Netwerken als levend weefsel : een studie naar kennis, leiderschap en de rol van de overheid in de Nederlandse landbouw sinds 1945

E. Wielinga

    Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


    The need for a new narrativeSelf fulfilling narratives

    People tell narratives to each other about the way the world functions. Some of the narratives are so powerful that they influence the way many people act, and thus these narratives become selffulfilling. To a certain extent this is, because the real world is always more complex than any narrative describes. If we stick too long to a certain narrative, increasing tension will be felt between the world we wish to create and the world as it appears to us: a world that refuses to obey our models in rather unpleasant ways. At this point we need a new narrative. "Living Tissue" as a metaphor for human networks offers an opening to a new narrative.

    The present day requires a high degree of willingness among people to attune their behaviour to the needs of their ecological and social environment, as well as creativity in developing new solutions. There have always been networks of people who feel committed and who become creative together, and such networks also exist in the present time. What narrative offers sufficient understanding of the way such networks function, and what can we do to make such networks flourish?

    Dutch agriculture as scenery

    The Dutch agricultural sector has performed remarkably well in the post war period. It is remarkable that the Netherlands as a small industrialised country has conquered such a strong position on the world market for agricultural products and food. It is also remarkable that, especially in the period 1956 - 1984, this was achieved by a large network of actors with a high degree of commitment and extraordinary innovativeness, while the basis was formed by a large number of relatively small family farms. One could say that Dutch agriculture functioned as a network avant-la-lettre. The mechanisms in such networks differ from those in goal-oriented organizations such as commercial enterprises or bureaucracies. These mechanisms are currently interesting whereas enterprises and bureaucracies also feel the need to adapt their modes of organization to the new reality of the plural network society.

    Recent history of Dutch agriculture offers a fascinating scenery for a study of mechanisms behind networks of people who feel committed and creative. This goes not only for the period of expansion. Equally fascinating is the period that followed, when tension increased because society did not accept the negative side effects of the intensive agricultural production system any longer, and the once so strong agricultural network fell apart into different interest groups that had to find new relationships with each other and with the rest of society. Many people involved have experienced this period as rather depressing, and at present this feeling of depression is still quite persistent in the Dutch agricultural scene. The need for new narratives is manifest.

    The assignment for this study

    Two policy development projects have paved the way for this study. As an officer for the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Fisheries (LNV) I was involved in these projects in the period 1993-1995. One project investigated the changing role of intermediate organizations in the Agricultural Knowledge System, as a contribution to a new LNV knowledge policy plan for the period until 1999. The other project tried to find new ways to communicate with stakeholders in society during the preparation of new government policies. In combination with a few policy tasks, the newly formed Department for Science and Knowledge Dissemination allowed me in the period 1995 - 1999 to work out a PhD thesis on the changing role of Government in the agricultural knowledge system. This book is the result of this study.

    Knowledge, leadership and the role of governments

    Knowledge is an interesting starting point for those who are interested in innovation processes. What is knowledge, how does knowledge develop, and where do new impulses come from? The Dutch agricultural knowledge system has a good international reputation: it is generally assumed that the system for knowledge development and exchange has contributed substantially to the innovative capacity of the sector. On the other hand knowledge is also crucial for collective awareness that leads to conscious behaviour with respect to ecology and social justice. The struggle of the agricultural sector to achieve a new agreement with society for its licence to produce, provides lessons to be learned in this respect as well.

    The focus of this study is on leadership, since I am especially interested in what people can do in order to stimulate creativity and commitment in networks. Are there possibly some essential leadership functions that always need to be performed in whatever way? From whom can we expect leadership? And what institutional environment is favorable or inhibitive for such leadership performance?

    To a certain extent governments create the institutional environment that is more or less conducive for leadership. In the period of Dutch agricultural expansion the "Research - Extension - Education Tryptich" was famous for its contribution to agricultural innovation. The Ministry of Agriculture governed all institutions in this tryptich, and they worked closely together for the benefit of the sector. The role of the agricultural extension service is of special interest, because this service acted as the interface between farmers, research, education, industry and policy makers. By the time I started this study all interrelationships had been shaken up drastically, and it was crucial to know what functions would be left exclusively for governments in the new reality of the knowledge market. When I mention the government in this study, I therefore primarily have the Dutch national government in mind.

