Change – Part 3 – Leaders as Anchors

In Part 1, I stated that leaders generally don’t lead, they follow the pack. In fact, it can be worse than that … or better.

A Review

In Change: How to Make Big Things Happen, researcher Damon Centola introduces us to two general types of relationship patterns, or networks through which social change is propagated.

Firework relationships are the simple ties, such as friends on Facebook. This is the type of network through which low-risk information is passed, like cat videos. This is the “viral” contagion that we often hear about in popular media.

Fishnet relationships are composed of strong ties, including friends, family, co-workers, and relationships that affect how we live and work. It is through these relationships that high-risk or high-demand changes propagate.

These networks often overlap. Church membership, for examples, is combination of strong and weak ties that can be described as fishnet or firework networks.

Networks and Institutions

Interestingly, hierarchical institutions distribute information through a firework pattern; messages from the leader are disseminated through tiers of lower leaders, finally arriving at the peons.

In a study of biases in networks, Centola observed:

If the central person had any bias, it was amplified throughout the rest of the network. Network centralization made the entire population … biased toward the central person’s viewpoint. (p 271-272)

While beliefs and biases are often high-risk issues that spread slowly through our strong ties, once adopted by the group, they are easily reinforced.

Centralization is a far greater problem in groups of similarly minded people. When communities are organized along lines of shared … cultural beliefs, ideas that reinforce a community’s existing beliefs are simple contagions: they are easy to understand, and easy to spread. Within [these] echo chambers, highly connected influencers at the center of the conversation can easily spread [information] that plays to a group’s biases. (p 272)

There are few organizations that are as “centralized” as the LDS Church. Adapting an old advertisement phrase: when the prophet speaks, the people listen.

If messages from the president of the Church are within the bounds of orthodoxy, they spread very quickly through the members in a fireworks fashion. Who would question it?

Since playing outside of the boundary is dangerous, leaders tend to not only reinforce the principles of the organization, but play it safe by tightening the boundaries. Changes to the “word of wisdom” exemplify this pattern. It is scripturally described as advice (word of wisdom) which was given “not by commandment or constraint” (D&C 89:2). Yet, it became such by a change in policy, no claim to revelation required and no vote of common consent. Hot drinks were defined to be coffee and tea, which was tightened to green tea, which (for a time) was tightened to caffeinated drinks. From time to time, orthodox members and leaders will expand this to to other drinks.

Leaders as Change Agents

Unlike civil institutions, churches, especially the LDS Church, have a tool for large scale, dramatic change in their organizations. But, it must be used with caution in order to retain any credibility.

Once a practice, policy, or doctrine has taken hold, it can be difficult to relax it, especially when it serves as a marker of group identity, such as the Word of Wisdom. The pattern for opening the bounds of orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the LDS Church requires “revelation.” Removal of the priesthood ban and abandonment of polygamy are examples of this method being applied to significant issues.

In other words, the theological structure of the LDS Church can leverage firework mechanisms for reinforcing existing beliefs AND for making substantive change.

Regarding this mechanism, Centola states:

There is a silver lining to centralization. If the person in the center of the network has a perfectly unbiased opinion, their influence can reduce the bias of the entire group. (p 272)


Social change typically comes from the periphery of a network. In the LDS Church were boundary enforcement often keeps these people out, dramatic change is still possible when initiated by the central leader.

In an organization as large as the Church, in which leaders are extensively groomed for their conformity (obedience), and protectionist policies have eliminated healthy turn-over, one must ask: Are leaders sufficiently exposed to the issues affecting the members?

Leaders in centralized organizations must intentionally reach around the sycophants that encircle them in order to access the periphery where innovation and diversity resides. Elevating and including these voices in strategic ways can lead to a natural propagation of institutional change while minimizing the risk.

One last quote from Centola:

Egalitarian networks spread social change. But, more important, they allow new ideas and opinions to emerge from anywhere in the community and spread to everyone without being blocked by a powerful social star at the center of the network. (p 301)

Social evolution of the Church is inevitable. Incorporating social developments for the benefit of the institution is the hard part.


P.S. In the last chapter, Damon Centola gives a step-by-step plan for using these principles in our organizations.

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