Encouraging Emergent Leadership

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Whether you are a line manager, supervisor, or human resource development (HRD) professional, investing time and attention in the development of early-career professionals is one of the most important, high-return leadership actions you can take. So, why don't we do it more consistently? Many will say it's because of demands on their time. Some aren't sure what to do or how to do it.

In any case, my purpose here is to make this vital responsibility a bit easier to address. Let’s begin with an example. Then we’ll consider the why, what, and how elements of encouraging emergent leadership. I'll keep it simple (not simplistic) and focus on sure-win strategies because they get you in the game and yield the feedback that tells you if you’re moving the needle.

The Case of Brian

Off to a great start

Brian was recruited to the Mercy Medical Center when he was in his mid-twenties by a friend, Olivia, whom he met in a part-time MBA program. That was about 18 months ago, and he had proven to be a great addition to the supply chain department. He quickly took on some process issues that were instrumental to reducing inventory, a key improvement goal at Mercy.

Although his education was in accounting, he was put into an operations role in his first job out of college and really liked the energy, rapid pace, and problem solving aspects of the work. His action-oriented style was also appreciated at Mercy. But he discovered that there were differences, which presented challenges as he joined an interdisciplinary project team.

Supervisor gets feedback

Recently, his supervisor, Rebecca, had gotten feedback from Brian's team members in nursing and radiology that he seemed to “tune out” when discussion turned to the “patient experience.” His behavior seemed to say “Well, that’s your area, so let me know when you get it sorted out.” They were concerned that he lacked curiosity and concern for the large priorities of improving care.

Rebecca discussed the feedback with Brian. As she listened, it quickly became clear that Brian was actually much more interested than his colleagues knew, something his actions did not express. He kept his questions to himself, believing he would figure things out in time. Meanwhile, he saw no need to slow down the team process. Rebecca framed this interpretation as a hypothesis with Brian.

She then asked Brian, “What if I told you that you are responsible for letting others know what you are thinking, how you are feeling, and that you are trying to figure out how to contribute?” As he pondered this question, she added, "Why do you suppose colleagues might need to know these things about you? and "How might doing that actually enhance the team's process and progress?" Discussion ensued.

She and Brian talked about how different the mission and culture of Mercy was from that of his prior employer, a manufacturer of engineered products. Seldom were health outcomes and lives at stake there, but at Mercy these were always in consideration, they properly arose as the purpose in any improvement initiative and influenced most discussions.

Actionable development themes emerge

Brian quickly saw that he needed to voice his questions more often in order to learn and validate his learning about the clinical context and patient experience. Rebecca helped him see that by doing so he would rather naturally and authentically reveal his interest and motivation to learn—important things for his colleagues to know about him.

Brian came to see that his man-of-few-words approach to work was not a fit for his new role and for the mission and culture at Mercy. He needed to think out loud about how he was connecting the dots between the patient experience and the technical options for improving care. He began to see how interdependent their roles and contributions were—he saw the rationale for working as team.

With these themes in mind, Brian and Rebecca worked through some concrete examples of how he might approach interaction with his colleagues on the project team a bit differently. They discussed how he might acknowledge and build on the feedback they'd given his supervisor in order to open the door to more open dialogue and ongoing feedback. 

While Brian would never emerge as the most loquacious member of the team, he did increasingly contribute aligned acts of emergent leadership over the life of the team's work. And he did it largely by verbalizing his observations and questions. He was not attached to past ways of doing things, so his questions quite naturally stimulated innovation. His development spawned team development.

Why the focus on early-career professionals?

It's obvious upon reflection, but in the rush of the day we are not so reflective. So, let's take a moment to acknowledge the benefits of prioritizing developmental attention to early-career professionals:

  1. They are "sponges." Most are bright and will never be more amenable to adaptive learning.
  2. The way you evaluate their potential is to challenge it, see what they do with learning moments.
  3. The basics of leadership are generalizable—coach it well once, apply it elsewhere 100 times.
  4. Their naïveté can be a gift of fresh eyes, unencumbered by "best practices," open to innovation.
  5. When you express interest and encourage them, they're more likely speak up, assert initiative.
  6. There's little unlearning to do, and as they adopt and adapt ideas, you and others will learn, too.
  7. They are your future—if you can keep them, if you empower them, if you cultivate alignment.
  8. They will pay it forward as emergent leaders tomorrow, as positional leaders in the future. 

What should you focus on?

