What is Emergent Leadership?

Emergent leadership generally involves the concept of leadership as the influence one person has with other people. In other words, leadership transcends position or formal authority. It revolves around a person’s ability to persuade other people to listen to them and do things because they (the friends, team members, “others”) are asked by that individual.

Consider the stereotypical “school group project.” In high school you were put in groups and given a project to complete. There was usually not any one person “assigned” to be the leader by the teacher. Yet, someone generally would step up, “rise to the top,” and become the leader. This is the person that other group members listened to as the group worked through the project.

Likewise, emergent leaders are also found on teams where leaders are formally designated. The formal leader typically has some type of authority to give weight to their decisions. In the workplace, the manager can hire or fire employees. In the military, officers have legal authority to enforce their commands. Even so, there is often a soldier, who has no higher rank than his peers, who other soldiers listen to or take advice from. Soldiers (or group members) who can give advice, counsel, or direction that others are willing to follow are leaders. This is emergent leadership at work.

As a professor of leadership communication, I have used group projects in many classes over the last 2 decades. I have also conducted research on the subject and have found three principles that enable a person to emerge as a leader on any team.

What is Emergent Leadership?

Photo by Ivan Samkov

The Emergent Leader Solves Problems

He or she has a reputation for getting things done and has a reputation for knowing the right things to say or do in difficult situations. The emergent leader knows their responsibilities and excels in their work. If people come to you for help, this is an indicator that you are a leader whether you have formal authority or not. As you develop a reputation for solving problems throughout the wider organization, your sphere of influence grows, and you gain power based on the number of people who will look to you for help and listen when you speak.

The Emergent Leader Can Make Themselves Heard In A Credible Way

Leaders neither stay beneath the radar nor duck their heads to avoid responsibility in the organization. This is not to say that effective leaders are involved in every single project in the organization. An emergent leader knows what he or she knows and what he or she doesn’t know.

When an issue is being discussed that the relational leader has knowledge of, he or she will speak up and share that knowledge to create the best possible outcome. If there are others present who may know more than (or even as much as) the emergent leader, the leader will let the others speak up.

They understand that it is important to say something when it will add to the discussion but does not feel the need to be always the center of attention. One other thing about speaking up in meetings: Many people experience great anxiety when they think about speaking up in a meeting. Successful leaders learn to manage the fear and speak up anyway.

What is emergent leadership?

Photo by fauxels

The Emergent Leader Works To Establish Authentic Connections With People

People follow those they trust. In addition to building trust through expertise and knowledge, emergent leaders build trust by creating authentic relationships. An authentic relationship occurs when two people have a relationship based on mutual respect and honesty. Open, transparent communication is a key.

When people think that you hide things from them, they will not place their trust in you. This is not to say that the leader should divulge confidences or engage in gossip to ingratiate him- or herself to others. Rather, the leader is bound to tell followers all the information that will have an impact on them as they do their work.

An emergent leader is one who gains influence based on trust in a relationship. This type of influence is powerful because it doesn’t come from forced compliance based in formal authority. Rather it is influence that followers ask for and credibility freely given to the leader because of the trust that resides in the relationship.

The trust in this relationship that comes from credibility and authenticity helps to establish a dynamic team setting that enables people to achieve great success.

Photo Credit

Featured Image: Tima Miroshnichenko

Photo 1: Ivan Samkov

Photo 2: fauxels

John W. Edwards II is an Associate Professor of Applied Communication at Methodist University and the Director of the Lura S. Talley Center for Leadership Development. He has taught communication and leadership classes in universities and community colleges since 1999. His current research agenda centers on leadership pedagogy and community leadership development. John was Executive Director of the Institute for Community Leadership (https://leadership4us.org/) in Fayetteville NC in 2019-2021. He still serves on that Board. John also works with the Collegiate Leadership Competition (https://www.collegiateleader.org/), an international leadership education organization that provides a practice field for students of leadership.


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