Leadership Part 4: Leadership and the Others

From the Camp Fire to the Kitchen Table: a six part blog series on leadership and change practice. 

In part 3 of this leadership series, we talked about Leadership and the Self. Part 4 focuses on something far more important: Leadership and the Others. Most of us spend far too much time thinking about ourselves. So enough about the self! Self-reflection and improvement are only good up to a point. I would put that point at the moment when you are standing in front of the self-help section in a bookshop. If that happens to you, my advice is to run quickly to the counter and ask for a book by Hugh Mackay. 

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Belonging is central to who we are

Legendary sociologist Hugh Mackay has been researching Australians for over fifty years. In his book The Good Life: what makes a life worth living? He argues that the question we all should be asking ourselves is not, “Who am I?” but, “Who are we?” Desmond Tutu put it similarly when he said,

The truth is that we are BECAUSE we belong.
— Desmond Tutu

We belong in community and community shapes who we are and who we become and how we influence on the world around us. Our leadership cannot be separated from the others.

When scientists analysed the social networks of every type of great ape, they found that our species, homo sapiens have the largest communities. Throughout history we have had around 150 people in our closest social network. These people are our village (and are not to be confused with Facebook friends, who we may see infrequently in real life). 

In the last century these villages have been breaking down as we tend to move neighbourhoods and towns and countries more often. Most of us build houses for single families, more of us live alone. Very few of us sit on the front porch waiting to chat with people as they walk by. Many of us have moved our living areas to the back half of our homes, separating us from our neighbours and village gathering places. Fewer of us are actively political citizens, and more of us spend our time buying things. Social media has led to polarised views. We’re at risk of totally losing the ability to converse, argue and work together constructively.  Across the board, we are now more socially isolated, anxious, depressed and lonely than at any other time in history.

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Socially connected people are healthier

Professor Lisa Berkman of the Harvard School of Public Health found that, “People who are socially connected are less likely to die from just about any cause you can think of.” She also found that people with deep social links in their community add ten years to their lifespan and that its better for your health to be socially connected than it is to give up smoking, alcohol and fat. 


Stable social connections are crucial from the day we are born. A study of brain scans of three year old children found that brain size in emotionally nurtured children was twice that of neglected children. It wasn’t just size. The part that doesn’t develop when neglected is the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain where neocortex region of the brain, where all social cognitive processing occurs. 

We need to be loved and nurtured through close social connections. That connection deeply shapes who we are and the type of influence we have in our communities.

Our social networks shape who we are

Dr Nicholas Christakis, the network scientist, has demonstrated just how connected we are and how our connections shape us. His analysis of the Framlingham Heart Study formed the basis of his book Connected: the surprising power of our social networks and how they shaped our lives. He found that if you have a friend who is happy, you are 45% more likely to be happy. He found that if you friend’s friend is happy, you are 25% more likely to be happy and incredibly, that if your friend’s friend’s friend is happy (think about this, you probably don’t know them!) then you are 10% more likely to be happy. Happiness is influenced to three degrees through our social networks. He found similar links with influence and distance from your house, meaning that a happy person living within 1km of you makes you more happy. He used happiness as an example, but says this hold true for other socially influenced factors like happiness, heart disease, smoking or depression.

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I sent Nicholas an email to ask how many people we influence in our lives. He replied, “Everything we do effects not just ourselves, not just our friends and families, but tens, sometimes hundreds and possibly thousands of other people.”

What this means is that who we are and what we wear and how healthy we are and what we buy and what we talk about and what we do  and how we feel are all contagious. We are constantly being influenced by our social network. And it goes the other way. If we smile at people and say “hi” we can spread friendliness through three degrees of our social networks. If we frown and get angry we can spread that just as far. Think about the person you have been in the last five years and think about the impact that has had on three degrees of your social network. This is an immense responsibility, it’s almost too hard to bear, but it’s also very exciting. We are more powerful than we imagine. 

We are more powerful than we imagine

My mentor and teacher Francis Ryan, of Vox Bandicoot fame, used to tell me that as an educator, we have to behave as if the camera is never off. What he meant is that every day, at every moment, we are all teachers and we are all learners. Education isn’t about what we say from a podium or in a lecture. It is who we are at all times. We cannot opt out of this as it is simply reality: what we do every day has a powerful impact on our world.