The simplest answer to this question is anything that promotes maturity and the capacity to lead and collaborate. Set the discussion in a context of task-oriented, goal-related action. This is the scene in which behaviors take on practical relevance. This is situated learning and development.

  • Scene. What happened and what is there to talk about? What must we "problematize"? [1]
  • Meaning. How did I/we construe facts, intentions, issues, options, and what's at stake?
  • Actions. What did I/we do and why? How did it play out? How did others react? Effects?
  • Do-overs. Given what I/we know now, how might I/we have interpreted/acted differently?
  • Take-aways. Development opportunities: knowledge/skills, self-regulation, communications.
  • Next steps. Action plans, opportunities to practice, and sources of feedback & measurement.

Concluding Thoughts

Taking time for developmental interventions with early-career professionals does not need to take a lot of your time. Moreover, it becomes easier and more efficient with practice. Most important, these conversations can be very empowering and growth-producing for the early-career professional.


[1] Problematization is a kind of critical thinking and dialogue used to examine the concrete aspects of a presenting situation, the parties involved, and the dynamics of interaction. It highlights and reframes challenges in ways that invite transformative action. We suspend reactive, habitual, taken-for-granted attitudes, posing the situation as problematic. This reflective stance invites consideration of new viewpoints, raises self-other awareness, and generates hope. This qualitative shift in thought, feeling, and relating to others allows new pathways of action to emerge.

Can there really be too much IQ?

The Curvilinear Effect of IQ on Leader

Some of the first empirical support for a curvilinear relationship between IQ and perceived leader effectiveness has just been published.*

We’ve known for some time that there’s a positive, linear association between IQ and leadership outcomes. That's why, cognitive ability testing has been a core element in selection procedures. Some have also theorized that there a “ceiling effect” on the impact of IQ as a predictor of success. That is, after a certain level IQ ceases to distinguish who is most successful or effective.

Now, with this new research, we have evidence to support the thesis that too much IQ can actually be a detractor. Beyond a certain point, increases in IQ may manifest in behavior that others perceive as less favorable. The "super smart" may think and speak in ways that seem to make things more complex than they need to be, creating more confusion than focus. These behaviors may even suggest an air of aloofness to some.

In any case, we are reminded that general intelligence or IQ – which is not the same as practical savvy or wisdom – is not enough on its own. Practical judgment and EQ are also vital parts of a leader’s overall capacity to be effective. Therefore, we must find ways to observe and appraise both kinds of intelligence when we are evaluating the potential or fit of a candidate for a bigger role in executive leadership.

* Source:

  1. Antonakis, J. et al, in press. "Can Super Smart Leaders Suffer From Too Much of a Good Thing? The Curvilinear Effect of Intelligence on Perceived Leadership Behavior." Journal of Applied Psychology, March 2017.

The Gathering Influence of Presence

The Meaning of Presence

I developed the first research-based assessment of executive presence, which is now used by a number of Fortune 100 firms. In the process, I applied theories of situated assessment and leader development as identity development, which I had been formulating over the past 20 years of my career as a psychologist. What I’ve learned is that projecting one’s personal presence into a live social-organizational context, in the service of leadership, is a complex, constructive expression of meaning. 

Indeed, more than individual expression of meaning by the leader, the leader’s presence constitutes a gathering force, a port for others to gather, refuel, and acquire a common sense of purpose, direction, and mission. In that process, the agency of all is stimulated. They are not mere compliant actors; rather, they become active centers of translating directional ideas, practical imperatives, and purposive zeal into collaborative leadership action. Now, let’s see how a poet might imagine this gathering force. 

From a Poets Point of View

In this poem by Wallace Stevens, we see the imagined effect of placing a cultural object in a natural setting; it’s a simple object, a ceramic jar. It was put there through the purposive agency of a human being, and it changed the place in which it was placed. 

The jar tamed the wilderness. Its geometric shape and its purpose – to contain something – lend structure to the environmental surrounds of the place. Its presence there was plain, “gray and bare;" still it asserts “dominion” over the natural beauty of “bird or bush.”  

For better or worse, when an intervening, agenic, organizing act asserts its presence, there are effects. And this is one way of thinking about our personal presence as leaders and agents of change. We impose an ordering influence upon the scene, hoping that it gathers, aligns, and engages. A new constellation of intelligent action is formed.

