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Emergent leadership

12.11.2019 | 12 minutes of reading time


Buzzwords are a pet peeve of mine; they corrupt the beautiful ambiguity of language for the purpose of manipulation.

'Leadership' is one of those words which seem straightforward at first glance, but have been subtly and significantly buzzwordified – and it can be hard to pinpoint how.

The goal of this article is not to provide a definitive guide to leadership, but to look under the hood and try to discern useful meaning from the misleading buzz. Hopefully we'll also unearth a few interesting ideas in the process.


Let's take a slight detour, and start with a related concept: 'ownership'.

Ownership is having (legal) power over a thing. However, the term is increasingly used to refer to the internalization of responsibility one feels toward work – that is, one 'owns' the work activity itself but not necessarily its outcome.

Is there a difference between taking responsibility and taking ownership? Well, the first approach focuses more on costs and hardship, while the second one implies fulfillment and maybe improved standing. This shifted focus is a positive thing; work activities should feel fulfilling, and getting recognition isn't a bad thing either.

However, 'ownership' can go wrong if the obligation to feel such fulfillment is imposed, either internally or externally. An employee is already removed from possession of the results of the work, and if freedom and power over the working circumstances are also restricted, the term becomes an empty husk.

So, in a sense, 'ownership' buzzwordifies responsibility and duty into a more palatable and wholesome package, but becomes ominous doublespeak if the employee is not correspondingly given trust, freedom, and flexibility to perform in a creative and fulfilling manner.

Servant leadership

Leadership is in a similar position where we try to conflate an old meaning with a new one to give it more buzz. Unfortunately, the old meaning on its own doesn't cut it anymore, so we do actually need the new complementary concept.

The term 'servant leadership' highlights the dichotomy, but not so much the underlying meaning. It is as wrong in one direction as it is in the other; the two wrongs kinda cancel each other out, but the term falls flat on describing what it actually is.

'Emergent leadership' is not a particularly fitting term either, but I'm going to stick with it because I don't have anything better.

What emergent leadership is not

Traditional leadership evokes an almost biblical image of a hero emerging from the lowly crowd and bringing guidance to the lightless masses.

In the best case the members of the crowd are followers, and in the worst case servants. They are the NPCs, the human resources, and their virtue lies in doing as they're told. The sketch from Monty Python's "Life of Brian" where Brian addresses the crowd and the crowd parrots back in unison "Yes, we're all individuals!" is on point.

Even if the image of the hero leader doesn't devolve into that of a soul-sucking boss demanding overtime and sexual favors, the approach is still inherently flawed because of the large chasm between the leader and everyone else. Traditional leadership goes hand in hand with a formal hierarchy where misery flows strictly downward – further layering such gaps.

What do we dislike about such leadership? Matters of ethics and enlightenment aside, mostly that it's very inefficient for skilled labor. It doesn't mesh well with related modern concepts of leadership, such as the concept of 'ownership' discussed above.

A traditional leader is a huge performance amplifier, but only because the others are relatively useless and inert in comparison. Of course, many elements of traditional leadership have their use. For example, a strict hierarchy with a clear chain of command enables quick decision-making and execution. This is useful when time is of the essence, e.g. in combat or emergency situations.

To increase performance, the obvious idea is to make everyone a leader. Equally obvious is that if everyone's a leader, no one is. Thus, we arrive at a makeshift definition and the core of our problem:

Emergent leadership is about maximizing the performance of a team or organization.

Emergent leadership from the view of the company

If traditional leadership is a top-down approach, emergent leadership is a bottom-up approach.

Complexity is hard to handle; more so on an organizational than on a technical level. From the view of the company, emergent leadership is not about the person, but rather the organizational structure as a whole.

The theory is simple: get a bunch of high-performing people together, empower them by removing any foreseeable obstacles – and trust them to do their thing.

However, it's not easy to replace a traditional hierarchical structure with one based on personal responsibility. The role of personal responsibility is traditionally offloaded to the management layers, where it loses the 'personal' part and becomes diluted. It morphs into political dynamics, exacerbating the dichotomy of leadership and causing a slew of problems.