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We don’t realise how powerful we are because we can’t see this network operating around us. Attempting to influence someone can feel a bit like tossing a stone into a still lake. The ripples head out in every direction and sometimes we don’t know where they land and to what effect. A good example of this is the influence of the Victorian Women’s Trust in the 1990s on the participatory democracy process that led to the election of Cathy McGowan. The role of Indi Voices and the community led campaign that resulted in the election of the independent Cathy McGowan to Federal Parliament is well known. What is less known is that some of the locals who built the Indi Voices campaign had been trained years before in kitchen table conversations through the Purple Sage project in Melbourne, a project that had been established by the Victorian Women’s Trust in response to frustration with the Kennett government. While many other things will have also led to the Indi Voices campaign, Purple Sage supported 6,000 women to hold deep conversations about what mattered to them. It was obviously a powerful process and the outcomes are still reverberating in society today. This story is a good example of what French sociologist Alain Touraine wrote about in the 1970s when he wrote about the days of revolution being over. He said that society transcends itself through small social movements.


In his 1998 book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam wrote about social isolation and the breakdown in community in the second half of the 20th century. He identified two types of social connections, Bonding and Bridging. Bonding connections are those that exist within a social grouping, like those within a cricket club. Bridging connections are those that span across social groupings, like the Rotarian who plays cricket, or the Sustainability Group member who is also a CFA member. Bridging connections are very powerful agents of social change as they lead to the spread of new ideas. Bridging connections help to create what’s known as a Small World Network in which influence travels far.

Nothing travels faster than the speed of light, with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.
— Douglas Adams

We have all seen social networks operate in this way!

Nature Collaborates and Cooperates

Social networks have the same structure as ecological systems, with bonding and bridging connections. The connections seen in nature are fascinating and instructive. Biologist Suzanne Simard has been studying the movement of nutrients through forests in Canada and through the underground network of fungi, called the mycorrhizal layer. She found trees at the top of forest collecting sunlight, turning it into sugars and sharing it through the soil with trees in the dark valleys. She found trees in the valleys collecting water and sending it up the hills to the parched trees on top. She found carbon exchange happening across great distances and between species of trees and shrubs. She found trees with wood boring insects releasing a chemical mist that travels through the air in the forest alerting other trees who put up their chemical defences. Simard calls this network the “Wood Wide Web”. 

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Biomimicry is the practice of learning from 3.8 billion years of design success in nature. For over thirty years, Biomimicry founder and author Janine Benyus has been studying nature and how it might teach us to build more a more effective and fitting civilisation here on earth. Benyus is reviving an old biological debate, thought to be long won by the “survival of the fittest” and “nature competes” philosophy. What we are learning from biomimicry and other ecological studies is that nature collaborates and cooperates for the benefit of the whole system. So my survival is tied up with yours and everyone else’s. It’s a huge comprehension shift for our society as it contradicts the popular worldview that underpins the structure of much of modern politics and business.

Change coming? Join the Dance!

All of this means that processes of change are much more tied up in our relationships with other people than we realised. Change moves through society like ripples on a pond. As philosopher Alan Watts said:

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it and join the dance.
— Alan Watts

The best visual of the perfect dance of a social network is a starling murmuration. It is a huge cloud of small birds making amazing ever shifting shapes in the sky. There can be hundreds of thousands of individual birds. It turns out that every bird is influencing and being influenced by every other bird as they fly together. Everyone is in it together, and you can’t spot a single (white male) leader. A starling murmuration is like a huge social network with no one blocking change. Everyone bird is going with it and joining the dance.  

People, you may have noticed, are a little different to birds. 

In 2002, I was at Vox Bandicoot when we began working with a Sustainability Street community in East Keilor, Melbourne. The first meeting was held in a bus shelter, as the community were too unsure of each other to offer to host the meeting in their homes. Six months later they had set up a community garden together on a vacant patch of land and all their meetings were held in each other’s homes. They’re still going. No one at that first meeting could have imagined the journey they were about to take. But they all joined the dance and changed each other. 

A person who shall remain nameless once approached me after my leadership and change workshop and said, “This was great! I’ve been wondering for ages why everyone I have been talking to about sustainability hates me!” I imagined them walking into a coworkers office, switching the light and computer off and raging at them about their impact on the climate before storming out. If we really want to enable change, information is not enough. We must understand what makes people tick. And we must understand how change occurs. We don’t have to worry about changing the world: Jason from the first Sustainability Street community in Coburg once told his neighbours that he had stopped thinking about changing the world. What he was interested in was changing the world around him. That’s where to begin. 

Part 5 of “From the Campfire to the Kitchen Table” is all about Leadership for Influence and change practice. Using a mixture of environmental education theory, neuroscience, community development, sociology and the teaching of Rafiki the baboon from the Lion King, we’ll learn what the Blue Volkswagen theory is, find out the behaviour change impact of a tips brochure and discover whether converting sceptics is worth the effort. 

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