Emergent Leadership: Definition, Theories & Characteristics

Emergent leadership is becoming popular in modern corporate industries in managing vast organizations. Emergent leadership is the leadership that grows naturally within an organization based on the leader’s abilities.

Emergent leadership is a system where employees come forward with explicit leadership qualities over time.

Unlike the traditional method of selecting leaders from the top of the corporate administrative machinery, the employees from within the organization/team emerge as leaders depending on their potential.

In this type of institution, the group members choose their leaders according to their performance, communication skills, group interactions, problem-solving abilities, decision-making abilities, and certain leadership qualities.

What Are The Definitions of Emergent Leadership?

When it comes to finding genuine definitions of emergent leadership, there are several definitions put by leadership experts.

Bill Catlett, a partner at Contented Cow Partners, defined it as “Emergent leadership is a process by which someone migrates from being an individual to one who exerts leadership within a unit or team.”

A photo-app startup and creative community, VSCO encourages and fosters emergent leadership to develop a stronger network amongst their employees and boost the startup’s performance.

Katy Shields, the vice president of People and Places at VSCO, says that “The more, the earlier, that companies can give up control, the more you develop the right kind of self-correcting culture where employees will be your biggest advocate – and also your biggest critic if you’re not doing what you need to do as a team.”

What Are The Theories of Emergent Leadership?

Experts who studied emergent leadership put forward some theories on how it functions. Let’s go through some profound theories of emergent leadership.

Neo-emergent Theory

The neo-emergent theory states that leaders grow based on the contributions made by the team members to achieve the organization’s goals.

The group members identify their leaders based on how much value an individual adds to their group objective.

Valence Model Theory

Valence model theory includes the process of three different stages. In the first stage, an individual shows and proves that he possesses all the leadership qualities to lead the team through his performance.

The second stage is the stage of conflict between two emerging individuals competing to emerge as a new leader.

The third stage is the final stage, where one among the two is declared the new leader by the manager and team members.

Theory of Social Identity

The theory of social identity presents a concept where groups in business organizations develop their own distinct identities.

The person who is more identical (through his thoughts and actions) to the group’s identity takes the lead.

Idiosyncrasy Credit Theory

In this theory, the functioning of emergent leadership is based upon the credits given to the leader by his team members.

The group members believe that a particular individual is worthy of being a leader and possesses all the leadership qualities. One with the maximum credits emerges as the new leader.

Difference Between Traditional Leadership and Emergent Leadership

The most fundamental difference between traditional and emergent leadership is that traditional leadership is dependent on and assigned by the top-down organizational hierarchy.

In comparison, emergent leadership follows an informal and organic process of coming to the position. The most pivotal differences between these two leaders are as follows:

  • Traditionally, traditional leaders follow the formal rules and regulations defined by the upper executive body. But in contrast, emergent leaders act based on their creativity and innovation without entertaining the existing rules.

  • Traditional leaders have pre-planned strategies and techniques to solve problems, whereas emergent leaders develop action plans over time and keep changing as the situation demands.

  • Traditional leaders just concentrate on the project and objectives of the organization, while emergent leaders also focus on the people around them.

  • Traditional leaders have more formal power and authority compared to emergent leaders.

  • Traditional leadership is assigned/appointed leadership, whereas emergent leadership attains the position by oneself over time.

  • Traditional leadership is suitable for stable circumstances, and emergent leadership is befitting the times of crisis.

  • Traditional leaders are given the title of leader, but emergent leaders take their position without being given the title.

Characteristics of Emergent Leadership

Every emergent leader possesses certain characteristics that prove he or she is worthy of becoming a leader.

Anybody in the group and the management can identify them with those characteristics. Let’s discuss some of the key characteristics below:

List Of Characteristics Of Emergent Leadership

  • Creative Thinking
  • Decision making
  • Problem-solving ability
  • Self-management
  • Team orientation
  • Collaboration
  • Involvement
  • Influence
  • Adaptability
  • Time frame
  • Reliability
  • Expertise
  • Communication skills
  • Active

Creative Thinking

This is one of the most fundamental characteristics that emergent leaders possess. They can provide innovative solutions for every challenge that the group is facing.

The leaders have the quality of thinking outside the box and completing the projects creatively in a defined period.

Decision-making and Problem-solving Ability

Individuals who grow as emergent leaders possess extraordinary decision-making and problem-solving abilities.

The leaders discover creative ideas to solve problems and bring the team out of the situation. His transparent, informed, and rational decisions contribute to the team to a great extent.


The emergent leaders assist themselves in managing their behavior. They correct themselves while taking action and making decisions in the group.

They possess the qualities of self-control and self-management, which not only helps the organization fulfill its goals and act as an inspiration for their subordinates.


Emergent leaders understand that a team-oriented approach and decision-making can help organizations more than a dominant approach.

They try to make decisions based on the common consent of the group rather than on their dominance. They understand that they’re part of the group, not the superior of the group.


In contrast to the traditional method of making decisions, emergent leaders give opportunities for inclusive participation to everybody in the decision-making process.

They create space for others and allow them to have different perspectives.