    The story is not exclusive for agriculture

    I gratefully made use of the Dutch agriculture as a scenery for this study, because I assumed that important lessons could be learned from its remarkable history. Furthermore this enabled me to make use of my experience as a government official and as an expert in rural extension. This does not mean however that the result of the study would be exclusively of interest to the agricultural sector. Along the lines of this study I think others could tell similar stories about their fields of work, and I hope that this book will stimulate further thinking about the narratives that structure our lives.

    Four narrativesThe instrumental paradigm

    From the many narratives that are told, three could be mentioned as particularly influential in post war agriculture in the Netherlands. In the instrumental narrative ( Kuhn (1970) postulated the concept of paradigm for narratives with a strong structuring influence in science: this term is used throughout the book.) the world is a technical challenge. The more mankind knows about the way the world functions, the better people will know how to set the proper goals and to develop the appropriate instruments to achieve them for the benefit of all. Knowledge is the objective truth, or the best way to achieve what people want. The government must ensure that proper knowledge is developed and disseminated.

    The instrumental paradigm was dominant in agriculture as long as people in the agricultural network identified themselves with their common interest. They generally agreed on a common direction, and problems could be solved or externalised rather easily. This situation changed in 1984 when the Ministry of Agriculture was forced to impose unpopular measures against overproduction and pollution. Science was no longer capable of being the objective referee in the conflicts of interests that arose. The pressure to reach consensus in order to preserve the system of shared responsibility in governing the sector made it impossible to effectuate necessary changes, and this resulted in increasing tension between farmers, government and other interest groups.

    The strategic paradigm

    Gradually the strategic paradigm became more powerful. From 1994 onwards it became dominant in government policies when the structure, in which the government and farmers organizations had jointly governed the sector, broke down.

    In the strategic narrative the world is an arena where one can win and lose. Individual interest and power struggle rule everyday life, and co-operation is only possible by creating win-win situations or under pressure from external conditions. Knowledge has strategic value. Knowledge is a product that can be produced and traded on a knowledge market where there is demand and supply. The government must ensure that the market functions properly, for example by urging knowledge institutions to make knowledge production demand driven. For those fields of interests, where parties in the open market cannot be expected to invest properly, the government must intercede and act as a client on the market. Furthermore the government must use its power and means to bind actors to boundary conditions set by society.

    The strategic paradigm released parties from their strangulating entwinement. Furthermore the shift from collective governance to market relationships in the agricultural knowledge system gave way to the ever advancing specialization in the sector, and to the increased influence of actors from outside. However, the strategic narrative has its limitations as well. It leads to a world where one must win to survive. In such a world there is little space for doing what is needed in the network from which people depend. In this paradigm it is hard to see where healthy competition escalates into power struggle that is harming all parties involved. Relationships in the agricultural sector did not quite improve since since the strategic narrative became dominant.

    The communicative paradigm

    Under the surface a third narrative gained influence in the nineties. In the communicative paradigm the world is a village where all inhabitants are interdependent, although many are not aware. Thus, unfortunately, they are digging their own grave. Collective action follows collective conciousness, but such consciousness can only emerge from a social learning process. Precondition for this learning process is that all parties acknowledge that no one can claim the sole truth. In this paradigm knowledge is an individual construct of reality, whereas collective knowledge can develop through interaction. The willingness to interact can only increase if parties accept that others can have different conceptions of reality that nay be meaningful.

    Interactive policy development was a promising approach, making stakeholders in society responsible for their share in collective solutions. It gave hope for those who wished to improve troublesome relationships amongst parties in the agricultural network as well as relationships with other actors in the green space. In practice it appeared that these processes could be easily frustrated by parties that were not willing to collaborate or that held hidden agendas. Strategic thinkers did not like to lay down their weapons in exchange for such vulnerable processes where it is hard to make actors accountable for their results.

