Skip to main content

Connected leadership in a disconnected world

17 Jun 2020 | Doug Parkin Doug Parkin, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management at Advance HE, reflects on the model of Connected Leadership that underpins the long established Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership programme and its strong relevance for leaders and leadership amidst the rapidly unfolding COVID-19 crisis.

Many staff and students may be feeling quite a profound sense of alienation and disconnection following the very significant social and educational shifts that have been brought about by the COVID-19 outbreak. Notions of identity, belonging, community and personal and collective purpose have all potentially been disrupted by this historic perturbation in 'the system'. For those leaders supporting their colleagues and institutions to navigate and make sense, intellectually and emotionally, of these displacements the idea of connected leadership has greater resonance than ever.

The blog piece below, originally published by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education in February 2016, puts forward the idea of a field of engagement in which a "vast array of factors that help or hinder connectedness" are at work: "some of these connections may have deep roots, others may be more temporary or transient, and the field is always alive and in flux". At a time of crisis and displacement the field of engagement becomes a vulnerable space for both individuals and organisations as even the most deeply embedded connections come into question.

Four leadership intelligences are put forward in the Connected Leadership model that link with the challenges of connecting with self (emotional intelligence), connecting with other people (social and political intelligence), connecting with the organisation (cultural or narrative intelligence) and connecting with the wider world (inclusive intelligence). In the disconnected world in which we currently find ourselves, these four fundamental leadership intelligences have never been more important. Everything from 'who I am?' (personal identity) through to 'what are we here for?' and 'what are our values?' (collective identity) is potentially up for closely-focussed reflection and review.

The original blog, Connected leadership: connecting people with purpose, along with the Connected Leadership model is reproduced in full below.

                                                                                    A leader connects people with purpose…and purpose with people

Connected Leadership diagram

There’s a truth about strategy that is hard to find in many of the textbooks. It concerns engaging people. The primary aim of any strategy is to connect people with purpose. It is this connection that releases both personal and collective energy and makes things happen. If organisational strategies fail to connect people with purpose, and purpose with people, then they amount to little more than a vague map of possibilities or the best guess in terms of where the organisation’s current trajectory may lead next. Engaging people is at the heart of the difference between strategic planning and ‘being strategic’.

In his excellent book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters (2011), Richard Rumelt observes that bad strategy arises from emphasising planning over execution, fuzzy goals over action, and high-sounding words over concrete directions. These points may sound like the mantra of a pragmatist, but how often have you read a strategy document and put it down in frustration, asking:

  • Yes, but what does all that really mean?
  • Yes, but what are we actually going to do?
  • Yes, but what has that to do with me?


To be truly strategic involves Connected Leadership: the ability to connect with yourself, to connect with other people, to connect with the organisation and to connect with the wider world:

  • Connecting with yourself relates to your values, history, emotional intelligence and personal priorities.
  • Connecting with other people is all about relationships, communication, empathy, influence and negotiation.
  • Connecting with the organisation concerns context, ethos, strategy, purpose, narrative and direction.
  • Connecting with the wider world involves listening, contributing and impacting – shaping futures, contributing to communities, society, the economy and the environment.


Between all these connections sits a field of engagement, and that field is alive with a vast array of factors that help or hinder connectedness. Take the simple example of how well connected an individual employee is to the organisation they work for: the range of connections could include achieving personal goals, relating to the cause or purpose, opportunities to develop, relationships with key individuals, levels of reward or recognition, fulfilling challenges, belonging to a team or project, or progress and results.  Some of these connections may have deep roots, others may be more temporary or transient, and the field is always alive and in flux. A team or department, if regarded as an entity, will have a similar dynamic map of connections.

To develop as a leader, to achieve engagement at all levels and be strategic, involves a combination of four leadership intelligences. These intelligences enable leaders to understand, interpret and interact with some of what goes on in the field of engagement (‘some’ because a lot will be dynamic and elusive). The first of these, in every sense, and the best known, is emotional intelligence. Progressing on from this, the second is social and political intelligence. The next is about the narratives that are the life of any organisation, and this is called cultural (or narrative) intelligence. And, finally, there is an inclusive intelligence that bridges every aspect of an organisation with the wider world, particularly the environment and community (or communities), in which it operates.

Independence… [is] middle-class blasphemy.  We are all dependent on one another, every soul of us on earth (GB Shaw, Pygmalion, 1912).

The Connected Leadership Model is illustrated fully in the headline graphic. This describes the four connections (yourself, other people, organisation and wider world) and shows between them the field of engagement within which the four leadership intelligences are at work. It also shows the way in which change challenges impact upon various connections and, depending on where they strike, stimulate and bring into play one or more of the intelligences.

Many of the best developments in organisations arise from a collision of people and events that can never be fully forecast. It is, therefore, as important for leaders to ‘be strategic’ as it is to plan and develop strategies. Leaders who connect people with purpose, and purpose with people, release personal energy and potential without getting bogged down in aligning goals or re-engineering structures. This is a more emergent and adaptive approach that is focussed on connecting the heart, soul, mind and strength of individuals and teams with the real purpose of the organisation in the prevailing context, at the current time, in the wider world.

The stories we tell are fateful: our ability to change ourselves, our organisations, and our world depends on our capacity to re-imagine them; nothing changes unless the stories change” (Geoff Mead, 2014).


Connected Leadership is the model that fundamentally underpins the Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership programme (PSSL). It is one of  Advance HE’s most highly regarded executive programmes aimed at experienced heads of school or department/service (academic and professional), newly appointed deans of faculty and those aspiring to such senior strategic roles. PSSL supports participants to reflect upon and develop their leadership identity through an active and aware engagement with contemporary perspectives on organisational change.

The blog author, Doug Parkin  is responsible for a range of Advance HE's open programmes as well as undertaking bespoke consultancy assignments for universities.

Develop the personal resilience, emotional intelligence and creativity needed by those operating at a strategic level in higher education. Book your place on Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

Keep up to date - Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter