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Succession Planning

Emergent Leadership: The Key to Empowerment Within Your Business


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In every business, leaders will be appointed to oversee teams and processes to ensure that they’re staying on track. But you might have noticed individuals in your team who have stepped up to take the reins of leadership without being officially appointed as a leader. We call this emergent leadership.

It’s a phenomenon that is encouraged and cultivated within successful companies, but what exactly is it, and how can it help to drive your business success? In this article we’ll get into what emergent leadership is all about and how you can encourage its development in your organisation.

What is emergent leadership?

Emergent leadership is an event that occurs when someone who has not been specifically appointed as a leader consistently steps up to the role of leadership in group interactions. This promotes team decision-making outside of the conventional processes and helps develop leadership capabilities further.

What is the difference between assigned and emergent leadership?

You might think of a leader as someone who’s been appointed by upper management to take on the role. This is the case for traditional assigned leadership. But emergent leadership is slightly different.

Infographic comparing assigned vs emergent leadership

The main difference between the two is that assigned leaders operate in an official leadership role within the company’s formal hierarchy, while an emergent leader is an employee in a non-leadership position who has shown leadership qualities and stepped up to the task.

Hogg’s 2001 Social Identity Theory (SIT) looks into the forming of in-groups, out-groups and team dynamics. SIT suggests that individuals emerge as a natural leader within a team because they tend to embody a “group prototype” of social identity, which group members respond to. Essentially, an emergent leader is chosen by their team members, not decree.

Formal leaders need to prove themselves to justify their appointment, but informal leaders naturally garner the respect of other group members through close working proximity and team interactions.

The 4 key characteristics of emergent leadership

Emergent leadership is a different leadership style to what you might typically think of when you think of leadership positions. The hierarchical approach to leadership roles within an organisation usually involves appointments and selections. But due to the way leaders emerge in an emergent leadership model, its characteristics are different.

There are four characteristics of emergent leadership:

  1. Dominance
  2. Involvement
  3. Time frame
  4. Collaboration.


While their position as a leader has no formal status within an organisation, an emergent leader is dominant within their group simply because they have been accepted by their group members. Such leaders have earned the trust of their other team members and thrive organically in their leadership role.


Emergent leaders are the types of people who go out of their way to be involved with the team regardless of the situation. You can help identify potential leaders from watching who is engaged and consistently contributing to the group.

Time frame

Unlike assigned leadership where an individual is chosen for the role and can assume their position immediately, emergent leaders don’t just appear out of the blue. It takes time for emergent leaders to build their leadership potential in a group setting.


In a top-down hierarchy, decisions are made by those in top management to be carried out by their subordinates. In emergent leadership, decision-making becomes a collaborative process, with emergent leaders exhibiting leaderlike influence over their team members.

4 important benefits of emergent leadership

Emergent leadership doesn’t just provide benefits to junior team members in terms of professional development, but to the team and organisation as a whole. There are four important benefits emergent leadership has on organisations.

  1. Fosters independence and autonomy
  2. Increases productivity
  3. Improves culture
  4. Restructures the hierarchy.

Let’s take a more detailed look at how emergent leadership benefits your organisation.

Fosters independence and autonomy

The collaborative nature of emergent leadership opens the gates for a more autonomous approach to work and decision-making. It’s a form of self-management that allows your employees to take initiative and encourages them to rely on their own skills, critical thinking, and actions.

Increases productivity

The collaborative aspect of emergent leadership increases the independence and autonomy of your employees, but it also increases productivity. When your emergent leaders take initiative, they encourage their team members to do the same, increasing project turnaround. It’s a cycle of innovation and creative thinking leading to faster results that will fast track your business success.

Improves culture

A team where leadership emerges organically results in a culture of shared responsibility and trust among group members, fostering trust within the wider company. This isn’t to say assigned leaders can’t gain the trust of their team and improve the culture of the group and wider organisation, but it takes more time and effort to build that trust and rapport than it would if leaders build that relationship naturally.

Restructures the hierarchy

A formal, structured leadership hierarchy isn’t wrong or bad for your organisation, but emergent leadership tends to bring new perspectives to the situation. In an assigned leadership scenario, decision-making comes from a small handful of select individuals, but emergent leaders have the hands-on knowledge of the processes in play to offer differing and well-informed opinions on issues.

Plus, when leadership emergence occurs, you get ahead with succession planning, as you can see who has the right capabilities to take on official leadership roles.

How can managers encourage emergent leadership?

Knowing now the benefits emergent leadership has for your organisation, it makes sense that you’d want to encourage these traits in your workforce. The only question is: How do you do that?

Let’s jump into the different ways managers encourage emergent leadership in your business.

Encourage collaboration and innovation

Ensure your employees know that they’re free to innovate and take initiative, and that you actively encourage them to do so. No one will be inspired to step or think out of the box if you’ve made it clear that out-of-the-box thinking is discouraged. Similarly, you want your employees to build rapport with their fellow team members and collaborate on new ideas together.

Supportive learning culture

Creating a culture of positive learning in your organisation is a crucial way in which you can encourage your employees to step up to the task of leadership. This is why we’ve created the first performance learning management system (PLMS) here at Acorn. A PLMS facilitates knowledge transfer between employees and fosters a learning-in-the-flow culture where everyone helps each other improve.

There are two ways you can encourage a learning culture:

  1. Role modelling curiosity and accountability
  2. Partnering less experienced workers with more experienced workers.

Role modelling

Just like it says: Role model what it looks like to be curious and accountable in the workplace. It’s important that your staff see someone who embodies this, as it will inspire them to foster their own curiosity, allowing them to step out of their comfort zone and learn new ideas. At the same time, you need to ensure you encourage your workers to hold themselves accountable and own up to mistakes. Treat mistakes as learning experiences, and your employees will be comfortable to try new things.

Partnering experience with less experience

This is helpful for your staff with less experience as they can watch and learn from their partner, but this shouldn’t only be done to create a coaching environment for the newbie. You need to think about the positive impact your less experienced talent has on your more experienced employee, and your organisation more broadly.

Make sure that when you organise this arrangement, you make it clear to your less experienced employee that their input and perspective is valuable and needed. Oftentimes, people and companies tend to get stuck in their ways, but the most successful companies are the ones that are willing to try new things and take on fresh new ideas. Someone inexperienced and coming into the situation with bright eyes is more likely to provide you with an interesting new perspective.

Upward communication

It’s simple: Employees who feel heard by upper management are more likely to take action and speak up. Nobody wants to work in a company where they feel they’re consistently ignored when it comes to their concerns or ideas. In the same vein, employees in such a situation also don’t feel motivated to step up as a leader if they know their efforts will be ignored as well. Thus, top management must keep an open line of communication with junior members of their team. You can promote this in a few ways.

What happens when you don’t encourage emergent leadership?

You want your employees to feel comfortable thinking and acting outside the box. You want them to be innovative and take initiative. But if you don’t encourage emergent leadership, you aren’t encouraging your employees to do any of that. That doesn’t bode well for workplace culture.

Infographic showing the impacts of emergent leadership in times of economic change

It’s not that having assigned leaders (and only assigned leaders) is inherently bad, but it poses challenges that can be expensive and time-consuming. An assigned leader has to take time and resources to garner the respect of their peers, which is a longer process than an emergent leader who has already earned that respect through their own behaviour.

Key takeaways

Emergent leadership is a pathway to a more dynamic and innovative workforce. Encouraging it empowers your employees to take initiative, whether they’re an emergent leader themselves or a team member.

In a world where companies have become less hierarchal, emergent leadership has become a crucial element in ensuring open communication between upper management and the rest of the workforce.

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