emergent leadership

November 12, 2009 at 3:51 pm (essays)

i’ve just put this in – on time!

well, that’s after about three extensions and five topic changes… but i’m still happy.


Eight articles around Emergent Leadership and substitutes for leadership

Examining studies of emergent leadership and substitutes for leadership with a view to informal leadership in minority communities produces no comprehensive research fitting the situation, but plenty of interesting points and directions to pursue.

Most work on emergent leadership studies the exercising of influence within an organisation where some leadership is still provided by a positional leader. In a hierarchy, emergent and shared leadership can be of great benefit but it must be supported by several other non-traditional structures and conditions.

Teamwork, training and low structure situations allow scope for emergent leadership and, at least in voluntary situations, pessimism about the likelihood of others doing the job is one reason that people are provoked to act. Yet acceptance by followers is also important; one determinant of people likely to be favoured as emergent leaders by teams is being moderate in their tendency to take control.

Supervisory and feedback behaviour can be substituted for, yet directive leadership behaviour seems to make a difference to the performance of a team. A single point of illumination in each of so many directions, are only starting to shed light on an obscure, yet important area of research. Much more study could be done on a wide range of topics from leadership in non-hierarchical, politically engaged and emerging contexts and different power distance settings, to what former experiences influence people to lead well, or to lead at all.

Many frameworks are drawn from various facets of scholarship to sketch the territory; levels of structure, power distance, categorisations of cultures and lists of tasks and considerations, behaviours and roles involved in leadership. Still, for most practical applications, the best prescription that can be offered so far is to be aware of all the pitfalls and opportunities that can be found.


1. Substitutes for Hierarchy considers emergent leadership as one of several changes that can be made in a hierarchical organisation, which can allow it to flatten its structure; broadening workers’ jobs and authority while reducing the various levels of supervisors; staff doing unnecessary jobs unrelated to its core products and services.

Leadership is contextualised, not as the peak of all processes but as one of many interdependent factors, all of which are important for making an organisation run well. The major tasks of various levels of supervisors are listed as motivation, record keeping, coordinating, assigning work, making personnel decisions, providing expertise, setting goals, planning, linking communications, training/coaching, controlling and leading. However, employing separate ranks of non-production staff is not the only way to fulfil these functions.

Several factors are listed as concerned in substituting for supervisors including systems, flexibility, ownership, access to information and control over decision making in many areas: work design, information systems technology, financial data, reward system practices, supplier/customer contact, training, vision/values and emergent leadership. The article suggests that emergent leadership, as with any other single factor, cannot be introduced alone into a hierarchical organisation and expected to make changes. Unsupported it will probably even cause problems, but new and viable possibilities arise when the right conditions are created, by encouraging it in conjunction many or all of the listed factors.

The one issue about emergent leadership which is addressed directly, is of the ‘key to the emergence of the right kind of leader’. The prescription is the same as for the wider purposes: if emergent leaders are sought in the context of all these other initiatives, they are likely to fit the environment and the goals of the organisation.

Though the article focuses on change within hierarchical organisations, these considerations appear applicable beyond situations with such an initial state, showing an image of a non hierarchical organisation and suggestions of what such an entity could viably involve.

Lawler, E.E. 1988, ‘Substitutes for Hierarchy’, Organization Dynamics, vol. 17, pp. 4-15.


2. “If You Don’t Do It, Nobody Else Will”: Active and Token Contributors to Local Collective Action examines leadership, activism and membership in the context of neighbourhood organisations.

In a study of data collected in Detroit in 1969, some interesting conclusions were made. Perhaps most strikingly, the people who do the most work in a voluntary organisation, were found to be the ones who were most pessimistic about the possibility of their neighbours doing such work. Though this will come as little surprise to those who do work in such conditions, it marks a significant difference from the characteristics of the more structured, less voluntary organisations which are more often studied in leadership literature. Other aspects of attitude and vision are not found to have the impact they do in such situations: while interest in the collective good is a significant factor in determining who will join an organisation, it is found to have very little impact on who does the work.

