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Making Sense of Emergent Leadership

By Ashley Rabinovitch

Amid the mass layoffs of the early 1990s recession, at least one clear pattern emerged: sandwiched between higher-level managers and lower-level workers, middle managers were the most likely to lose their jobs. “We have witnessed a pretty consistent downward trend of middle management since then, especially during economic downturns,” observes Brad Kirkman, General (Ret.) H. Hugh Shelton Distinguished Professor of Leadership in the Department of Management Innovation & Entrepreneurship. “In the past, the typical manager may have had three people reporting to them. Now they have 15.” 

The winnowing of middle management has empowered workers at the lower level to step up and exert leadership, even without a formal title. Management literature calls this phenomenon emergent leadership, although scholars have not always agreed on the scope and definition of the term. 

In the first comprehensive review of its kind, Kirkman and his co-authors set out to define emergent leadership, organize existing literature into a clear framework and propose new research directions. “This piece is intended to bring unity to a fragmented and disjointed space and get people thinking about the big questions that remain,” he reflects.

The concept of emergent leadership, which the research paper defines as “the degree to which an individual with no formal status or authority is perceived by one or more team members as exhibiting leaderlike influence,” has always intrigued Kirkman. “Whether it’s a member of a sports team or an engineer on the floor of a plant, leaders emerge naturally across industries and contexts,” he says. “I wanted to know why and how it happens.” 

Defining what emergent leadership is not is as important as defining what it is, according to Kirkman. In the paper, the co-authors delve into similar but distinct concepts of leadership that are often confused with emergent leadership, including shared leadership (shared responsibility among team members), collective leadership (splitting up elements of leadership according to skills and expertise) and self-leadership (influencing oneself). 

They go on to explain the difficulty of portraying what emergent leadership looks like in practice, since emergent leadership lacks the clear set of behaviors that defines more structural leadership forms. Their thorough review of emergent leadership literature from the past 30 years also highlights the absence of a standard way to measure emergent leadership. Some studies have emphasized leadership characteristics like benevolence and social popularity, while others have focused on specific behaviors, like praising teammates and holding them accountable. The paper recommends the future development of a standalone emergent leadership scale so scholars can link concepts to measurable variables. 

After presenting a detailed organizing framework of emergent leadership research, categorizing constructs from literature into precursors, mechanisms, boundaries and outcomes of emergent leadership; Kirkman and his co-authors propose five new directions for researchers in the field to undertake in the coming decade:

  • Expanding the nomological network—understanding predictors of emergent leadership and charting outcomes.
  • Potential dark sides—investigating ways in which emergent leadership can backfire and harm a team or a company.
  • Effects of cross-cultural differences—exploring how leaders emerge in societies with different concepts of status, hierarchy and power distances.
  • Contextual considerations—determining the extent to which a variety of contextual factors, such as type of organization or the length of time a team has worked together, affect emergent leadership.
  •  Methodological considerations—identifying the best strategy for studying emergent leadership over time, rather than confining research to a single snapshot of team dynamics at one moment in time. 

Our overall goal with this research is to help companies develop supportive climates for emergent leadership so that they can become more agile and flexible when it matters most.

“There is so much more to learn about emergent leadership since the field is only a few decades old,” says Kirkman, “but we do know that teams usually benefit from different people stepping into leadership roles depending on their expertise. Our overall goal with this research is to help companies develop supportive climates for emergent leadership so that they can become more agile and flexible when it matters most.” 

The paper, “The Emergence of Emergent Leadership: A Comprehensive Framework and Directions for Future Research,” is published in the Journal of Management. The paper was co-authored by Andrew A. Hanna of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Bradley L. Kirkman of North Carolina State University; Troy A. Smith of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and Ricky W. Griffin of Texas A&M University. 

Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“The Emergence of Emergent Leadership: A Comprehensive Framework and Directions for Future Research”

Authors: Andrew A. Hanna, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Bradley L. Kirkman, North Carolina State University; Troy A. Smith, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Ricky W. Griffin, Texas A&M University

Published: Nov. 9, 2020, Journal of Management

DOI: 10.1177/0149206320965683

Abstract: There has been increasing attention to examining informal (i.e., horizontal), rather than formal (i.e., vertical), approaches to leadership over the last several decades, enhancing our understanding of the dynamics of emergent leadership. Although such research has led to a growing comprehension of the process of, and factors involved in, leader emergence, the literature still lacks theoretical coherence. Without a clear way to connect and synthesize extant research, the time is right for a much-needed comprehensive review. To address this issue, we examine emergent leadership research to date with the aim of developing a concise overview and comprehensive framework of the literature. In doing so, we (1) review past conceptualizations, establish a clear, common definition, and compare emergent leadership to other related constructs; (2) review previous operationalizations and provide recommendations for future measurement; (3) develop a comprehensive organizing framework of existing research; and (4) use our organizing framework, as well as three existing theories related to emergent leadership, to generate a series of detailed suggestions for future research for the next decade and beyond.