    The ecological paradigm

    A fourth narrative is explored in this book. In the ecological paradigm the world is a huge living organism, in which human networks figure as living tissue. The process of life is autonomous, and living networks can be healthy or sick. In this paradigm knowledge has the biological function of social interaction: knowledge enables people to respond to their social and ecological environment. I call this narrative the ecological paradigm, following Röling and Jiggins (2000) who focus on the quality of this response. This quality is high if people adjust their behaviour effectively to the environmental requirements.

    The structure of the book

    After the introduction and the methodological justification, the post war history of Dutch agriculture is told. In six time periods it is described how the meaning of knowledge and opinions on policies have changed. Special attention is paid to the role of agricultural extension, which was regarded as a policy instrument on the edge of communication and influencing farming conditions. Changing circumstances made it necessary to change opinions, thus affecting the circumstances in turn. This story is told in a manner which most of those directly involved will recognise.

    In the chapters which follow the role of knowledge, leadership and governments in the ecological paradigm are discussed. Each chapter concludes with a review, in order to evaluate what the ecological paradigm as a framework for analysis could add to our understanding of history. The last chapter investigates the practical consequences if this paradigm be accepted. How would this affect peoples actions as compared with current policy making practices?

    Living tissue as a metaphorLiving processes

    Living organisms consist of particles that are structurally coupled through patterns of interaction. The organism is reproduced by these patterns, and the organism reproduces its particles, each having their function within the entire organism. The organism has an identity, distinguishing the inside world from the outside. Living organisms can be seen as networks, and each network is a node in one or more larger networks, up to the universal network of the living world. In living networks a division of tasks exists, and in the evolutionary process this task division can develop into impressive complexity and beauty, as can be observed in the tropical rainforest or the coral reef.

    If we see human networks as living organisms, such networks can have a strong or weak identity that influences the willingness of people to attune their behaviour to the interaction within the network. In a vital network this willingness is apparent, making the network more attractive. This positively affects willingness again, thus making the vital process selfpropelling.

    From the biological point of view it can be assumed that there are two driving forces behind the energy released in this interaction. Firstly, there is the need of the individual to provide input and to manifest him/herself. The function of this drive for selffulfilment is the development of individual quality to the benefit of the collective. Secondly, there is the need to be a useful part of a larger entity, which provides safety and meaning to individual efforts. In a healthy vital process added value is generated by reaching higher degrees of task division, creating space for individuals to develop their own qualities further within the safe and stimulating environment of the network.

    Energy en structure

    Each network develops structure as a complex of agreements, procedures, institutions, culture and material circumstances, which channels interaction. Without structure there is no added value. Structure is the tissue which gives shape to living processes. Maintaining structure requires energy, but the balance is positive if more energy is released by the interaction enabled by the structure.

    However, this is not always the case. Just like in living plants and animals, structures can lose their flexibility to grow along with the autonomous living process. Structures may have to die in order to give way to new life. In human networks regression can be recognized when procedures and control are predominant over enthusiasm and satisfaction. This results in decreasing willingness of people to provide their input and to attune to the network. This is a process that is self reinforcing too.


    The ability of an organism to respond effectively to its environment is determined by its responsiveness. Responsiveness is made up by two abilities: firstly to attune actions to the environmental requirements, and secondly to provide authentic input based on specific qualities. If the responsiveness of the organism gets blocked, structure cannot grow properly along with the vital process.

    Vital space as a concept

    In the book the Circle of Coherence visualises the distinction between vitality and regression. [ figure 1 ]. The circle is a two-dimensional model for interactive patterns. The patterns in the centre of the circle are vitalising: this centre is called the vital space. In the quadrant of autonomy people interact on the basis of exchange, whereas in the quadrant of competition they do so on the basis of challenge. In the quadrant of hierarchy they accept discipline and mutual differences, and in the quadrant of self-governance people take their own responsibility for the network based on dialogue and equal relationships. All these patterns are satisfying. They contribute to the identity of the network, and thus to the willingness to provide authentic input and to attune.

    Each pattern can deform into regression. Autonomy can degenerate into isolation, and competition can escalate into power struggle. Hierarchy can turn into dominance with oppressors and oppressed parties, while self-governance can get bogged down into groupthink. This last pattern was at stake at the end of the period of consensus in the Dutch agricultural network. Regressive patterns can be recognized by loss of energy, resulting in a network that gets stuck in inertia or dissolves into chaos.