To understand why people are active, the article examines the various costs and benefits of various levels of involvement. While the success of community organisations involve huge benefits for the community in general, the people who do the work reap little more benefit than anyone else, while shouldering the vast bulk of the costs in terms of time, money and stress. Also considered as costs are more absolute barriers to involvement, such as lack of education or experience, which narrow the pool of people who would even consider participating.

Another interesting finding involves the relationship between activism and ties. While having many friends in the area was an indicator of membership, activists are more likely to have few strong ties and more weak ties, or acquaintances, which may possibly suggest that, while lack of acquaintances is a barrier to involvement, one of the few individual rewards that activism can offer is social interaction for those who don’t have many strong friendships in the area.

In terms of direct investigation of leadership, the study identifies some characteristics of former leaders and otherwise considers leadership as one aspect of activism. Past leaders are found to be interested in local issues and know more people than others do, however no causal relationship is established. Leadership positions are found to be widely available yet hard to fill, in distinct contrast to employing organisations; in voluntary cooperatives being a leader is associated with as bad a ratio of costs to compensating rewards as for any activist, if not worse.

Oliver, P. 1984, ‘”If You Don’t Do it, Nobody Else Will”: Active and Token Contributors to Local Collective Action’, American Sociological Review, vol. 49, no. 5, pp. 601 – 610.


3. Informal Public Leadership: The Case of Social Movements examines the conditions of leadership in politically engaged communities such as social movements, especially several differences between social movement leadership and other leadership literature.

Social movements tend to deal with emerging issues and identities. There tends to be, therefore, no established group of followers or employees for a leader to lead, which means a significant portion of leadership in social movements is concerned with creating and maintaining membership; persuading people to follow, and even just to identify as part of the movement.

Leadership in social movements is under-theorised, both in leadership literature which focuses on institutions and in social movements where there tends to be a suspicion of leadership along with a general opposition to hierarchy and authority.

Any leader in such a context must be informal. They can’t expect to control or predict the actions of the people, but must focus on inspiring, activating and empowering, both to those inclined to listen and those not. With no traditional authority to draw on, moral and social capital are the start of ways to exercise leadership within social movements, which themselves exercise leadership in the broader community.

West, D. 2008, ‘Informal public leadership: the case of social movements’, in P. Hart & J. Uhr (eds), Public Leadership: Perspectives and Practices, ANU E Press, Canberra, pp. 133 – 144.


4. Emergent Leadership in Self-Managed Virtual Teams: A Longitudinal Study of Concentrated and Shared Leadership Behaviors details a study of the messages passed between virtual teams working on a database project within an undergraduate course. Work needing to be done by a group of people in different places is becoming increasingly relevant. Dealing with actual language makes it interestingly specific, but that also means that generalising its findings to other contexts is questionable. This study claims to be unusual in that it deals with internal, emergent leadership instead of the role of an external leader. However, the context is still distinctly framed by the existence of such an external leader, a common but not universal situation for virtual groups.

Four hypotheses are proposed regarding differences in communication between high and low performing teams; that high performing teams display more leadership behaviours in general, and more each of directive, shared and concentrated leadership behaviours, and that leadership behaviours which are evident early are significant and those that develop later are not. The results supported, at least partially, each of these hypotheses.

Denison, Hooijberg and Quinn’s Leaderplex Framework is used, which lists eight leadership behaviours or roles; the innovator, broker, producer, director, coordinator, monitor, facilitator and mentor. They are divided between directive, participative and transformational leadership. Monitor and Producer behaviour, both associated with Directive leadership, were found to vary most between the high and low performance groups, suggesting that these are the areas critical to performance. However many details are not adequately explained, including how teams are designated as high or low performing.

Beyond the original research, many interesting ideas are brought up. Avolio’s E-leadership, Griffith, Sawyer and Neale’s degrees of virtualness and DeSanctis’ concerns about using student responses in studies.

Carte, T.A., Chidambaram, L. & Becker, A. 2006, ‘Emergent leadership in self-managed virtual teams’, Group Decision and Negotiation, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 323-343.