Even ignoring such psycho-social aspects, the problem of silos and interfaces, of layers and compartments is difficult to overcome – Conway's law is bound to make a mess of things.

We can't sensibly deal with organizational complexity the same way we deal with technological complexity – cutting up a living entity into pieces and putting it back together doesn't work.

A quote by Larry Page stuck with me. It details that prescribing to a team a scheduled plan with set expectations will never produce an outcome which exceeds those expectations. This already is reason enough to take the emergent leadership route.

As an alternative to putting groups of people in boxes and subsequently pleading with them to look beyond the boundaries just set, the solution is to create a self-organizing and dynamic structure where the desired exchange of views can occur organically. The expectation is that everyone communicates freely and steps into various roles as needed out of their own initiative. (We'll discuss the costs later.)

Building consensus over the overarching vision and daily decisions becomes easier, reducing overhead, with the side-effect of also being more fulfilling for the workers.

In the end, what emerges? In best case, a dynamic and efficient organizational entity with a healthy mind rather than a split personality. It's reined by the company values, but the people are its beating heart and its spirit can roam free.

Emergent leadership from the view of the person

For the person, emergent leadership is a balancing act.

As with traditional leadership, we can assemble a hodgepodge of skills gained through self-improvement that a person in an emergent leadership organization should have:

  • Leading by example — Walking the talk is quite persuasive.
  • Vision — Synthesizing goals and analytical complexity into a creative and dynamic whole. Every Kwisatz Haderach must start somewhere.
  • Communication — Co-creating the above-mentioned vision, creating consensus, generating buy-in etc. Also, knowing when to shut up and listen.
  • Followership — Demonstrating trust in the people around you by stepping out of your own way.
  • Initiative — Because only reacting to things just doesn't cut it.
  • Empowerment — Mentoring, teaching, and other ways to bring out the best in people and make them emergent leaders.
  • Catalysation — To borrow a term from Bob Ross, a catalyst is able to create 'happy accidents'.
  • Political savviness — Knowing where to push, where to pull, and how much.
  • Ownership — Choosing to internalize responsibility and deriving fulfillment from it. (As discussed above.)
  • Backbone — Paramount in today's world; think of it as the resilience of your vision against corruptive influences. Don't be afraid to do Chaos Engineering in the production environment of your mind!

There's some overlap; being able to trim or extend this hodgepodge as needed is also a leadership skill. We could say checking most of the items on this list makes you an emergent leader, but that is not quite right.

Though emergent leadership requires more than the above-mentioned skills and mere technical competence, personal responsibility lies clearly at its core. Assuming responsibility is generally an empowering behavior; it brings inner clarity by resolving conflicts within oneself and transforming baser, instinctive gratification to higher-order ones.

(Difficulties arise when drawing the boundaries of identity and responsibility. Being accountable to not only oneself, but others as well, requires a more frequent and creative redrawing of such boundaries – or risk being torn to pieces.)

Though personal responsibility lies at the core, it is actually attitude which lets emergent leadership emerge to the surface.

The inward aspects of attitude include curiosity, humbleness, and self-discipline commensurate with one's sense of responsibility. The outward aspects of attitude encompass everything in regard to how one chooses to interact with the environment; this includes communication and other well-known soft skills of leadership.

(Here at codecentric we pride ourselves on 'knowledge leadership', which is leadership in the sense of being at the forefront. Consultants at codecentric are offered to spend 20% of their working time satisfying their curiosity and pursuing knowledge leadership – it's pretty neat!)

The complexity of emergent leadership lies in bridging the gap from personal responsibility, to team responsibility, and all the way over to corporate responsibility. We have personal responsibility and attitude on one end, static corporate values on the other, and it all has to mesh together to become a living culture.

If the person is a holistic part of a greater identity and not reduced to being a cog in the machine, it's easy to let leadership emerge. Being part of a high-performing team where everybody steps in as needed feels meaningful and energizing.

Hopefully, it is in one's best interest to align oneself with the goals of the company. If you're doing something, you might as well do it well, and it's more fulfilling to bring a project to fruition than to let it fail or become undead. If the alignment is a conscious choice, it becomes more powerful and its boundaries more clearly defined.

