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Dave Snowden

Leadership: distributed communities

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Slaughter stoneThere is a long preamble here all of which I think is relevant, but then I like a discursive approach to important subjects and the establishment of patterns before making a point.  Those less inclined to this style can jump straight to the “What does this mean” section below but even then you won’t escape the history!

Two hikes this week in South Wales in what is generally known as the Brecon Beacons although that is a misnomer. That name applies to the central area with its centre at Pen-y-Fan and comprising a series of northern facing glacial Cwms.  In the West we have a mixture of the same with open moorland.  A landscape whose multiple summits are strewn with Neolithic burial cairns overlooking industrial remnants.  To the east, a dissected plateau in which the characteristics of each walk are steep ascents and descents with long open ridge walking between.  Both the western and eastern groups are known as the Black Mountains so it can be a bit confusing.  On Saturday a shorter walk to the picture-postcard site of Carreg Cennen on the western side with the all bar one of the Davies family and then on Sunday, with Chris,  the southern Llanthony circuit for which Llanthony Priory (in the banner picture) was the halfway point.  This is one of my favorite locations in Wales and from that one spot, there are five unique walks that can be constructed.

The return leg of that walk also brings you to what is charmingly known as Carreg Dial ( which translates as ‘Revenge Stone’) which is pictured left. It marks the spot where one of the Anglo-Norman invaders of Wales was caught and killed in an ambush.  That event coupled with theme significant Battle of Crug restored Welsh rule to Ceredigion.  Something that lasted until the death of Rhys ap Gruffudd. He was also the original builder of Carreg Cennen which shaped hands between the Welsh and Anglo-Normans frequently over the years, not to mention the odd fratricidal battle between Welsh Princes. That aside, the mountains were ever friends to the Welsh over multiple invasions and were probably the reason we held out against the Normans for three Centuries while the Anglo-Saxons collapsed in less than a decade.  The land is fertile with history and the adjacency of these mountains to the industrial valleys of South Wales significant in the modern era let alone the past.

This is part of an extended historical metaphor for today’s post which is the second in my leadership series.  The first looked at the role of leader as a catalyst but here I want to broaden the thinking to society preparing the ground for some thinking on distributed democracy and citizen engagement.  Llanthony Secunda Priory (to use its full name) was founded in the twelfth century and aside from its extensive landholdings also provided priests for many of the local churches.  The combination of both those activities resulted in the vast network of paths then thread the sides of the valley as well as transiting to adjacent ones.  The various Abbeys and Priories of Wales are all worth visits as they centered communities and provided the functions of hospital and hospitality to travelers as well as their religious purposes.  In Wales and the North of England, they were critical to the local community and their dissolution under Henry VIII a disaster.  The most significant of the Tudor rebellions was the Pilgrimage of Grace, the study of which should remove any romanticism about the Tudors; I often refer to them as the Welsh revenge on the English.  Much as I love Hilary Mantell’s writing her sanitisation of the mercenary nature of Thomas Cromwell I continue to find problematic.  The Monasteries were less corrupt than the monarchy and critically in contrast with the King, were not centralised in their leadership.  Of course, this built on a more fundamental shift at the Synod of Whitby in which the Roman Church with its centralised focus on Kings and Bishops won out over the Ionan Church with its decentralised focus on Abbots and local clan chiefs.  One of the main reasons for the final Fourteen Century conquest of Wales was that the Welsh Princedoms were not unified and the rule of primogenitor did not apply.  So the death of a  Prince resulted in a war between legitimate and illegitimate offspring for power.  Interestingly during the two wars of Conquest the various Abbots of Wales, in general, supported the indigenous Welsh Princes despite the Anglo-Norman foundation from which their institutions originated.  Distributed systems have more efficacy but are too easily overcome by a tightly controlled centre.

So what does this mean for Leadership?

If we look at the early Celtic Church, pre the Synod of Whitby, then we have a distributed local system which includes a tension between the spiritual and temporal heads of that community.  Not only that the Abbot is elected by his peers and the clan chief is not automatically the son of the predecessor.  From a point of wider engagement, this is a more resilient structure than a centralised authority as if one part fails, others may succeed.  Connectivity between identities (I am using that word deliberately) allows for partial copying and contrasts through loose coupling and different types of society and practice can emerge in a local context.   However, a centralised and purposeful authority can destroy that easily, at cost, and replace resilience with something which is robust, but which can fracture easily.

The idea of leader as the conductor of an orchestra is a good metaphor here.  Micro-control either directly or through agents is problematic.  But admonishing individuals or publishing lists of individual leadership qualities while commendable is ineffective.  Crew structures give authority to roles, rather than individuals and also create creative command tensions between those roles.  However scaling is an issue and that is where design comes in.  I am currently listening to Mary Beard’s excellent history of Rome SPQR as an audio-book and her analysis if the transition from a loose form of aristocratic democracy to tyranny though the manipulation of popular resentment (the famous bread and circuses) is chilling for anyone living in the UK or US at the moment with the degeneration of denigration of the role of law and checks and balances on the populist leader a growing issue.  So if we want to scale a structure we need to understand the nature of how it came about, what constraints are in play and which can be scale-free.  This is one of the issues Valdis Krebs and I will discuss in a coming Exploratory within Cognitive Edge and although I can see the nature of the solution, formal methods to ensure that need development.

However, a multi-networked nodal structure is far more likely to achieve intimacy and co-ordination within an organisation and a community.   One person one vote works when you know the candidates but doesn’t scale without the loss of that intimacy and the depersonalisation of the political slate.  Constantly hiring in CEO’s from external consultancies has a similar impact on organisations.  While it is from time to time necessary, if it becomes the norm then we get the depersonalisation that comes from spreadsheet management and high degrees of formalism.  The way in which we scale a networked model of authority is not something that can be left to chance as that will tend to perversion, the issue is what are the design principles of network governance?  That is a subject to which I will return but for the moment ponder on the historical examples as there is much to learn from them.

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