A Tropical Tale Of Tourists, Networks, And A New Kind Of Leadership

The island nation of Palau is renowned for its unspoiled ecosystem. That pristine status is owed to one clever leader and the communities he connected. When disruption strikes, the presence–or absence–of such a leader can have a profound impact (in business as well as on exotic islands).

A Tropical Tale Of Tourists, Networks, And A New Kind Of Leadership


In our studies of resilience, we’ve found that the most effective leaders are translational. These leaders represent a form of “middle-out” leadership, seamlessly working up and down and across various organizational hierarchies, connecting with groups who might otherwise be excluded, and translating between constituencies.

When disruption strikes, the presence–or absence–of such a leader can have a profound impact, as we’ll see in the island community of Palau, and the remarkable story of one of the translational leaders shaping its future.

When Palau gained its independence from the United States in 1978, a heady period of change for island government followed. During the transition toward independence, a young native-born Palauan took over as officer of Fisheries Management in the Palau Natural Resources Divisions. Noah Idechong, then in his twenties, exemplified the next generation of Palauan leaders: Although he graduated from Hawaii Pacific University with a degree in business administration, he was born and raised in a small fishing village on the eastern coast of one of the Palauan islands.

In 1985, a five-star resort opened its doors on one of Palau’s private pristine beaches. Suddenly, word spread and, for the first time in its history, Palau needed to negotiate a substantial flow of tourists.

Almost immediately, visiting divers and fishermen found themselves embroiled in conflict. The best fishing spots were also some of the most popular dive spots, and fishermen were fighting for space with divers from around the world. The two groups brought dramatically different frames of reference to the encounter. The divers–often environmentally minded transplants only temporarily engaged in Palau’s community–wanted to protect the diversity of the reef; the fishermen were immediately suspicious of outsiders with an agenda for their islands and little apparent appreciation for their often severe financial imperatives.

Idechong decided to intervene in the conflict in two stages: To begin with, he would create a dialogue with the fishermen. He hoped to convince them to work together with the divers, shifting more of the island’s economic focus from fishing toward an ecoconscious form of tourism. In the second phase, he would engage with divers and other members of the tourist communities and work with them to create a green fee, or tourist tax, that would benefit the Palauans, rewarding them for meeting their conservation goals.


The final stage in Idechong’s strategy asked something of the divers and the other tourists starting to visit Palau. He convinced the Palauan parliament to institute a green tax on the tourists to help keep money coming in to protect marine areas.

Today, after considerable effort from Idechong, the tax is officially in place and positively received by both the locals and the divers. In 2012, the minister of finance expects to collect more than $1.5 million from the green fees–an enormous amount for a country the size of Palau–all of which will go directly to support community management efforts on the ground.


The activity at which Idechong so naturally excels is also referred to as “network weaving,”a term coined by social network analysts Valdis Krebs and June Holley, based on their extensive work exploring how to build resilience in rural communities in Appalachian Ohio. And although he might not have done so explicitly, Idechong was demonstrating several of network weaving’s core principals.

Krebs and Holley describe how a resilient community network emerges through four stages: First, small, autonomous clusters emerge, often without any guidance, among individuals and organiza- tions with shared interests, values, and goals. In the Palauan example, this might be represented by the close connections between the commercial fishermen or the reef divers. These clusters serve to reinforce interest politics, and if their interconnectivity ends there, these groups can remain oppositional and the larger social structure weak and brittle to disruption.

In the second and more intentional stage of network weaving, translational leaders like Idechong create a hub and spoke model, with themselves as the initial hub, connecting many different kinds of constituencies. Doing so often requires a mixture of charisma and grace, and the knack for navigating the politics of difference. During this second phase, translational leaders spend much of their time learning about the network they’re building, discovering what each of its nodes knows and what each needs. Authenticity and an ethic of generosity are critical at this stage, as the network has a single point of failure– the leaders themselves. But if done in the proper spirit, the emerging network–and the leader at its hub–will grow a reputation as a con- nector and begin to develop its own gravitational force. Idechong’s early work bringing together divers and fishermen correlates broadly with this second phase. In the third phase, translational leaders begin to close the triangles in their network–building direct bridges between different constituencies for whom they are the sole bridge. This starts to create a multihub, or “small world,”social network.


Due to the number of relationships involved at this point, the best network weavers don’t just connect–they teach those they connect how to become connectors themselves. “This transition from connector to facilitator is critical,”Krebs told us. “If the change is not made, the network weaver at the center can quickly become overwhelmed with connections, and the growth and efficiency of the network slows dramatically–or can even reverse course.”At this point the translational leader must quickly change from being a direct to an indirect leader, guiding the emergence of new network weavers throughout the community.

If successful, a multihub network forms and a new dynamic also emerges–the power of weak or indirect ties, particularly between hubs in a social network. These provide vital bridges between groups with different perspectives or expertise, or they may evolve into strong ties themselves, bringing hubs closer together.

The final stage of Krebs and Holley’s model, and its ultimate aim, is called a core/periphery social network. In this highly stable yet highly resilient social arrangement, which usually emerges after years of effort, a core of strongly affiliated hubs at the center of the social system is connected to a constellation of people and resources on the periphery, through weak ties. This allows for an efficient and natural division of labor: The periphery monitors the environment, while the core implements what is discovered and deemed useful.

“The periphery allows us to access new ideas and new information from outside–the core allows us to act on them, inside,”says Krebs.

As you can see, at various times, translational leaders must be connectors, mediators, teachers, behavioral economists, and social engineers. They must carry out these duties with candor, transparency, generosity, and commitment. They must also embrace key principals of social network creation: Build your network before you need it. Build direct relationships so that, in a pinch, reconfiguration and collaboration can emerge quickly, but not so many relationships that things become densely overconnected. And most important, create the context, trust in the participants, and know when to let go.


From RESILIENCE by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy. Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Zolli. Excerpted with permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_zolli.

[Image: Flickr user Churl Han]