Of course, the onus is not simply on the person; companies should set holistic goals and foster a healthy culture which inspire others to become aligned.

The dark side of emergent leadership

Emergent leadership is not all sunshine. There's a bit of a dark side with associated costs and risks, for both the person and the corporation.

For the person, perhaps the most obvious negative is that emergent leadership is emergent only from the view of the company; the individual has to work hard at working smart.

The complexity is still there – and you have to take more of it in. Interacting with others to a greater degree and always looking beyond your strict specialization has its associated mental and emotional costs, and requires prudent prioritization.

'Leadership' implies a promise of power over others. Thankfully emergent leadership does not deliver on this front – but maybe not everyone got the memo. Overblown egos are an annoying and potentially toxic hindrance, quick to derail the positive qualities of an emergent leadership structure.

No team operates in a vacuum and support is paramount. If there are trust issues, or if the signals from the corporate side are indicative of a split personality, any such resistance kills the heartbeat quite quickly. (For the person, one rational choice is then to restrict one's zeal and sense of responsibility within clearly defined boundaries and never look beyond. Another option is to adopt a more Machiavellian behavior.)

On the topic of alignment, asking for not only one's time, but also a part of one's identity can be a tough sell. The easy and dangerous way to go about this is to target impressionable people willing to drink the cool-aid – which is also the point where the whole thing can devolve into a cult.

The proper way is to have culture centered around wholesome and sincerely meant goals and values, complete with the ability to constantly challenge those values.

There's often a mismatch between the formal and the informal on political, cultural, ideological and other levels. Traditional hierarchical companies accept such sources of conflict as endemic, unavoidable properties of the system and embrace the doublespeak. The degree of trust that an emergent-leadership organization requires is pretty much impossible to envision for a company based on such principles.

Even if the situation is not that dire, steering culture is still quite difficult: you either prescribe and implicitly promote doublespeak, or let culture emerge with not more than a few nudges. Such loss of control can be frightening.

Putting such deeper issues aside, the main danger for the company is that despite best efforts, leadership simply doesn't emerge.

This is a valid concern, because culture can only build on underlying mentality, and not everyone is willing, able, or used to partaking. If there are only few emergent leaders, the organization likely defaults to traditional hierarchies.

At the end of the day, emergent leaders are also human, with all the frailties and biases that entails. Self-reinforcing psycho-social patterns can lead to toxic, bureaucratic or other detrimental cultures, and enforcing a few iron-clad rules as instruments of hygiene may prevent a state of corruption or self-devouring.

Then again, it may not.

Ultimately, the deciding factor is the emotional and spiritual maturity of the people involved, and companies are not oriented towards fostering such growth – and it's arguable if they should be. What they can do, relatively cheaply, is putting significantly more effort in picking the right people.


At the beginning, I set out to lift the veil of 'buzz' and look what lies at the core. As we've seen, despite the glimmering but often purposely murky surface, the term 'emergent leadership' covers a concept with a lot of useful complexity underneath.

On one hand, we've seen that emergent leadership is a dynamic organizational form, requiring a lot of trust and promising very high performance. It depends on the mentality, culture, maturity and willful participation of the persons involved. It is not a silver bullet.

On the other hand, the cornerstone of emergent leadership is the individual, placing high requirements upon the person. An attitude of self-responsibility, creativity, self-discipline, curiosity and self-improvement is quintessential, supported by a subtle and wide skillset.

Most of the buzzwordiness lies in conflating emergent leadership with traditional leadership (e.g. power over others), feeding the ego to make the high requirements palatable and appealing. This, of course, is in opposition to the core requirements of emergent leadership: humbleness and expanding one's identity beyond the ego.

Though emergent leadership is an overloaded term and embraces this bit of cognitive dissonance, I believe we're not yet in malicious doublespeak territory.

As for the future, I expect many new, exciting, and contagious organizational frameworks and methodologies to arise. The topic of emergent leadership is deep enough to warrant that. For the same reason, I also expect everyone to be doing them wrong; all companies based on similar principles as discussed in this article are and will be practical research experiments in emergent leadership.

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