Leadership in the Age of Social Networks


This month I’m making a departure from the standard book genre that I review. I finally found an excuse to return to my first love, history, and combine it with a new fascination that I’ve developed for network theory. As a graduate student majoring in American and European history way back in the 1990’s, I and my classmates often joked about the absence of ‘famous’ historians. But, Niall Ferguson, the author of The Square and the Tower, is about as famous as historians get. He has published some of the most critically acclaimed historical works in . . . er . . . uh . . . recent history.  The Square and the Tower is just one of three of Ferguson’s books that I’ve personally read. I recommend The Ascent of Money (Penguin, 2008) and Civilization (Penguin, 2011) as transformative learning experiences.

I’m not recommending The Square and the Tower as a history, per se. Instead, I’m recommending it as a study of hierarchical and networked organizations. We, historians, categorize a book like The Square and the Tower as a ‘survey’ history. Survey histories are topical, like a history of the U.S. or a history of motorcycles. They take a vast subject and ‘survey’ it with a broad brush. Survey’s treat a large subject generally and help you see that subject in a new, refreshing, and enlightening way. Ferguson is one of the best I’ve ever read at researching and writing survey histories.

The Square and the Tower recounts the clash of hierarchies and networks over the past millennium. For historians, Ferguson calls out a professional elephant in the room, what he calls the ‘tyranny of the archives.’ Historians tend to be limited by the often fragmented and incomplete records left by the hierarchical powers that generated them. So, for those of us living in the present, it appears that human history is a history of those hierarchies. But, he proposes, the important history of the world may probably be that of the influence of informal networks. In graduate school, I researched the social network of Theodore Roosevelt and was shocked at how extensive and powerful his network of close friends (strong ties) and acquaintances (weak ties) were from his early career through his presidency and beyond. That network was instrumental in his negotiating peace between Russia and Japan for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize. In the science of networks, by the way, strong and weak ties between nodes or actors – whether social or cyber – are both important to the functioning of a strong network.

So, what does the title mean – The Square and the Tower? It’s simple. The square is the square of a town or village where people interact and form networks. It’s an open structure for interaction like a free market or Facebook. The tower is the high tower of the tyrant or the central hub of a command and control hierarchy. Ferguson uses Stalin’s Soviet Union as the representative case. One of the most startling passages in the book is where Ferguson identifies the period of the most powerful hierarchies over the past thousand years. “The zenith of hierarchically organized power,” he writes, “was, in fact, the mid-twentieth century – the era of totalitarian regimes and total war.” I hope that piques your interest to read this book.

What does that imply for the modern organization and the leader within that organization? To answer that, I can make a few more book recommendations to help develop an understanding of the value of both hierarchies and networks. As Ferguson points out, hierarchies are networks. But, they are a specific form of network that are often essential. You just have to understand that hierarchies aren’t the only way to organize.

The first book that I recommend is John Kotter’s Accelerate (Harvard Business Review, 2014) which juxtaposes the standard corporate hierarchical organization with the networked and agile start-up organization. Both have strengths and weaknesses that are worth understanding. The tower isn’t all bad just as the network isn’t all good. The second book that I recommend is from one of the pioneers and most prominent names in network theory, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. His book, Linked (Basic Books, 2014) is a readable and highly engaging tour of network science. It is not a boring math book!

I’m so happy that Niall Ferguson tackled the subject of networks and hierarchies. There is so much to appreciate – and fear – about both. As leaders we are influencers. We influence through both hierarchical and decentralized networks. Understanding how networks function is an important skill for leaders in this century. The Square and the Tower is a great place to start learning about them.


Referenced material:

The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson (Penguin, 2008)

Civilization by Niall Ferguson (Penguin, 2011)

Accelerate by John Kotter (Harvard Business Review, 2014)

Linked by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi (Basic Books, 2014)