    The difference between vitality and regression is responsiveness. In human relationships this is equal to respect: the acknowledgement of all parties being meaningful parts of the network, and the recognition of the fact that all that reveals itself in the network can have a function, even if it cannot (yet) be understood. In biological terms this constitutes the quality of the structural coupling between the components of the living network. Loss of respect means that the coupling is blocked.

    It is impossible to determine objectively where the vital space is situated. One can experience that interaction is meaningful and inspiring or that regression occurs. Vitality cannot be constructed or forced. One can only create space for vitality by steering on the signals of regression.

    The knowledge- and position dimensions in the Circle of Coherence

    The first dimension that mounts the circle is the knowledge axis (vertical). If we see knowledge as the complex of constructs of reality and behavioural patterns people use to respond to their environment, then knowledge develops in the creative tension between similarities and differences. There needs to be sufficient recognition to feel safe and to experiment, and common language to communicate with others. On the other hand there need to be sufficient differences in order to become interested, and to exchange existing images and patterns of behaviour for new ones. In short: in order to learn.

    The second dimension is the position axis (horizontal). On this axis there is also creative tension, this time between the positions of the individual and the collectivity of the network. Interaction is satisfactory if the individual experiences freedom to provide its input, and if that input is of importance to the whole. This is the tension between attuning as required by the network and the space the individual needs to provide his authentic input.

    These two dimensions produce a circle with four quadrants, where vitalising and regressive patterns can be located. If vitalising patterns are stronger than the regressive ones willingness to give input and to attune in increases. This leads to more task division, diversity and quality, resulting in more coherence in the network. This is why the model is referred to as the Circle of Coherence.

    Illusions and escalating interactive patterns.

    Why do people cause trouble to themselves and others by slipping away into regressive patterns? People can't help thinking by images, although any image is a simplification of reality. In fact these images are illusions, and any illusion can block the structural coupling unless people are prepared to drop these illusions in time and to be receptive to what reveals to them. The latter can be satisfactory, but also risky. Sticking to an illusion is a means of self-defence in order to avoid stress. This way of dealing with threats can clog into long lasting behavioural patterns, even when the real threat is no longer apparent.

    In the book four types of illusions are mentioned, belonging to each of the four quadrants in the circle of cohesion [ figure 2 ]. The one who flees imagines being free by isolating himself from others. This is a counterdependent position, because he makes his awareness of freedom depending from the supposed influence of those from whom he is trying to escape. The fighter does not feel free until he has conquered his freedom upon the other party. This is a counterdependent position as well. In case of dominance parties resign in an illusion of "unfreedom". Both the oppressor and the oppressed feel emprisoned in the idea that the other party makes it impossible for them to move. This is a dependent position, just as is the case in groupthink where people feel free at the grace of the protection offered by others. In this case people adapt their behaviour, avoiding any risks that could damage the protection. Each illusion is easily reinforced because the behaviour it provokes in others keeps on reconfirming it. This is how escalating interaction patterns develop, which form blockages to the responsiveness of the network.

    These patterns are to a large extent due to choices people make implicitly. They cannot be discussed because most of them occur subconciously. There might also be reasons people would rather not admit to. This explains why the communicative approach often fails: interactive policy development and other participatory methods are effective as long as people are willing to communicate their wishes, images and perceived risks. There are limits to this willingness. The strategic approach makes use of power in order to influence the conditions of others. Then it is hard to see in what cases an intervention breaks down a blockage, and when it simply reinforces the escalating pattern.


    In living processes power evokes counterpower. Similarly in living human networks there are always people who intuitively feel that something needs to be done in order to restore vital space. This is an important notion of leadership that surpasses rationality. The instrumental, strategic and communicative narrative all take rational thinking and acting individuals as their basis for analysis. Rationality only explains part of human behaviour. The ecological paradigm offers a perspective that also involves its emotional and intuitive aspects.

    Leadership as creating space for vitality.

