The Stranger in Network Theory
Wander This Way With Me
In music and folk tales, there is a character that goes by many names. Some call him The Stranger, others the Journeyman, the Wanderer, the Rover, and a popular one in both Celtic and Bluegrass music is known as the Freeborn Man. These characters move in and out of places. Listen to this version of the tale by the Scottish band Lau.
These individuals move from place to place. They stay awhile, then move on. The lead character in Lee Child’s novels, Reacher, is one of these characters. History tells stories of itinerant preachers, like the Apostle Paul, and traveling salespersons selling their magic elixir across the American West like the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz and Professor Henry Hill the band instrument salesman of the Broadway musical, The Music Man.
Back in the day, in some towns, they’d run the stranger out of town on a rail. Not a lot of trust for outsiders in those communities. Then in other towns, new people are welcome. Earlier this year, I was driving across Nebraska into Wyoming. I stopped for lunch in the border town of Pine Bluffs, Wy. I walked into a crowded diner filled with farmers, police officers, and the staff of the town. I received smiles and a head nod from many of those eating. A town that welcomes the stranger is one that has its face turned outward to the world.
The Stranger’s World
One of the benefits of these travelers is that they bring news from down the road. This is how networks function. If your network or town is closed to outsiders you are going to miss out on what is happening elsewhere. However, if you are open to what people have to say, you gain perspective and maybe a cautionary word when it is needed.
A lot of the expansion of our networks happen when we travel. We meet someone in an airport lounge and we share stories. It reminds me of my grandfather, Pappy, who told me near the end of his life that the most significant invention that he experienced was the radio. “Why?” I asked. “Because we learned about people in other places.” Technology is a vehicle for our networks to stretch beyond our own back door. We are introduced to people that if they were standing at our front door would be considered The Stranger.
The Stranger in Network Theory
My network of relationships is filled with people who are strangers. Yet, we share common experiences and desires. Sometimes those of us who are strangers recognize that we don’t fit in. But not fitting in is not the same as being excluded. As The Stranger to a group, we can be friends without having to fit in.
Georg Simmel wrote an essay called The Stranger. It resonates deeply with my life. I constantly tell people how “We are All in transition. Every one of us. All the time.” This is a way of the stranger. Here is how Simmels describes this person.
“If wandering is the liberation from every given point in space, and thus the conceptional opposite to fixation at such a point, the sociological form of the "stranger" presents the unity, as it were, of these two characteristics. This phenomenon too, however, reveals that spatial relations are only the condition, on the one hand, and the symbol, on the other, of human relations. The stranger is thus being discussed here, not in the sense often touched upon in the past, as the wanderer who comes today and goes tomorrow, but rather as the person who comes today and stays to morrow. He is, so to speak, the potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going. He is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself.
This describes what it has been like to be a coach and consultant over the past twenty-seven years. Early on, I realized that my clients were telling me things that were not just confidential, but deeply personal. I learned to say that I was “the intimate outsider.” I would enter into their organizational world to help strategize and solve their problems and help remove the obstacles the company faced. This simple statement does not take in the range of complexity that I often would find. To see what I see, you have to see how my leadership model, Circle of Impact, provides the path for The Stranger to build relationships of respect, trust, and mutual benefit.
A Relationship with the Stranger
If you reflect upon your life and work, you may realize that there are people who enter your world for a period of time and then are gone. Maybe they work on a project with you. For a short period of time, you work closely together. You quickly develop trust. The project reaches its completion. Everyone moves on to the next project. This is how our relationships in the world of organizations tend to reflect the course of The Stranger. Simmel describes it this way.
“The unity of nearness and remoteness involved in every human relation is organized, in the phenomenon of the stranger, in a way which may be most briefly formulated by saying that in the relationship to him, distance means that he, who is close by, is far, and strangeness means that he, who also is far, is actually near. For, to be a stranger is naturally a very positive relation; it is a specific form of interaction.”
The Stranger is not a wanderer nor a lost soul looking for some handout. The Stranger isn’t an alien, nor a person who enters a community to exploit it. They are people who move through the world of organizations, communities, and people’s lives. They stay for a while and then will leave when the time is right.
The Purpose of Why They Stay is What is Important to Understand.
My experience as The Stranger is rich in relationships that last for a period of time and then were over. So, many of those people I wanted to maintain a close relationship with them forever, but it was just not possible. If we lived next door to each other, our relationship would be different. The shared interests, values, and purpose would be different. Our focus on our kids or work would be similar. The reality is that the basis of our relationship is a social or organizational connection that allows us to have a relationship at a distance. Most of these people who I have known in this way, I can call today, and we’d be back where we were years, even decades, ago.
