of organizations like Google, BMW Group DesignworksUSA, and the creative design firm Herman Miller that have bucked that trend by fostering peer-to-peer, or P2P, leadership. A licensed psychologist and associate professor at New York University, where we are colleagues, she shares her views on leadership in the conversation that follows—with some refreshing insights for introverts. Baker herself is an introvert.
NA: What is peer-to-peer leadership?
MB: It is a new, 21st century way to lead that is built around dynamic connections rather than 20th century command-and-control leadership models.
NA: How is this new model informed by peer-to-peer architecture in the IT world?
MB: Peer-to-peer IT architecture is a computer structure built using dynamic and changing structures that adapt as needed. Unlike older, client-server IT systems that require information to be centralized and then distributed from the center, the dynamic structures of peer-to-peer IT architecture are composed of a network of connected “nodes” that form a network community.
The relationship between client-server IT systems and peer-to-peer IT systems parallels that of the relationship between the traditional hierarchical leadership structure and the new peer-to-peer network community leadership and organization structure. Technology is changing the world, and the recent technological advances can help guide our thinking and the principles needed for effective 21st century leadership.
NA: You talk about equipotent nodes of power in your book. What are they?
MB: Equipotent nodes are individuals within the peer-to-peer network—each with equal authority, power, and responsibility for connecting with others and acting as a supplier and a consumer.
NA: So much has been written about leadership, yet you wrote a new book on the topic. Why is your work timely and important?
MB:P2P leadership is timely and important because the world has changed so dramatically as a result of technological advances. Information is now available to virtually everyone in real time. The world is hyper-connected and transparent, and organization leaders are asking themselves how we can unlock value in our organizations, and how we can become more nimble and resilient in a hyper-connected, digital world. My book addresses these questions. An organization becomes more nimble and resilient through dynamic connections rather than command-and-control hierarchy.
NA: You have drawn parallels between an approach to leadership by creating form and structure from natural order and Frank Lloyd Wright’s approach to architecture. Intriguing. Would you explain this?
MB: Frank Lloyd Wright is best known for building edifices that merge with and embrace the environment in interrelated, yet independent and self-contained entities. He believed and talked about the “sovereignty of the individual,” which he aimed to express in everything he built. He also further advanced the notion that form follows function by asserting that they are actually one.
Each of these notions are reflected in his famous works, and they reflect the principles upon which peer-to-peer leadership is built: “nodes,” or individuals with independent authority that have responsibility and accountability to give and receive; “node communities,” or networks of individual nodes; and the relational dynamic that occurs between nodes that allows the free flow of communication and work.
NA: I recently visited you in a cool workspace that seemed rich with nodes, node communities, and that free flow of communication and work. How does that type of environment contribute to P2P leadership?
MB: That cool workspace is called Grind, a co-working space and community for individuals that prefer to work and build their businesses in community, rather than in a company office. It is a modern, open environment where everyone works in either collaborative spaces or private conference rooms. Grind calls that approach “work liquid.”
It is clearly a new way to work for individuals who have a similar worldview about the independent, yet collaborative, nature of work. If individuals so desire, they can tap into the skills of those around them and, at times, can be seen bartering for services. Grind is my first field experiment and research project for understanding how peer-to-peer network communities and peer-to-peer leadership are changing the face of leadership and organization design.
NA: Your book is rich with specific examples of companies you’ve studied that are leading the charge in P2P leadership. What makes them particularly successful?
MB:Each of the companies featured in the book, in inset boxes titled “On the P2P Path,” understand the new world order. They understand that the world is changing through technology. They are proactively changing their organizations and using technology as an enabler rather than a barrier to future success. Examples of these companies include Unilever, Airbnb, Giant Hydra, and BMW Group DesignworksUSA.
NA: Yes, and you share an interesting resource, the Hot Spots Movement blog, which you describe as “devoted to highlighting collaborative work practices and providing guidance on how ‘hot spots’ of innovation, excitement and productivity can be cultivated within your organization.”
MB: Yes. The blog is based on a book by Lynda Gratton of the London Business School, who introduces the reader to her research and gives examples of the benefits of dialoging, listening, and cooperating with others.
NA: Where do introverts fit into the peer-to-peer leadership picture? How do you as an introvert relate as a P2P leader?
MB: This is an exciting area to explore and I’m glad you asked. Preliminary findings from the field experiment and anecdotal observations I’ve made at Grind suggest that the new co-working peer-to-peer network environment is formed by the people that domicile in the environment. Introverts talk with excitement about their ability to move between public spaces and private places whenever they like. They say this allows them to find quiet time without sending unintended messages that they are aloof and prefer to be alone and behind closed doors. By having the option of open spaces, introverts can choose to move freely based on their individual preferences or needs in the moment.
Personally, as an introvert, there are three areas that resonate with me as a peer-to-peer leader—keenly observing what’s around me, finding quiet time as needed, and using social media and technology to introduce and maintain my voice.
NA: How do you get noticed as a P2P leader who is an introvert?
MB: In a peer-to-peer network community, everyone has the responsibility and accountability for providing and giving resources and for receiving assets from others. One way that I get noticed as a peer leader is to share my gift of keen observation with others. Another way is doing what I call “pass on door #1” and “open door #2.”
NA: What do you mean by that?
MB:I ignore the negative, self-doubt-laden inner talk that has plagued me and so many other introverts. And instead, I embrace door #2, which is the acceptance of the generosity of others when they reach out to give and share—especially with kudos and accolades. I also relish the opportunity to engage with social media on my terms and often in the comfort of my quiet library or living room—conversing on social media without actually speaking. Priceless.
NA: That sounds calming to me as an introvert. What advice would you give to other introverts to be strong P2P leaders?
MB: Try some of the things that I have outlined. I was amazed at how much more confident and comfortable I felt. Starting the research on the book concepts and trying out the principles myself has been very refreshing and energizing. I invite you to do the same.
NA: Great. I'm on it. Meanwhile, you share a quote that is carved on a bench in front of your children’s school: “I believe in the sun even when it rains.” What do you mean by that, and how does it relate to P2P leadership?
MB: Our current leadership models are outdated and not suited for the 21st century. Technology is enabling a future that we can only imagine and we know is on the horizon.
NA: Thank you for sharing a glimpse at that horizon.
Copyright © 2014 Nancy Ancowitz