5. Tipping Points that Inspire Leadership: An Exploratory Study of Emergent Project Leaders considers leadership as a social construction, the development of which can be influenced in individuals at various stages of life, by significant individuals and significant experiences. The study investigates such triggers to leadership by surveying university project management students who have been already identified as having performed leadership, or having strong potential.

Teachers and family members, particularly fathers were cited as positively significant by respondents. Potential mentors and inspirations were listed far more often than potential followers.

A wide range of experiences were reported, largely from work and study. The results do not indicate what aspects of the experiences are formative of leadership potential, such as whether success, opportunity or frustration is key, however many possibilities for further research are discussed.

People and experiences having negative influence were surveyed too, but these responses may be of limited value with no control group of bad leaders or non leaders.

Toor, S. & Ofori, G. 2008, ‘Tipping points that inspire leadership: An exploratory study of emergent project leaders’, Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 212-229.


6. Cross-Cultural Leadership Dynamics in Collectivism and High Power Distance Settings illustrates the importance of differences between expected and manifest culture. The example discussed is a North American manager trying to lead a Malaysian workforce; although the manager expects cultural differences, simplistic expectations can prove to produce even more misunderstandings by encouraging inattention to the actual, manifest culture.

Although this article discusses an individual entering the majority culture of a location, the frameworks used could illuminate other situations. Taken from Hofstede’s framework, cultures are distinguished as collectivist or individualist, accepting or not of unequal distribution of power (high or low power distance).

Collectivism is considered to usually be associated with high power distance and individualism with low power distance, but this is not universal. It would be interesting to apply these designations to a minority culture, for example a community or social movement with an (at least) expected culture of low power distance and collectivism, located within a majority culture which is declared to be individualist and low-moderate power distance, such as Australia.

In the example of Malaysia an extra complication is discussed, that of the miscommunications inherent in the clash of different varieties of English. The majority cultures of native English speaking countries tend to fall on the individualistic side of the framework, and many countries where English is a common second language are more collectivist. Considering even just the differences between the definition of collectivism between the article and its usage Australian social movements, the injunction to not ignore any of these differences is probably well applicable to the latter example as well.

Schermerhorn, J. & Bond, M. 1997, ‘Cross-cultural leadership dynamics in collectivism and high power distance settings’, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 187-193.


7. Substitutes for Leadership: Effective Alternatives to Ineffective Leadership explores a history of leadership literature; various theories of leadership have been popular at different times but a constant has been the premise that in any problem, better leadership is a solution. Several examples of substitutes are offered, including closely knit teams of highly trained individuals, intrinsic satisfaction, computer technology and extensive professional education. The aspects of leadership which are discussed as being substituted for mainly involve feedback and supervision.

Leadership neutralisers and enhancers are also discussed. Neutralisers such as physical distance, inappropriate reward systems and the bypassing or countermanding of the leader by a higher level, are considered to reduce the leader’s influence without filling the gap like a substitute should. Enhancers, on the other hand, augment the leader’s impact. The examples given of leadership enhancers include attributes such as cohesion and strong norms of performance or of cooperation with management .

Howell, J.P., Bowen, D.E., Dorfman, P.W., Kerr, S. & Podsakoff, P.M. 1990, ‘Substitutes for leadership: Effective alternatives to ineffective leadership’, Organizational Dynamics, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 20-39.


8. Emergent Leadership Processes as a Function of Task Structure and Machiavellianism considers an emergent view of leadership as a product of both personality and situation.

The study identified people as high, medium or low ‘machs’, indicating tendency to take over control in small groups, and situations as high or low structure; high structure involving the group being given explicit procedural instructions.

The hypotheses of the study were that people identified as high machs would exhibit more leadership behaviours and be recognised as leaders more in situations of low structure, and that low machs would do the same in high structure situations.

The results did not support the hypotheses at all; medium machs were markedly preferred as leaders in both situations.

Implications of structure difference included low structure having more scope for emergent leadership, but high structure leaving people more satisfied with the outcomes.

Gleason, J.M., Seaman, F.J. & Hollander, E.P. 1978, ‘Emergent leadership processes as a function of task structure and Machiavellianism’, Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 33-36.


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