The Stranger understands how to enter a community, fit in temporarily, and then move on. This is what many pastors or ministers do when they are called to a congregation. They come and slowly pass by this way for a while. They care for the people. They bury loved ones. Marry people who have found that they want to formalize their commitment to each other. They tell stories and teach lessons of faith in God and life lived in a community with those who share that faith. Then, the pastor leaves, and another comes to spend time with them. Having been in this role early in my career, I can tell you that it is never easy to enter an already-formed faith community, and even harder to leave it when it is time. The way of The Stranger is not an easy one.
The Role of The Stranger
In earlier times, The Stranger’s role was that of a trader. He’d enter a community with objects to trade that were not available within their region. He’d also bring stories of other lands, people, and cultures. In network terminology, he was an information resource.
Years ago, I heard a story told by a British doctor who served in the Congo. She was traveling on foot and alone between two villages. She came to a crossroads. A man was there to tell her to go a different way because there were bandits waiting for her on the more direct road to the village. She went the alternative route arriving safe at the village. The villagers were surprised to see her because they too knew about the bandits. She told them of the man who guided her a different way. The villagers told her they did not know who that man was. He was obviously The Stranger who was sent or knew to go to that crossroad to warn her of the threat against her life.
Many coaches and consultants function in a similar way. They trade in information and insight. They enter into the life experience of a person or a group for a period of time. They have an impact on the group that makes a difference that matters, and then they disappear. This has been my experience as I seek to provide strategic help for people and organizations in transition. I am The Stranger “who comes today and stays to morrow”. As I write this, I am finishing up four days of strategy sessions with a businessperson, embedded in his home with his family, as he and they look to their future. For these few days, I have been one of the family.
Simmel describes The Stranger as one who comes with objectivity.
“Another expression … lies in the objectivity of the stranger. He is not radically committed to the unique ingredients and peculiar tendencies of the group, and therefore approaches them with the specific attitude of "objectivity." But objectivity does not simply involve passivity and detachment; it is a particular structure composed of distance and nearness, indifference and involvement. …
With the objectivity of the stranger … is the fact that he often receives the most surprising openness – confidences which sometimes have the character of a confessional and which would be carefully withheld from a more closely related person. Objectivity is by no means non-participation … but a positive and specific kind of participation. …
Objectivity may also be defined as freedom: the objective individual is bound by no commitments which could prejudice his perception, understanding, and evaluation of the given. The freedom, however, which allows the stranger to experience and treat even his close relationships as though from a bird's-eye view…”
This is my experience. My seminary training in pastoral skills has served me well as the “intimate outsider” with my clients and colleagues. This means that the character of The Stranger, that character being the capacity to enter as a stranger and establish a relationship of trust and impact is the key to understanding the value of The Stranger.
Developing Space for The Stranger
Some of you reading this will do so with a critical eye. You are confident about your sources of information and insight. I have known many of you. You are not people who maintain relationships outside your circle of friends and family. You feel certain that you know what you need to know. And you are confident that whatever situation arises that challenges you and your organizations, you already have the where-with-all to resolve the problem successfully.
The rest of you are open to the idea of letting The Stranger into your circle. But you don’t know what to look for in that person. As a professional Stranger, so to speak, let me tell you what I look for as a pathway to helping.
First, I am looking to understand your purpose, and how that purpose is applied through the three dimensions of the Circle of Impact.
By this, I want to know what your values are, what your relationships are like, and how you are organized.
Second, I want to understand what you see your problem is or the obstacle that stands in the way of your purpose.
The clearer you are the more likely it is that we can quickly identify the path that you and your organization need to take to resolve what holds you back.
Third, I want to know if you are committed to changing your circumstances.
You don’t want to waste your money, and I don’t want to waste my time.
Fourth, I want to know if you and I can work together.
Understand that I don’t work for you, I work with you in these situations. I have fired clients in the midst of a contract because they were not really interested in working with me.
Lastly, I want a clear end to a project.
I want to stay until to morrow and then leave. In this sense, I am the Freeborn Man in the song. I have here to serve and then I move on to serve others.
Developing openness for The Stranger needs to happen before he or she arrives. If your network is closed, you won’t find us. If it is open, you may already know us, but not as the intimate outsider who comes to help.