    Vitality cannot be constructed or directed. However, it is possible to create space for it to develop. This is what leadership is all about in the ecological paradigm. Leadership means selectively creating space for vitality by restoring the structural coupling between the actors in the network. This can be done by stimulating input and tuning, or by shattering illusions that block the vital process. There are many ways to do so, and the book contains several examples. It is important to notice that a leadership intervention that is effective in one situation can be counterproductive in another. The circle of coherence provides insight in types of leadership that might be needed to remove obstruction and to restore the structural coupling, related to different kinds of blockages.

    Rational blockages can be distinguished from emotional ones. Rational blockages can be discussed. Not all cooperation is useful, and a proposal for change does not necessarily lead to improvement. Risks can be real and should be taken into account. Here stimulating leadership roles are helpful to improve communication and awareness. Emotional blockages are different because they cannot be communicated. Then antagonistic leadership roles might be needed that affect the conditions of actors in the network. Taking such roles, there is always a looming danger that regressive patterns escalate further, instead of the healthy effects which are hoped for. Only an actor with authority can restore respect by an intervention of this kind, because he does not offer any provocations that can fuel the illusions of actors involved.

    Change agents, gatekeepers and survivors

    Not only are constructive actions needed for vital processes: disturbances are important as well. Life develops in interaction between convergent and divergent movements: between construction and destruction in order to give way to change. Looking at processes of change, this notion leads to the image of change agents, gatekeepers and survivors.

    Change agents recognize opportunities, and take initiatives for action. They influence others who join the action and strengthen the movement. In this way informal networks develop that generate energy. Sooner or later the change agents run into the gatekeepers who feel responsible for the existing structure. Not every change is an improvement. Both parties are necessary for healthy change. In practically every network survivors can also be found. They primarily are concerned with their own position and refuse to take the risks of change, either because they do not want it, or because they cannot afford to do so. Each of these roles is justifiable, and in fact the behaviour of every person is a mixture of all three of them. It depends on the circumstances and the courage of the person involved what role will surface in each specific situation.

    This view on change sheds new light on the relationship between formal and informal networks, the nature of hidden agendas, on strategies for change, and on the space which can be created for leadership.

    Three levels of leadership

    With respect to the couplings between the individual, the network, and the outside world, three levels of leadership are distinguished. The first level is personal leadership. This is the initiative taken by an individual to make the network move. It is the authentic input of someone who wishes change. His input can influence others who join and strengthen the movement. Horizontal leadership is what someone does in order to make the network function properly: this concerns efforts to stimulate input from actors involved and to make them fit in order to create synergy. At the third level there is vertical leadership, seeking proper attunement between the network and the bigger entity of which the network forms a part.

    The institutional environment and thresholds for leadership

    The degree of risk in taking leadership role differs from one situation to another. Even if the threshold of leadership is high there are heroes, but there is less chance that they surface than if the threshold is low. Every network develops structure, and every structure creates possibilities as well as limitations which create thresholds for leadership on the three levels of leadership as mentioned earlier. This notion of thresholds can be used as an analytical tool for the investigation of responsiveness of a network. In the book this is illustrated by correlating thresholds for leadership at three levels with the changes in the institutional environment of the agricultural network in six successive periods of Dutch agriculture.

    The role of government

    Government is not an actor just like the others. Government has a public mandate to guard collective interests, and it authorized to impose taxes and to use force. government has considerable influence on the institutional environment which creates thresholds for leadership.

    The steering role of governments is disputed. The book mentions three dilemmas for the debate: the dilemma of control (where to go?), the dilemma of direction (who is in control?), and the dilemma of legitimacy (how is government intervention justified?). The first dilemma refers to the knowledge dimension [ figure 1 ] in the ecological paradigm, and the tension between certainty and uncertainty. The second dilemma is situated at the position dimension, and includes the repartition of responsibilities between government and other actors in influencing the future. The dilemma of legitimacy points at the question whether people accept the authority of government if it intervenes in the network they identify themselves with. This is the dilemma between control and public support.

