The need for developing Emergent Leadership to unleash organizational success

How to rethink traditional leadership to drive human systems wellbeing, innovation and performance

April 26, 2024
11 min read
a woman leaning on a table full of lego bricks with a group of people around the same table

This article is part of the How we work series.

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In today’s rapidly changing business landscape, organizations are constantly searching for ways to adapt and thrive. As a decision-maker, it’s no secret for you that effective leadership plays a pivotal role in navigating market turbulence and global competition. However, despite the substantial investments made in leadership development programs, the results often fall short in delivering the kind of lenses and approaches leaders crave to navigate this ever-changing scenario.

What if the traditional understanding of leadership is not able to meet the challenges we face? Traditional leadership development programs have focused on developing the “right” leaders, dismissing the broader context in which leadership unfolds. Why? How much risk is created by ignoring shifting external and internal realities?

Leadership isn’t necessarily a characteristic possessed by a person. Instead, it can be seen as an emergent property that arises from the context in which individuals are immersed. It is observable by practitioners attuned to shifts in deep dynamics.

By enabling the diverse skills and perspectives of all team members to contribute their best selves to the effective agility of your organisation, developing emergent leadership skills can help you maximize both business results and individual fulfillment. Overall system-wide health and wellbeing naturally follows.

In this article, we will delve into the key elements of emergent leadership, its advantages, and how it can be developed in organizations of all sizes. Keep reading to uncover the competitive advantages that can emerge in embracing this new perspective.

The business case for adapting leadership to match context

In 2014 CEB (now Gartner) uncovered the results of a survey addressing more than 23.000 senior leaders and managers globally and the analysis showed that organisations dissatisfied with their leaders, that would change them if they could, raised from 12% in 2003 to 32% in 2013.

Fast forward to 2022 when the DDI Global Leadership Forecast — one of the largest studies on leadership in the world involving more that 1500 organisations in 50 countries and 24 different industries — declared that finding and developing a new generation of leaders is the key challenge for 55% of respondents, above recession, talent attraction and product innovation. At the same time it is estimated that the cost of leadership development programs in 2022 amounted globally at around 67Mn dollars and it is expected to triple over the next ten years.

After almost a decade since CEB’s first data, HR leaders admit that their current leadership development approach falls short in equipping leaders for the challenges posed by social, political and economic turbulence. Signs of burnout are also growing among leaders. The challenges have shifted, requiring leaders to effectively coordinate and manage remote teams, navigate organizational changes, satisfy customers, while achieving rapid results. This perfect storm of leadership exhaustion and rising employee and customer expectations places businesses’ resilience and performance at risk.

The data is not necessarily a reflection of the leaders’ competence or incompetence but exposes the difficulty organizations face in keeping pace with the immense complexity of the context. There is a clear need to prepare present and future leaders accordingly.

The context requires organizations to be antifragile; to embrace agility and adaptability matching the extremely volatile market demands. Directing action is no longer a reliable approach. New capabilities call for enabling collaboration and connection among different thinkers while facilitating teamwork.

“Nothing exists independent of its relationships, whether looking at subatomic particles or human affairs. No one can hope to lead any organization by standing outside or ignoring the web of relationships through which all work is accomplished. Margareth Wheatley

This explains the popularity of Agile approaches in today’s business landscape and the rising need for managers to upskill from controllers into facilitators. Agile methodologies applied to management facilitate reduction of top-down management approaches to empower the individuals to guide direction.

So, what kind of leadership serve today?

Rethinking Leadership

people working around a table in an office

Traditionally a leader is associated with a person in a position of authority responsible for motivating and coordinating their team, driving employee satisfaction and ensuring company profitability. Where does this view come from? Let’s explore the perception of leadership over time to uncover some hints.

The topic of leadership has been one of the most controversial and extensively discussed subjects throughout history. However, despite the vast amount of literature on the subject, a clear consensus on what exactly defines the characteristics of a “leader” has yet to be reached.

A scientific approach to the study of leadership started at the beginning of the 20th century, with exploration into the personality of leadership from transactional to transformational, humble to situational, collaborative to servant and the list goes on. Notwithstanding the differences among them, all the labels leadership has acquired over time are directly coupled with the way organisations have been conceived, and the challenges perceived as most urgent in the different moment in time.

There is not an inherently “good” or “bad” leadership approach. Instead, the effectiveness of leadership depends on its alignment with the specific context and market needs.

