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.