    The government in a responsive society

    In a complex society the quality of the structural couplings between various groups of actors becomes crucial. These high quality couplings feed trust in the institutional environment that enables an extended task division. Government holds per definition the position of a gatekeeper. Not as the one and only, but as a gatekeeper with a specific mandate to intervene if trust is at stake. This is the case if essential networks do not function well or if interfaces are lacking.

    Essential for the quality of society is the existence of circuits through which malfunctioning networks can be detected and repaired. If such networks appear to be unable to solve their own problems, and if this has serious consequences for society, there must be a collective circuit which is mandated to intervene, and capable of intervening effectively.

    The position of government in this circuit is delicate. Especially in cases where emotional blockages and escalating patterns occur, the acceptance of the authority of government and the legitimacy of its intervention are crucial. It takes more than just a mandate based on legislation or a majority of elected representatives in Parliament. In order to acquire authority government must avoid becoming part of the escalating power struggle itself.

    The risky present day

    In the period of collective responsibility in Dutch agriculture the structural couplings within the sector were functioning extraordinarily well. However, the coupling with the rest of society was lacking. The identification of Ministry of Agriculture with the sector was too strong, informal networks were overruling the formal ones, and the threshold for vertical leadership was high. This period was followed by a period of detachment, when informal networks were in disgrace, separate responsibilities of different parties were stressed, and government set out to determine the sidelines of the playing field.

    If we review the present day with the analytical framework as explored in this book, we see that risky situation has developed. The political mandate government calls upon is rather thin. The road between voters and concrete policy measures is long and winding. Informal networks which once connected different networks have been broken up, and the role of intermediate actors in the agricultural knowledge network has crumbled. The "open agricultural knowledge system" has turned into a knowledge market with a culture of accountability. As a result selfreferential circles pop up easily, amongst policy makers and funding agencies as well as interest groups. Images of reality are confirmed within their own circle, and develop into strong illusions. Consequently, between various groups mutual misunderstanding grows. Farmers feel misunderstood and undervalued. Policy makers feel forced to impose more severe measures in order to bind farmers to limiting conditions.

    The result is an escalating power struggle involving government . This does not contribute to responsiveness: neither within the network of actors in agriculture, nor within the larger network of society either. A government that is too deeply involved in the design of society loses the position that is needed to intervene if necessary. The strategic narrative, that is presently dominant, does not offer criteria to distinguish interventions that can restore vitality from those which only fuel regressive patterns.

    ConsequencesFive principles

    In this study I have explored the features of the ecological paradigm. Without pretending to be exhaustive, the last chapter offers dozens of practical consequences for policy development, categorized under five leading principles.

    [1] Vitality in a network is nourished by personal leadership

    The focus of attention is put on the authentic input of people who are willing to make an effort for what they believe in. Without such input no vitality can emerge. This focus turns common opinions about task fulfillment and control by demand upside down. People contribute to vital networks if they create space for their desires, and look for attuning with others in a way that adds value and synergy emerges. This requires an attitude that differs from that of people who comply with existing rules and mandates, and seek to satisfy demands from others. This goes for the requirements from bosses or financiers, just the same as the supposed demands in the market.

    This theory puts earlier goal oriented paradigms into perspective. In the instrumental paradigm solid knowledge leads to individual and collective goals. A better understanding of reality and mutual dependency is supposed to make clear which road is best to follow. The strategic paradigm takes individual goals as the starting point. People strive for their own personal interests. Cooperation can only be successful if such interests overlap. The value of knowledge is related to the interests of the actors. According to the communicative paradigm people are willing to enter into a social learning process only if they believe they have a common interest. Here the common goal is a precondition for the development of relevant knowledge. In the concept of vital space however, goals emerge from the willingness to provide input and to attune. Goals form part of structure, and channel collective input. Not a common goal but vitality is the focus for action. Personal leadership as the point of departure allows us to see that in some cases we need more structure, but in other cases we need to oppose against set goals and mandates in order to restore the vital process.

    In the ecological paradigm intuition and inspired leadership fill a prominent role, in a healthy relationship with rationality. Nourishment of vital processes is not to be found in rational calculations, but in the intuition which precedes them.