In stable contexts, hierarchical positional leadership provided a clear structure and allowed for standardized processes in relatively predictable environments. However, as we have witnessed, the dynamics of the market and society have become more turbulent and uncertain today. Leadership tied to authority restricts organizational responses and agility.

Organisations must be able to adapt quickly and respond to emerging challenges. Leadership residing in a few exceptional individuals at the top, results in burn out. It needs to become an organizational capability. Fostering the conditions for leadership to emerge from any hierarchical level and throughout the workforce, nurtures a culture that enables everyone to contribute their unique talents and perspectives and empowering them to lead when the circumstances require so.

That’s when leadership gets emergent.

“After a strong sense of purpose and commitment to birthing something new, take modest steps to impact the conversations and relationships…shaping the direction … Watch what emerges, pause, reflect, and course correct — then watch what emerges again.” Peter Block

Reaping the benefits of business agility

man surfing a wave

It is impossible to address the question of developing a new generation of leaders without simultaneously addressing the need to develop complexity-fit organizations.

Whether your aim is to meet sales targets or make significant strides in your market, important questions offer a chance to reflect, rethink and shift perspective:

  • How can we align our strategic direction with a purpose that resonates with each team and individual?
  • How can we empower every group to design and continuously adapt their own ways of working based on their goals and responsibilities?
  • How can we free managers from mundane, ineffective micro-control tasks and transform them into facilitators and catalysts for their colleagues?
  • How can we unlock the natural energy within our organization?
  • How can we experiment with more transparent information and knowledge flows?
  • How can we create a safe space where employees can bring their whole selves to work?
  • How can we view work as an ongoing opportunity for personal growth and fulfillment?

An effective leadership development program needs to embrace a fresh perspective on what organizations can be today. The goal is not simply to have more leaders as a token of leadership. The aim is to create organizational success, to do something unprecedented, meaningful, relevant, and to flourish. Pursuing a reflective approach keeps the mind attentive to possibility.

To shift the paradigm from hero leadership to emergent leadership, what if leadership programs address the combined effect of people’s energy, using the contextual conditions as a catalyst for self-organizing response, so effort flows to where it is needed? What if instead of focusing solely on selected individuals’ roles, skills and traits you can elevate cooperation and coordination across roles? Can existing leaders embrace the challenge of creating an environment that recognizes the interplay between individual capabilities and the systemic factors that enable leadership to emerge?

Building present and future leaders’ capabilities for supporting people’s natural self-leadership potential, takes vision and courage. People and the company can thrive by adapting. Tension is used for growth and inspired innovation is supported. It is a different use of initiative and energy and one that is more aligned with fast responses. All the things companies talk about doing but have difficulty with, such as collaboration, innovation, learning, can take meaningful form.

“Wave Riders are curious people possessed of an innate capacity to go with the flow, constantly seizing upon opportunity when others see no possibility or even disaster. And they bring a special gift — Leadership. Their passion and responsibility for a cause inspire others to make a common cause. Not by domination and control, but through invitation and appreciation, the efforts of many coalesce as one. Although there may be many mis-steps, mishaps, and false starts along the way, when The Wave comes it can be the experience of a lifetime. We live in a self-organizing world, even if we didn’t know it, and we have practiced the art of Wave Riding, albeit in secret.” Harrison Owen

Leadership can arise from anyone within the organization when the right conditions of opportunity, need, and attraction to a particular challenge are present. It manifests itself as the vital energy propelling both the performance and the evolution of your organization.

How can you nurture emergent leadership in your organization? A socio-technical perspective.

One size fits all does not give justice to the unique complexity of each organisation. The condition for emergent leadership to occur depends on who you are, the wider context and influences pressuring action, your past and your vision of the future, that together define your unique trajectory.

Start by clarifying the starting point: where your organization is today. Then run experiments using inquiry reflection. Some questions could be:

