Leadership in ecosystems
The term leadership is loaded with preconceived ideas about corralling the troops, getting teams fired up, being the charismatic founder of a startup team and so on… Leaders seem surrounded by a magic aura of inspiration and can-do attitude. In ecosystem building, our role is – in fact – not that of a leader in the traditional sense. We are feeders, supporters, conveners, cheerleaders and champions.
Ecosystem Builders as Feeders
As Feld already pointed out in his Boulder Thesis: Entrepreneurs must lead the startup community: “In virtually every major city, there are long lists of different types of people and organizations who are involved in the startup community including government, universities, investors, mentors, and service providers. Historically, many of these organizations try to play a leadership role in the development of their local startup community. Although their involvement is important, they can’t be the leaders. The entrepreneurs have to be leaders.” (Feld, 2009, p. 42).
He goes on to elaborate:
Leaders of startup communities have to be entrepreneurs. Everyone else is a feeder into the startup community. Both leaders and feeders are important, but their roles are different.Feld, 2009, p. 48
“Leaders set an example. They are tireless in their evangelism for their startup community, put their community and geography ahead of their self-interest, and just do stuff. By taking action, they provide authority for others to become leaders. Feeders are everyone else in the startup community. This includes government, universities, investors, mentors, service providers, and large companies.” (Ibid, p. 48 ff.)
Ecosystem Builders as Keystones
Similarly, Hwang and Horowitt argue that the role of the ecosystem builder is that of a keystone:
Entrepreneurial innovation cannot thrive without keystone (…). When the atoms are floating independently from one another, it takes effort to pull them together and give them a concerted mission.Hwang & Horowitt, 2012, p. 71
Hwang and Horowitt, developed the Keystone Model to capture the basic elements of this position (Ibid. p. 72). In summary, a keystone is
- Integrative (bringing people together across boundaries)
- Influential (convincing people to engage in a way that wouldn’t on their own by appealing to their own long-term interests and motivations, never through force)
- Impactful (executing over talking)
Ecosystem Builders as Infrastructure Builders
In the 3rd version of the ESHIP Playbook, the Kauffman Foundation highlights the role of ecosystem builders as “creating an invisible infrastructure in their communities to support entrepreneurs. It’s not like traditional infrastructure. It’s not about physical spaces, fancy buildings, pools of capital, or big institutions.” Instead, ecosystem builders focus on building consistent, collaborative human engagement. It’s about process, not product. Context, not content. The journey, not the destination.”
Ecosystem builders connect, empower, and collaborate with others to build the whole system. They are system entrepreneurs, working to lift up the whole community to achieve its potential. They play multiple roles, including system architect, champion, advocate, convener, cajoler, traffic cop, air traffic controller, and storyteller.Kauffman Foundation, 2019
All of these three schools of thought highlight different attributes of effective leaders in entrepreneurial ecosystems. They are not mutually exclusive, rather we view them as a portfolio of skills and characteristics that serve an entrepreneurial community in different situations.
Peter Block, on the other hand, dismisses the notion of traditional leadership altogether. Let’s take a look at his experience in building trusting communities and the role of the “leader”.
Ecosystem Builders play an important role, yet we are not supposed to “lead” the community or startups efforts – that puts us in an awkward position to try to move our communities along. Peter Block argues that we have long romanticized leadership, and illustrates why that’s problematic: “We speak endlessly (…) about the rise and fall of leaders. The agenda this sustains is that leaders are cause and all others are effect (…) That leaders are the leverage point for building a better community. That they are in the foreground, while citizens, followers, players, and anyone else not in a leadership position are background. It proposes that the only real accountability in the world is at the top. The attention on the leader (…) gives us someone to blame and thereby declares our innocence.” (Block, 2012, p. 40 f.)
Instead, as community and ecosystem builders, we are better served by recognizing our very own role in bringing about change. Peter Block describes this shift in perspective as accountability:
Accountability is the willingness to care for the whole (…) It means we have conversations about what we can do to create the future.Block, 2012, p. 50
Ecosystem builders as conveners and listeners
In order to view ourselves as community stewards, Block encourages us to shift our mindset:
- “Hold yourself accountable for the well-being of the larger collective.
- Set aside your wish for great leadership. You may be it.
- Trust each other and cooperate to make this place better.
- Attend to the gifts and capacities of all others, and act to bring the gifts of those on the margin to the center.” (Ibid, p. 69)
As such, he notes:
In communal transformation, leadership is about intention, convening, valuing relatedness, and presenting choices. It is not a personality characteristic or a matter of style, and therefore it requires nothing more than what all of us already have.Block, 2012, p. 89
Block argues that our outdated perception about leaders is what holds us hostage in a cycle of analyzing issues and problem-solving. He argues “The world does not need leaders to better define issues or orchestrate better planning or project management. What it needs is for the issues and the plans to have more of an impact, and that comes from citizen accountability and commitment. Engagement is the means through which there can be a shift in caring for the well-being of the whole, and the task of leaders as convener is to produce that engagement.
In this way of thinking, we hold leadership to three tasks:
- Create a context that nurtures an alternative future, one based on gifts, generosity, accountability and commitment.
- Initiate and convene conversations that shift people’s experience, which occurs through the way people are brought together and the nature of the questions used to engage them.
- Listen and pay attention. Be able to say “I don’t know.” (Block, 2012, p. 91 f.)
Block concludes “Listening may be the single most powerful action a leader can take.” (Block, 2012, p. 92).
While Peter Block provides a lot of deep insights into building a structure of belonging for healthy communities, his thinking is geared toward small local groups at the grassroots level. His advice is applicable in the local context in which most of us ecosystem builders operate.
When it comes to addressing social and environmental challenges, however, we run into regional and national boundaries since many of the issues we as ecosystem builders for social change try to tackle expand beyond a small, local geography. In part 3, we explore how we might lead the charge toward social impact on a global level.
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