Despite being superior to the group, the emergent leaders exhibit their involvement in the group’s performance. They don’t just give directions.

Rather they take actual part in the tasks along with inspiring their subordinates.


Emergent leaders possess the quality of influencing others and positively impacting their character and attributes.

Their colleagues accept them owing to their competence and influence in the group and the whole organization.


As leadership is fluid, emergent leaders are comfortable changing their temperaments according to the needs of an organization.

They realize the importance of flexibility in leadership and have different perspectives, methods, and ideas while facing different challenges.

Time Frame

Since emergent leadership grows naturally and gradually within an organization over time, it indicates the originality of the leaders’ qualities.

In a traditional method of selecting the leader overnight, the organizations sometimes fail to discover the natural talent of the people.


Reliability is the key to building trust in the organization. The organization trusts the person to be consistently good in qualities and performance.

If the leader cannot be trusted and genuine in his work, he’s hurting the organization’s objectives and the organization itself.


This is one of the basic requirements that emergent leaders have to fulfill. They have expertise in their fields and possess adequate knowledge in the field.

Excellent Communication Skills

Communication skill is very important in managing and guiding the team in the organization. Emergent leaders can express their ideas in the group and give directions clearly and comprehensively.

Active During Difficult Times

As opposed to traditional leaders, emergent leaders don’t have rigid principles which surround them, leaders.

They are comparatively more flexible and adaptable. This allows them to take charge of the situation without interventions.

They think out of the box and beyond the traditional set of strategies that takes the team out of the crisis.

What Are The Importance of Emergent Leadership?

Incorporating and exercising emergent leadership in business organizations yields better outcomes than the traditional structure of choosing leaders. It eliminates the need for a top-down hierarchy and benefits not only the employees and executive leaders but also the organization as a whole.

Let’s understand some of the key benefits the organization’s encouraging emergent leadership enjoys.

Fosters Independence

Emergent leadership promotes autonomy, where employees can make decisions without the approval of the top-down executive body.

The employees and leaders can choose the best option for their team with independence amid difficult challenges.

Emergent leadership is a well-organized structure that provides a flexible landscape for employees to develop independence in decision-making, problem-solving, innovative thinking, and new initiatives.

The employees take their independent actions and simultaneously hold themselves responsible for their actions.

Shifts Perspectives

Emergent leadership shifts the leadership paradigm from the traditional way of appointing a leader from the top to naturally arising a leader.

Since emergent leaders come from within the group, the members willingly accept them and their decisions.

In contrast, the employees take time to get comfortable with a leader appointed by the top-down hierarchical body from the outside.

Develops Trust

If the employees choose their leaders, the organization enjoys more mutual trust among its employees.

The group members trust the leaders and believe that their leaders have their best interests in mind while making decisions.

Leaders who their colleagues identify generate more trust and support, which results in smooth and open communication between the leader and the employees.

Creates Supportive Culture

Emergent leadership provides a great atmosphere of support and cooperation among the people in the organization.

Emergent leaders are identified not only by their team members but also by executive leaders. This allows the employees to self-govern themselves and their leaders with mutual support.

When the decision-making process becomes more team-centric, the employees feel involved and valued in their leaders’ choices.

Increases Team-productivity

When employees and their leaders can self-govern themselves with independence, they are more equipped to solve their problems and make the right decisions at the right time.

Emergent leadership saves time by reducing the procedural work of seeking approvals from the top-down bureaucracy.

The teams can work more efficiently. This ensures faster results and the success of the organization.

Reconstructs Top-down Hierarchy

In contrast to the traditional decision-making method, where the decision-making power rests only in a few hands, emergent leadership purifies the decision-making process by making it more open, diverse, and autonomous.

As leaders are part of the groups, not outsiders, they clearly understand the team dynamics and make the best choices.

Moreover, it allows for different perspectives and brand-new approaches in decision-making and provides a larger pool of opportunities for the employees.

Allows Ownership

In this method, the employees take ownership of the success and failure of their organization. Leaders and employees both share equal participation in teamwork as well as decision-making.

Therefore, the ownership and responsibilities of the group’s decisions and dynamism lie not only on the leaders but also on the employees.

Besides this, the ones who put more effort and investment into the results take the credit. This encourages the people in the organization to come forward and work efficiently.

Improves Leadership Traits

When the leaders are part of the group and friendly to their group members, their colleagues learn and cultivate leadership qualities through observation.

Hence, the emergent leaders who grow naturally to the top would also leave a lot of potential effective leaders in the run.

This benefits the other employees as well as the organization as a whole.

How Can Organizations Encourage Emergent Leadership?

Emergent leadership occurs when business organizations allow an open environment for their employees to naturally step forward as leaders instead of appointing someone from the outside.

Besides creating such an environment, there are also other strategies that the organizations have to follow to promote the culture of emergent leadership.

Team-centric Decision-making

Implementing team-centric decision-making is one of the basic and straightforward methods of promoting emergent leadership.

Employees feel more confident in coming forward with innovative and diversified solutions which empower them to emerge organically as leaders.

The team-centric decision-making process follows three steps i.e.