  • Who are the invisible influencers in your organisation? Who do you approach for information or discussions on specific problems? Who should be invited to participate in a shared goal? Visually map the informal trusted network of relationships that exists within your organization.
  • How easy is it for diverse individuals to interact and collaborate? Map information flows between diverse thinkers and worldviews. Seeing how well the organization can function with diverse views, tension, and conflict reveals where energy and opportunity are being overlooked or wasted.
  • To what extent is the entire organization, formal and informal interactions aligned with corporate direction? Alignment is not conformity. Alignment refers to everyone focusing on the same goal while contributing a different piece to how it is achieved. Silos indicate fragmentation. Encouraging colleagues to engage and communicate with individuals they may not typically interact with keeps minds fresh and ideas flowing. Establishing channels for knowledge sharing, promoting cross-functional collaboration, and providing opportunities for employees enhances technical competences and strengthens interpersonal skills. Discomfort is expected. Leaders lead on the edge. The open liminal spaces provide opportunity for leaders to flex their leadership muscles. Shared awareness around the common direction generates focus on facilitating the full potential of your system to contribute.
  • How can you be the first one to embrace uncertainty, relinquish direct control and trust your colleagues and the whole system? The notion that controlling the uncontrollable is a winning strategy is depleting organizational effectiveness. Provide energy rather than control. In complex contexts, it is the only way to achieve sound results. Look for ways to create an environment where people are supported and trusted to self-organise and experiment, without fear of failure and of negative consequences.
  • How polycentric is your decision making process? Being truly complexity-fit means distributing sense-making across the entire organisation. How can you enable the entire system to passionately and responsibly understand the market, customers, and colleagues and make their views inform decision making? Mentally pushing an organization through an autocratic approach to decision-making ignores market shifts. It leaves you blind-sided.
  • What barriers need to be removed so motivated people can take the lead without asking for permission? There is a strong correlation between the company culture, structure and processes and employee motivation. Logically, employee motivation and initiative drive performance. Context and human qualities are interconnected and form a self-sustaining feedback loop.

To achieve effective agility, it is crucial to recognize the intricate layers characterizing any human system: its technical aspects, its social dynamics, and the profound interconnectedness between them. While tools and methodologies play a role in enabling leadership, it is the people — their active engagement, collaborative synergy, and work styles — who ultimately drive the system’s evolution towards the desired outcomes. This seems obvious but an organization that still relies on humans as resources and not leaders signals a failure to connect.

It’s neither tools, competences, processes nor human traits and behaviors alone. It is the harmonious integration of people, processes, and tools that nurture emergent leadership and propels it in the direction of effectively distributing control to a trusted network. When all eyes are scanning for potential surprises, responding quickly using information shared through their trusted relationships adds value to the organization benefits.

What if leadership development programs were focused on a wider view, strengthening personal capability and organizational capacity by replacing controlling strategies with trust? Or will fear of losing control over others prohibit gaining control over a coherent response?

A real-life example of Emergent Leadership Development initiative: the X-Course

As a pioneer in its market, this leading energy utility had been already experimenting with a significant transformation in how it brought data to the core of its decision-making processes and with an agile re-organization of its roles and responsibilities.

We were invited to support them by exploring the concrete impact such initiatives had, both on the leadership model of the entire organization and the individual style each manager adopted with their team.

Discover what happened:

Leadership development reloaded

«Leadership for this era is not a role or a set of traits. It is a zone of inter-relational process. Step in, step out.» Nora Bateson

If the pathway to leadership remains inaccessible to everyone, it means there are untapped seeds waiting to sprout. As decision makers, it is our responsibility to clear the way and create opportunities for emergent leadership to flourish.

By leveraging the full potential of every individual, organizations can become vibrant, living work ecosystems, unlocking a wealth of ideas, creativity, and innovation. Thriving in a culture that encourages collaboration, communication and shared sense-making, emergent leadership nurtures ownership, engagement and fulfillment among employees. This, in turn, translates into improved business results, enhanced adaptability, and whole-system wellbeing.

Coordinating people beyond just relying on a hierarchical structure requires a combination of art and science. It involves mastering facilitation techniques, designing effective processes, extending invitations, preparing the ground that guides people towards achieving their goals through coordinated efforts, tapping into the untapped potential of a multitude of individuals.

How to do that?

Leveraging on decades of studies in the fields of cognitive sciences, neurobiology, management, strategy and motivation theory, we carefully crafted a space to delve deeper into the practical applications of emergent leadership.

It’s a two-day journey where present and future leaders can explore real-life examples of organizations that have successfully embraced this approach and reaped the benefits. By examining the core principles, strategies, and challenges involved, decision-makers, managers, and entrepreneurs can gain valuable insights into how to foster emergent leadership within their own organization.

All in all, we will dive into the whys and the hows of managing work and leading people in today’s cutting-edge organization.

This article is part of the How we work series

If you would like to receive updates on this and other topics related to the evolution of the world of work, subscribe to our newsletter here:

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