3 Things People Want from Coaching

  by Emily Macaux

by Emily Macaux

I should explain that I’ve been doing executive coaching for 20 years. However, my understanding of what most people want from coaching transcends that experience. I, too, have been engaged as a client in a developmental relationship. Moreover, I have trained and supervised other psychologists in both organizational and clinical settings. And it’s the mix of my experiences, as client, as coach, as supervisor, and as researcher that shapes my point of view on this subject.  

Three Things

First, I believe we want to experience gains in competence and confidence. This almost always means coming to grips with our fears and “secret” doubts and insecurities. That, of course, is one of the more important paradoxes in what I will call transformative growth and development. Often, we’ve already claimed a role and are trying to live up to what we see as the expectations of that role. This can leave us feeling like a bit of pretender. So, it can feel awkward, even scary, to explore our needs for growth.  

Second, is the corollary to the first really. That is, we want to feel authentic and unencumbered by our insecurities. After all, having genuine confidence means being competent in ways that draw upon our personal qualities, relational tendencies, and distinctive aptitudes. All three exist in various states of actuality and potentiality. None of us is great at everything, nor are we equally interested and adept in playing our role the same way others might. So, it’s finding the way that works best for us that’s key. 

Third, is a quality of intimate and challenging engagement with our coach. It’s most manifest when we recognize that our coach is quick to understand our individual psychology, to relate it to our role and aspirations, and to see more that we can see about what might be getting in our way. In such relational knowing, we can trust the coach to offer hypotheses about how we get stuck, and to explore ways that we can get unstuck. This is how deep trust is born and how we become adept at “not knowing.” 

Notice the Progression:

1)     Competence and overt confidence are often the goals we, as clients, most readily focus on and desire as outcomes, even as we harbor fears or insecurities about being “found out.” 

2)     It’s only possible to make lasting gains in competence and build a genuine basis for confidence by doing the inside work, which usually requires a bit of “tough love” from the coach.

3)     Learning how to drop our guard, get to the “real stuff,” and learning how to approach it rather than avoiding it, that’s what promotes our capacity for ongoing adaptive development.  


The trick is that we usually don’t know all of what we don’t know about this experience at the outset. To read my conceptualization of the experience here and cognitively grasp its meaning is one thing. But we must feel this experience personally in the presence of someone who can empathically sense what we are feeling as our feelings arise. Our coach must then help us raise this implicit subjective experience to an explicit intersubjective level of consideration, thereby making it available to work on. 

Through this kind of iterative interaction, the client become more able to notice her/his feelings sooner and to make them more accessible to explicit examination. Faulty or outdated beliefs and assumptions, and exaggerated and inhibiting feelings of fear begin to lose their constraining effects in the light of day. As we learn to do this with our coach, we acquire a greater readiness for doing this transformative work with those we lead, those we love (i.e., yes, it pays off at home), and those with whom we collaborate.  

The March for Science: A Call for Reasonableness?

The Social Purpose of Science

The basic aim of science in human history has centered on understanding all aspects of the world in which we live in order to create a meaningful and sustainable way of life together. As peoples, we have diverse moral and cultural traditions, which provide us with normative guidance on what is good, right, and proper. In the U.S., our constitution is one that is specifically designed to accommodate such diversity. But we also have a tradition of drawing upon rational, scientific knowledge and the scientific community to inform policy deliberations and decisions, and to guide our strategic approach to social and economic development.  

The March for Science arises at a time when prevailing trends of political polarization seem to have compromised our abilities to draw upon science and the voice of reason as well as we have in the past. What we lose as a result of this polarization is as much the tone of reasonableness so essential to the scientific attitude as the valuable knowledge content that the sciences contribute to policy making. With this in mind, I attempt to characterize the "gifts" of science below, i.e., the distinctive rigor of scientific “discipline” and the rich vitality of the “spirit” of science. Others may do a better job than I of making this distinction, but I hope my efforts are helpful.

What Distinguishes the Contribution of Science?

  • The discipline of science: the systematic study of an identified domain of phenomena – real, ideal, physical, social, moral, or other – by means of observation, analysis, and measurement in order to characterize its underlying principles and generate practical theories and coherent bodies of knowledge to inform our policy decisions and courses of action for the public good.  
  • The spirit of science: the mindset, motivations, and collaborative approach to study that sparks creative-productive interaction; more than siloed thinking and isolated streams of investigation, this spirit reminds us that our diverse efforts, talents, and points of view are most consequential when shared, discussed, and debated in a mood of mutual respect and reasonableness.