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NY TIMES: Prof. Jean Lipman-Blumen, Connective Leadership

Published on Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Professor Jean Lipman-Blumen
Connective Leadership: Our Last, Great Leadership Hope

By Dr. Jean Lipman-Blumen, Thornton F. Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Organizational Behavior, Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management, Claremont Graduate University

New York Times, In College, In Leadership

March 2013.

The current leadership landscape reveals few leaders who “get it.” Rather than recognizing the urgent need to bring diverse groups together to solve serious mutual problems, our elected leaders, again and again, cling to their own narrow agendas. Where are the noble visions that leaders are supposed to articulate so the rest of us may join in and enhance the world, as well as the meaning of our own lives?

Few leaders have caught on to the fact that we have moved into a new historical moment, the Connective Era. The challenges this new era presents are markedly different from those of the recent past. In the emerging Connective Era, everyone and everything are connected.

Yet, here’s the rub: These connections link people and groups with vastly different identities, histories, and agendas. The Internet provides the perfect metaphor for our times: We can connect to anyone at the click of a mouse, both those we know and those we don’t. Six degrees of separation went out with the historical tides. We live in an age of micro-separation. Social media, with its patterns of “liking” and “following,” only multiplies the effects of our connections to those we know personally, as well as to total strangers.

While that may sound exciting and cozy, these connections link very diverse parties, each with its own identity and agenda. So, while interdependence demands collaboration and acknowledged mutuality, however narrow, diversity moves in the opposite direction.

Diversity calls for independence, distinctiveness, and frequently solo action. For many groups still struggling to assert their identity, to be recognized for their distinctive goals – be they women, Blacks, immigrants, or Tea Partiers — this move toward integration is not necessarily easy. Other groups with long-standing identities, like Democrats and Republicans, often energize themselves by celebrating their differences. Without connective leaders, Israelis and Palestinians – despite their ancient interdependent history — find themselves caught up in the same game, set on an even deadlier course.

This is where connective leaders enter the picture. Connective leaders have the know-how to integrate diverse groups for productive interdependence. With their “connective eye,” they see those pockets of mutuality that can serve as starting points for collaboration. Connective leaders are not unrealistic dreamers. Besides, they understand something very important: Compromise is not the answer – and for a very good reason. Compromise requires both parties to abandon a cause or principle they have long held close to their hearts. Consequently, as the early management expert Mary Parker Follett understood, the compromisers then come to the negotiating table with a profound sense of loss and grief at what they have been forced to forego to attain some working agreement. Worse yet, they feel a deep disappointment in themselves, born of the shame of self-doubt and hypocrisy that comes from abandoning a long-cherished position simply to “make a deal.”

Instead, connective leaders help conflicting groups to integrate, to start at some point of mutuality, even if it focusses on a much less important issue than the large, pulsing ones that divide them. Gradually, connective leaders help conflicting parties enlarge that area of mutual concern. They build trust around other issues that are important to both parties, yet relatively distant from their points of disagreement.

Connective leaders give time and repeated interaction the elbow room to nourish mutual respect, admiration, and sometimes even genuine friendships. At that point, the differences on the big issues seem easier to resolve, if only in bite-size pieces. Not that I am recommending simply bite-size accommodation, but big visions require leaders with “big” character, “big” dedication to causes larger than themselves, and “big” selflessness. Such leaders seem in short supply these days.

For example, pro-choice and pro-life groups disagree about abortion. Yet, for both groups, for different reasons, pornography is abhorrent. A connective leader could bring a small group of pro-choice and pro-life advocates together around their mutual disdain for pornography. In the process, their reciprocal stereotypes would gradually evaporate in the fire of real life interaction focused on a common goal – closing down the local pornography shop. Then, with the resulting trust and, perhaps, new relationships, they could close in on more central issues.

Integrating warring parties is not a “walk in the park.” Nor does it occur in one afternoon over tea or in one evening over scotch. It requires a dedication and steadfastness that connective leaders bring to their tasks.

Integration also demands a higher vision, one to which both parties can lay claim. For example, must Democrats and Republicans maintain their death grip on their separate principles designed to enhance their own positions (mostly, their own re-elections)? Or can they develop a more connective leadership perspective, one that enables both groups to achieve something worthwhile for the larger society? Can the Israelis and Palestinians use a more connective leadership approach to resolve issues that threaten to poison their own future generations and the world around them?

Connective leadership is “not for sissies.” It has two imperatives: authenticity and accountability. Authenticity requires, not merely “walking the talk,” but consistent dedication to the group’s goals and welfare, rather than to the leader’s. Accountability, authenticity’s twin imperative, calls for transparency, explanations, and truth telling.

I admit the demands of connective leadership are non-trivial, but they are certainly worth the effort. More than that, in our increasingly fragmented, but interdependent and diverse world, it may be our last and only real hope for a future.


Lipman-Blumen, J. (2013, March). Connective Leadership: Our Last, Great Leadership Hope. New York Times. Retrieved from


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