  • Generating ideas through group discussions.
  • Evaluating ideas
  • Implementing ideas

The environment of Collaboration and Ownership

In collaborative institutions, the managers act as guides and resources while allowing the teams to lead.

This removes all the bottlenecks in working and projecting freely, which develops a sense of ownership and independence among the employees.

Thus emergent leadership arises more confidently.

Promoting Cohesive Teams

When the leaders create a cohesive atmosphere in the organization, the employees and the team members understand their duties, roles, and responsibilities.

They work together and commit to the goals and objectives of the organization. This empowers the individuals to come up and grow as emergent leaders from their colleagues.

Maintaining Transparency

Maintaining transparency and clarity in work can create a more productive and wholesome environment that can empower emergent leadership.

The employees must have access to important information related to their organization and the projects they are working on.

This makes them well-informed and encourages them to participate efficiently in work and group conversations.

The emergent leaders find the roads to go ahead if the organizations ensure maximum transparency and efficiency in communication.

Promoting Innovation

Organizations should consider providing opportunities for employees to strengthen and demonstrate their innovative ideas and thinking.

In addition, executive leaders and managers should conduct brainstorming programs and sessions to develop innovation among the team members.

This encourages emergent leaders to think creatively, go beyond the problem and consider the bigger picture.

Encouraging Initiatives

Emergent leaders are known to have extraordinary innovative and creative thinking abilities. Therefore the executive leaders must create space for potential leaders to exhibit their initiatives and creativity.

The organization should guide and indicate the path to their employees in challenging situations instead of showing rescue methods immediately.

This gives opportunities for leaders who want to show their initiatives.

Creating a Culture of Learning

To support and promote emergent leadership in the organization, the leaders should create an atmosphere where learning and improvement are supported and appreciated.

They need to create a smooth and secure platform for their employees to practice taking the initiative and making mistakes as a part of the learning process.

Encouraging Upward Communication

Emergent leadership expands when the organization encourages upward communication and open-door policy.

The more the employees feel heard and acknowledged, the more they will feel empowered to speak up and take action.

The Workplace Communication Statistics show that employees who feel heard are empowered to perform their best 4.6 times more than those who don’t.

What Are The Pros and Cons of Emergent Leadership?

Pros of the Emergent Leadership

  • Since the organization does not appoint emergent leaders, they must prove their potential and competence. This makes emergent leaders more active and vibrant than traditional leaders.

  • Because emergent leaders earn the respect of their peers through their performance, they are more respectful than traditional leaders.

  • Emergent Leaders are self-motivated and possess more self-control than traditional leaders.

  • As organizational traits and methods do not bind emergent leaders, they are expected to be more open, innovative, and creative.

  • The most advantageous point of emergent leaders is they are the most beneficial assets to use during periods of crisis and turmoil.

  • If the group is given a different sort of project, unlike earlier ones, the need for emergent leaders arises because they are the ones who have different perspectives in their plans of action.

  • When it comes to managing the group members word for word, the emergent leaders can do so more accurately than the traditional leaders because they emerge through the support of the group members.

Cons of the Emergent Leadership

Though emergent leadership is a more serviceable and cooperative leadership strategy, it also has a few downsides. They are as follows:

  • Emergent leadership can cause conflict in the group when two emerging leaders are competing with one another.

  • Emergent leaders might not have the level of expertise and experience that traditional leaders have because the traditional leaders are trained, whereas the emergent leaders have just emerged.

Examples of Emergent Leadership

Though there can be many examples and situations that illustrate emergent leadership, we’ll discuss below a few of them:

  • Consider a situation where an individual is coming forward with solutions when there is a challenging situation in the group. An individual who is finding solutions, communicating clearly to the members, and taking the initiative even when he is not officially appointed to do so. This illustrates the emergent leadership traits.
  • Consider a situation where there is a conflict between the group members. An individual arises from his/her own will, tries to resolve the situation, and settles down the dispute. This indicates the characteristics of emergent leadership.


Emergent leadership is beneficial for people and organizations in achieving goals and objectives.

Emergent leadership helps organizations thrive from the bottom to the top. Many prominent leaders in the world are implementing and encouraging emergent leadership.

Laszlo Bock, the former senior vice president of People’s Operation for Google, called emergent leadership “a key quality the tech giant seeks in its people overall.”

If the organization has more independence while solving problems, it creates a space for emergent leaders to emerge confidently. This happens when executive leaders realize that emergent leaders can create substantially great leadership talents and opportunities for the organization if they are given chances to do so.

Frequently Asked Questions

What makes emergent leaders different from traditional leaders?

Traditional leaders are selected and appointed by the company’s apex body. In contrast, emergent leaders grow from within the organization over time based on their skills, potential,
and leadership qualities without having formal status or authority.

Which leadership structure is best suitable for business organizations?

Both types of leadership are helpful on their own, depending on the company’s circumstances. As emergent leaders are more creative and innovative, they are best suitable for difficult, challenging circumstances. Traditional leadership is suitable for stable circumstances.

Is emergent leadership only for extroverts?

While many think emergent leadership is for extroverts, it is not true. Introverts develop a sense of negativity concerning coming up as leaders. Indeed that kind of negative sense puts them back, not their introverted nature.

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