    [2] Relevant knowledge emerges from interaction

    In the four narratives as described here knowledge has different meanings. The book illustrates seven occasions in the course of post war history of Dutch agriculture. In each period new aspects of knowledge were added to the existing, because previous understanding of knowledge had become too narrow in order to face new challenges. An eighth aspect is surfacing at the present day.

    In the ecological paradigm knowledge is linked to effective action. Knowledge which is valid in one situation can become a blinding insight in another, distracting people from what needs to be done. Knowledge as the objective truth; formal knowledge that can be stored in books or hard disks; or knowledge as a product to be produced and traded: all these static notions of knowledge are put into perspective by this paradigm. In the strict sense knowledge transfer is impossible. People can acquire knowledge, and they do so in interaction with their environment.

    This understanding shifts the focus of attention from the quality of knowledge in terms of reliability or validity towards the quality of the interaction from which relevant knowledge may emerge. An actor who seeks to stimulate creative and responsible behaviour amongst others, must excert effort to ensure that they acquire relevant knowledge. Such interventions always combine communication and positional game. The most effective combination depends on the type of blockages which hamper the process of knowledge development, and the position of the actor who intervenes. What is effective in one situation might be counterproductive in another.

    A message can be inspiring because it adds words to what someone has already felt intuitively. Thus space is created in the mixture of conflicting images of reality within the mind. Interventions can also create space for the acquisition of knowledge because they shatter illusions which block the path of perception and responsiveness.

    [3] Leadership is creating space for vitality

    Apart from the leader who acts within the limits of his mandate, the ecological paradigm emphasizes the actor who takes up leadership, based on his personal authority. This offers new perspectives for all those cases in which malfunctioning structures are unable to produce proper mandates, and cases of fluid networks where hierarchy is fuzzy. Furthermore it deprives anyone from the excuse of not being authorized to take action on what he thinks is necessary, because he lacks the formal mandate to do so.

    The ecological narrative sheds new light on strategies for change. The energy for change is generated within informal networks of change agents. Structure allows for change if gatekeepers feel confident that the proposed change will mean improvement. If a manager desires change, he should first detect informal networks which can provide the energy for change, and create space for them to develop. Then he should facilitate the debate between the change agents and the gatekeepers, hoping that the latter will open the gates from the inside.

    Thus, the function of leadership is to create space for vitality, by stimulating responsiveness of a network. This means strengthening the structural couplings with the vital centres within the network. In fact, the same is true at the individual level, because everyone possesses vital centres in his own mind, even though he might have locked them thoroughly away. Leadership means help if the leading actor succeeds in enabling a person to make contact again with his own vital sources. The circle of coherence shows that the notion of leadership as giving direction only relates to one of the possible functions of leadership. In many situations this function might counteract vitality in the network.

    The study originally posed the question whether it would be possible to draw up a checklist for essential leadership functions for well functioning knowledge networks. The outcome is negative: the number of possibilities for stimulating vitality is infinite, and a checklist cannot be made. However, much can be done to create space for vital processes. The notion of thresholds for leadership offers an analytical framework for detecting blockages of vitality in networks.

    [4] Structure is favourable for vitality if thresholds for leadership are low

    The ecological paradigm puts common measures for structure, like effectiveness and effectivity, into perspective. At least as important is the question whether structure facilitates vital processes by providing low thresholds for leadership. The prime criterion is responsiveness. Sometimes this requires more emphasis on effectiveness and efficiency, but this can be driven too far as well, resulting in a culture of survival that lacks the energy needed to move towards vitality.

    Not everyone feels he can afford to take a leadership role. A network needs at least one actor who is able to look beyond his own interests, and who possesses the means and the position to do what is necessary for the network. This insight entails a plea for rehabilitation of intermediate actors in the knowledge system.

    [5] A society needs a collective circuit which is able to keep essential networks vital.

    The study shows how the Ministry of Agriculture reluctantly ended up into a regulators role, where it accumulated responsibilities in shaping the environment for agriculture and nature. areas. In the ecological perspective this shaping activity is not a core task of Government . Too much involvement can even deteriorate the position that is needed for interventions in order to keep essential networks vital and responsive.

