Emergent Leadership Explained with Examples

Editorial Team

What is Emergent Leadership

What is Emergent Leadership? 

Every business needs the right leadership for success. Leaders perform a supervisory role and oversee the activities of other employees or team members. They are also expected to coordinate different activities for the effective running of a business.

Due to their supervisory and management role, they shoulder blames if things do not go as planned and are applauded in case of success. There are different types of leadership, with the most common one gained through appointment or elections.

However, this article looks at one different type of leadership-emergent leadership. We will look at its definition, the emergent leadership theory, characteristics of an emergent leader, the requisite skills, and examples. Let’s get started!

Emergent Leadership Definition 

Emergent leadership is a select type of leadership. It occurs devoid of any election or appointment. It happens when a team member gradually steps up as a leader in a given group setting. This type of leadership revolutionizes the business scene by allowing team members to make their own decisions outside the business organization’s confines.

Therefore, a colleague can decide to be an emergent leader and lead his/ her teammates without top management approval. However, other team members need to have embraced emergent leadership and all it stands for this to be successful.

Emergent Leadership Theory 

The emergent leadership model is the complete opposite of what transactional or management theory stands for. It is closely connected to the transformational approach, which believes that effective leadership comes from a positive relationship between leaders and their team members.

Different theories have come upon emergent leadership owing to its increasing adoption in different spheres. Here are the main ones:

  • Social identity theory

This theory dictates that leadership emergence is based on how a person identifies with a given group as a whole. It is based on the idea that a group prototype develops as the group conducts its activities.

Therefore, individuals only emerge as leaders when they are they are similar to the group prototype. This similarity makes them attractive to the group, increasing their influence.

  • Neo emergent theory

This theory emerged from the Oxford School of leadership and dictates that leadership is founded on the emergence of information by the leader to other stakeholders or group members and not the given leader’s real actions.

It provides that leaders are only recognized after meeting a particular goal, which heavily influences the follower’s perception.

  • Valence model of emergence leadership 

The Valance model draws from Tuckman’s group development sequence proposed by Stein, Hoffman, Cooley, and Pearse (1979). It provides that the process of emergent leadership passes through orientation, conflict, and emergence.

Potential leaders announce their candidature during the orientation stage, and more than one leader competes for the same position in the conflict stage. The final phase (emergence stage) involves group members willingly following and obeying the leader who has met and passed all these thresholds.

  • Theory of Idiosyncrasy Credit 

The theory of Idiosyncrasy credit was first proposed by Hollander, who stated that the other members perceive the group member who becomes the leader as having met a leader’s expectations in their view.

The ‘contestants’ are believed to accumulate more credits as they meet the expectations of the group. Therefore, this theory is based on leaders asserting their influence, which later gets accepted due to these credits.

It is also worth noting that according to this theory, leaders even lose credits if he/ she cannot innovate and does not meet the expectation of the group members. The leader can be replaced if he/ she loses excessive points.

Emergent Leadership Characteristics 

This is a different concept and style of leadership. It goes against all the leadership arrangements that have been used n the past, which mainly consist of appointments or elections. It is, therefore, quite distinct. Here are some of the key characteristics:

  • Time frame 

Emergent leadership does not emerge overnight. It goes through a calculated process, as explained by some of the theories that we have covered. It is mainly fueled by communication and happens over time. Therefore, emergent leaders are outspoken, a trait that makes others recognize their contributions and develop respect and a liking for them.

  • Involvement 

Emergent leaders are not typical office leaders who interact with other employees or junior team members only when the need arises. They are involved with their team members, which is the primary means through which they are identified.

  • Dominance

Emergent leaders are not passed down from the top management. They win other team members trust and blessing, which makes them more confident about their performance. They are also more dominant, knowing that they have the support and acknowledgment of other team members.

  • Collaboration 

Emergent leaders do not make decisions based on their instincts. Given that the group members acknowledge them, they are expected to seek their opinions and develop innovative ideas together. This is quite different from the top-down approach, where leaders lookout for top management’s interest and do not need to consult other team members once the management approves something.

The Skills Required for Emergent Leadership 

Emergent leadership is a unique type of leadership and therefore has a defined skill-set. Companies such as Google, which has fully adopted this leadership style, have realized that factors such as GPA and the school of attendance of an employee have little to do with their ability to be good leaders.

Therefore, one should not expect skills such as authoritativeness since this style of leadership emerges s over time as one proves him/ herself to the group who later makes an acknowledgment. Here are some of the skills:

  • Humility 

Humility is a must-have skill when it comes to emergent leadership. One needs to be humble to learn from his/ her failure and mistake. Humility also allows for the sharing of another person’s success without feeling jealous.

Keep in mind that a leadership position in this type of leadership does not come from a position or a degree but from the ability to iron things out and steer them in the right direction. An emergent leader must therefore be humble enough to work with other members.

  • Leadership 

This is an obvious skill. Even though leaders are not appointed or elected in this leadership approach, they must have the ability to lead the other team members in the right direction. He/ she must step in and lead whenever the leadership is needed, even though they do not have any official status.

They should also accept mistakes and allow themselves to be blamed for the failures of their members. Emergent leadership also requires a high level of competence when dealing with social situations. The leaders should also be ready to step back and let someone else manage and take up their roles when the time is right.

  • Desire to learn 

Emergent leadership requires a candidate who is willing to learn. Keep in mind that it is not an appointed type of leadership, and therefore, the top management does not have time to assess whether one can lead. Thus, the emergent leader should be prepared to effectively taker up the leadership role and learn while at it.

Other requisite skills include consistency, fairness and predictability, skills needed for effective decision making. The emergent leader should also be ready to work with other stakeholders and share information regularly.

Emergent Leadership Examples 

A classic example of emergent leadership was showcased in Greys’ anatomy, where a group of interns without a guiding attending physician had to determine who among them was a natural leader.

Advantages of emergent leadership 

Emergent leaders motivate and inspire their members through their passion and enthusiasm, acting as models for their teams. This type of leadership relies on companies giving up control and building a culture which empowers employees to be their most prominent advocates and critic.

 It helps maintain employee momentum on different projects at an individual level, making them produce good results. At a fundamental angle, emergent leadership powers the organization’s effectiveness and growth owing to its effectiveness.

It means doing away with the archaic top-down and hierarchical approach, which businesses are doing away to achieve agility. A hierarchical system rids the employees of control, making them more of subjects than team members. However, emergent leadership is geared towards self-management, which is a trait that is required for such leaders, as we will look at later.

The emergent leadership model is based on consensus and not decree or appointments. Teams are allowed to identify their leaders naturally and not forced to accept someone who does not share the same vision. Therefore, they feel like they have a more significant say in the results of the team.

Some of the most successful companies in the world have realized just how emergent leadership is essential for business success, which has seen them cement their places at the top of the table. It allows employees to feel valued and respected, making them give their all to achieve business goals.


Emergent leadership is different from the typical leadership methods. It allows employees to take charge without any formal hierarchy in place. It is one of the business approaches for business success.