What is emergent leadership and why is it so important?

On the first day of basic training I learned a valuable lesson about why authority only gets you so far as a leader.  Right after a hoard of drill sergeant stormed into our bus, they pointed to the man in the seat right in front of me and said, “You! Stand up.  You’re in charge.  Get everyone off the bus”.  Just like that he was assigned a leadership role with authority and I will never forget the look his eyes.  If he wasn’t nervous enough already, he sure was now.  None of us had any idea what “being in charge meant” but he was given authority so he just stood in his seat and shyly requested that everyone get off the bus but nobody moved.  If he had the authority then why did nobody move?  He proceeded to just stare at the drill sergeant with a blank look on his face as if he was asking, “Why didn’t they listen?”.  He was immediately fired and before the drill sergeant’s could promote someone else, another soldier stood up and yelled, “Everyone get up and follow me!”

The next thing I knew, myself and a bus full of soldiers were running off the bus with duffle bags overhead following a soldier we barely knew just because he went first.  He hadn’t been given authority but we followed him because he went first and we made the decision to trust him.  He showed the rest of us that he was willing to subject himself to whatever harm waited for us outside of that bus before any of us were exposed to it.  If that doesn’t build trust than I don’t know what would…

For those of you who are unfamiliar with what emergent leadership is, this is a perfect example.  Emergent leadership is when someone “emerges” as a leader without any given authority, rank or power.  Essentially, they assume a leadership role because their peers choose to follow them out of respect and trust.

In today’s world, emergent leaders are more impactful than ever before because trust between people is at an all time low.  All we ever hear in the media is how bad the world around us is and understandably, that causes us to wall ourselves of to the word around us.  It’s hard for people to trust each other when nearly everyone around us is turning us against each other.  That is why those people that are able to gain the trust and respect of their peers emerge as leaders because people trust them enough to want to follow them.

If you yourself have been in an assigned leadership role of any kind (like supervisors, managers, business owners, parents, teachers, coaches, etc.) than you can likely relate to just how difficult it is to get people to trust you if you rely on just your authority alone.  Authority only get’s you so far in today’s world where trust is so rare. It’s more important now than ever before that the emergent leaders within your team have trust and confidence in your leadership because they have the ability to influence their peers.

If we go back to the example I shared regarding the first day of basic training, that first soldier was actually given authority in an assigned leadership role but nobody followed him.  Why?  Because nobody trusted him.  He had no confidence in himself so how could he expect others to confide in him as the leader?  But the second soldier, the emergent leader, is the one who got the job done because he found a way to build trust among those around him.

There are a few key takeaways from this lesson about emergent leadership.

First, for those of you in assigned leadership roles with authority, be confident.  Confidence builds trust but also rely on the emergent leaders within your teams.  Don’t feel threatened by their leadership abilities.  Instead, rely on them to help you build trust with the remainder of those you lead.

Second, for those of you not in assigned leadership roles, this world desperately needs you to step up and take charge.  Leadership isn’t just about titles, corner offices and authority.  It’s about making the lives of those around you better.  So if you have the ability to step into an emergent leadership role – do it!

Finally, whether you are in an assigned or emergent leadership role, trust is everything.  If the people you lead don’t trust you and genuinely believe that their well-being is one of your top priorities, you will fail time and time again.

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