    The future is not created by governments that set desirable goals and apply appropriate instruments, backed up by political mandate and tax money. Society is shaped by interaction between actors in society who excert themselves for their own or for collective interests. The quality of future depends on the quality of this interaction: from the quality of the vital space that allows for challenges and competition, that can deal with conflicts, and that creates sufficient trust in the tuning mechanisms in society, that makes people willing to share their qualities for the benefit of all.

    Governments must be capable of detecting blockages which hold unacceptable consequences for society, and they must intervene effectively. There are at least three requirements to this effect. Firstly it requires an involved government, on line with what is happening in essential networks. This entails a rehabilitation of informal networks, in which government workers participate. It calls for mixed arrangements where people can complement the qualities of one another, and where they can prevent each other from stepping into pitfalls that are specific to various positions in society. In those mixed arrangements a healthy balance needs to be maintained between informal networks, generating energy and creativity, and the formal structure where every actor bears his own responsibility and can be held accountable for his share.

    This is also a plea for the reinvention of intermediate parties which have sufficient space to manoeuvre for horizontal leadership. In the period of shared identity in Dutch agriculture, the research-extension-education tryptich acted as a huge reservoir of intermediates who were free to do what they thought necessary for the vitality of the network. In the knowledge market that took over in the nineties their role has been marginalized. Nowadays there are new kinds of intermediate actors who deserve more space to manoeuvre.

    The second requirement is the capability of governments to choose the appropriate leadership intervention. In the book five different options for intervention are given, each combining communication and measures which affect conditions for actors (legislation, financial stimuli) in different ways. The proper choice depends on the degree to which actors in the network take responsibility for the solution and for the process of interaction through which these solutions must be found.

    The position of authority required for effective intervention depends as well on the legitimacy in the eyes of the actors involved. This is the third requirement: the government agency must be accepted in the role it chooses. A formal mandate, based on existing laws and election outcomes is not sufficient to this end. People must feel that a government body is acting for the network with which they identify themselves: they must share the same identity. Furthermore people must have trust in opportunities to correct government when its actions deviate too much from public opinion. On both points there is reason for serious concern.

    Concluding remarksFour narratives in perspective

    The ecological narrative I have explored in the book is just another image of reality, and again it won't be the last one. The instrumental paradigm creates space for the interactive patterns hierarchy and self-governance, and puts the collectivity first [ figure 3 ]. This narrative falls short if individual interests demand more space, and if people do not feel sufficiently connected to the identity of the network. In contrast, the strategic paradigm favours autonomy and competition, the basic ingredients for the market place. This narrative falls short with respect to collective interests. It leads to a culture of accountability and calculation, where everyone is just struggling to survive and where the energy to do what must be done for vital networks is lacking. The communicative paradigm stresses the combination of autonomy and the necessity of dialogue and agreement for collective action. This narrative lacks the weapons to break through power struggle and dominance.

    The ecological paradigm enables us to see in which domain the previous narratives are valuable, and when one leaves this domain behind. The breaking point in the comparison however is the fact that goals and rational action are no longer the core focus, but vital space. It is the recognition of development as an autonomous process; the acceptance of the stream that leads to uncharted realms, and the confidence in a good outcome as long as our networks remain responsive.

    Perhaps the next narrative will add a third dimension to the circle of coherence, clarifying the role of inspiration in making people aware of signals of regression and making them do what needs to be done for restoring vitality. Maybe this will be the connection to spiritual awareness many people experience. An awareness that is hardly compatible with the narratives dominating management and policies at present. My exploration is just one step on a continuous road.

    Yet, I hope that this work will stimulate thinking about the restrictive narratives which dominate our lives, and help to create space for those who wish to change them. Innovative and responsible people: they still are present everywhere, amongst farmers, policy makers and in the networks surrounding them.

    Original languageDutch
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Wageningen University
    • Röling, N.G., Promotor
    • van Gunsteren, H.R., Promotor, External person
    Award date17 Apr 2001
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789058083937
    Publication statusPublished - 2001


    • communication
    • knowledge
    • leadership
    • government
    • agriculture
    • extension
    • government policy
    • history
    • netherlands
    • agricultural extension
    • networks

    Cite this