The Power of Emergent Leadership

Emergent leadership is a familiar term to many, but its meaning may not be fully understood by all, and its potential power as a goal and vital measure of organizational capability may be even less obvious. In this blog, I'd like to share with you in very brief form why I believe it merits attention as an organizing theme for your efforts in leadership and organizational development in 2016. As you'll see, it is central to our focus on how to maximize the potential of early-career professionals to lead, collaborate, and make a difference.

Defining Emergent Leadership

As with most definitions, ours will serve to get you in the "ball park" of common understanding and usage, but it requires elaboration. The elaboration that is always most helpful, of course, is that which is specific to your operating environment and social-organizational context. So, you must pause as you read and ask yourself, "How is that relevant to us, to our business, to our challenges and needs for leadership?" You might also ask, "How might our work in 2016 benefit from more of this kind of leader engagement?"

Now the definition:  Emergent Leadership, as the words imply, manifests in actions that serve to guide execution through an individual's assertion of initiative, which does not stem from a formal position of authority (i.e., positional power). These acts often emerge in response to a problem that poses a threat to realization of a shared goal. What further distinguishes them is their solution-focused intent and their pro-social effects on colleagues and collaborators.

We can now observe some of what recommends attention to emergent leadership:

  1. It accelerates team development (forming, storming, norming, and performing)[1] by encouraging and expecting all to exercise initiative.
  2. It promotes diversity by explicitly welcoming all to contribute in their own ways and offer insights, ideas, and a willingness to work through issues.
  3. It models an ethic of we, not me, meaning we’re in it together, thus greater inclusion and openness to the experience, views, and concerns of others.
  4. It builds genuine alignment on goals, roles, and contributions as an imperative to ensure that actions serve the shared goals of the team.
  5. It makes everyone accountable for results, providing ample incentive for people to take prudent risks, and make above-and-beyond efforts.
  6. It thrives on dialogical and conversational interaction, rather than over-relying on hierarchy, which enables more productive and timely action.
  7. It increases leadership capacity by empowering aligned acts of leadership at all levels, thereby honing the leadership skills of next-generation talent.
  8. It creates a history of achievement that all can identify with, learn from, and take credit for, and over time this legacy defines the culture.

Promoting Emergence in Your Organization

You may be wondering if it is realistic to expect that all early-career professionals in your organization have the potential or the interest to lead.

One thing we know is that prevailing implicit theories of leadership[2] have caused us to overlook the distinctive ways in which women, ethnic minorities, and people of other cultures assert influence and leadership. This same myopia may also cause us to underestimate majority candidates (white males) whose approach to leadership is less reflective of the prevailing prototype, i.e., perhaps they are quieter, less practiced in assertive and structuring modes of behavior.

For these and other reasons, I suggest that, especially with early-career professionals, we must be more concerned with minimizing “false negatives.” Let's not be too quick to rule people in or out. If they express interest, then we owe it to them and to the organization to put them in positions to demonstrate their potential and their needs for development.

The assessment-based approach to development that we recommend will help you to do that. Rather than providing conclusive evaluation of potential, it offers guidance on how to target developmental work assignments for the person and provide the resources and opportunity to “show their stuff.” We believe this will enable you to take full advantage of the latent potential to lead that is represented in your early-career talent pool.

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[1] These are the stages of Tuckman Model of team development.

[2] Implicit leadership theory is the term used to denote the mental model we all carry within us that defines what leadership looks like. Research has found that this model continues to be characterized by stereotypically masculine qualities, i.e., action bias, autonomy, dominance, and hierarchy, which favor the white male and that lead us to overlook the potential to lead in others.