Emergent Leadership

Emergent Leadership: The ability to steer things in the right direction, without the authority to do so, through social competence.


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Why is Emergent Leadership So Important?

Renowned futurist Stowe Boyd has defined “emergent leadership” as one of the top ten skills for the “post-normal era.” (If you’re wondering, that era is now, when being average is no longer a viable career choice.)

What, exactly, does emergent leadership involve? Let’s break it down.


1. Leading is Navigating

First, emergent leadership means steering

Steering involves maneuvering a massive object with lots of inertia. Often, important stuff is at stake. As emergent leaders, steering means guiding our communities toward an meaningful change or awareness. Khan Academy, for example, is working to steer the education system towards better access for all.

The opposite of steering? Standing by and watching. This is what most of us are doing with the environment; it’s what YouTube wants from you when it catapults “recommended videos” your way. Being passive is a mistake that college students make nonstop, believing that their education will do the directing for them. The truth is, it won’t. At least not where you want to go.


2. Leading is Feeling

Secondly, emergent leadership means that you steer things in the right direction

That there is a right direction implies there must be a wrong direction. Things aren’t always so clear-cut, but examples of each are everywhere. 

Afrikstart, for example, is a crowd-funding platform for African entrepreneurs. It provides financial and logistical support to new businesses. It was part of the $130 million total crowdfunding raised for businesses in Africa in 2015. That sounds like the right direction! In comparison, while micro-credit began as a humane way of supporting laborers and small business, profit-seeking micro-credit banks have turned massive returns through predatory lending. Right direction? Not exactly! 

Emergent leadership means developing an internal compass for what’s right and wrong. Most importantly, it means not believing anyone who tells you you have to sacrifice your values to stay financially viable. To make the most money, sure. Cut corners. But massively successful businesses like Tom’s Shoes couldn’t exist if they’d let profit take priority over their mission.


3. Leading is Taking the Reins

Thirdly – here comes the hard part! – emergent leadership requires steering things in the right direction, without the authority to do so.

This is amazingly difficult to do, largely because nearly every system in your life works to convince you to respect (i.e. not challenge) authority. Political authority is obvious: you’re told that senators have the important vote, not you, and that lobbyist are who truly makes the decisions. The classroom is another: your intellect is measured in capital letters by an authoritative someone who is, in turn, following orders from higher up. 

Because it’s everywhere, our internal monologue treats authority as an absolute truth. As an example, you might be interested in sending an email to a famous blogger and speaker. You have a burning question, so you sit down to write. But in that moment, the authority question comes into play: isn’t this guy untouchable? Isn’t he a world-renowned expert? Why would he ever want to hear from me? So you close your laptop and go back to distraction; you bow your head.

When a teacher or professor says something wrong, but nobody speaks up, we know why. Our school system has taught us to never question the individual at the podium. 

What’s important, today, is to realize that following the leader is an emphatically awful career strategy. Emergent leadership means taking the reins without anyone telling you, “Hey. Here are the reins. Go wild.” Nobody is going to tell you to break the rules. That’s why they’re called rules!


4. Leading is Social Savvy

The last part of what emergent leadership means is that you make change through social competence

This competence isn’t quite the same as being charismatic. Yes, it’s important to be able to help people relax, or laugh, or stick around and chat. However, to lead through social competence means learning the art of persuasion. Concretely, it means being a master at “mindsight”: thinking from another person’s perspective. 

So, if you want me to skip class and attend a protest, you’ve gotta convince me. Why should I? What about my grades? What about my professor? If you want me to invest in your business idea, you need to communicate the impact you’ll make, and how specifically it will play out. It’s on you, as a leader, to put yourself in the shoes of others, and understand their unique vision. 



If you can combine these four habits, you’ll be miles ahead of your peers. Remember: there are no maps anymore – even PhDs struggle to find positions! So, the only real map for your life is the one you start drawing yourself. Stay focused, and stay honest.