Emergent Leadership

Managing and leading are two very different concepts, but many times you see terms like “manager” and “leader” used interchangeably. I personally like to define them very differently and in my opinion there is a very clear distinction.

In short “managers” are appointed and leaders emerge.

Managing refers to managing conditions and good managers create condition where leadership can naturally emerge. Some people are natural leaders and they will naturally take the lead unless their leadership skills are suppressed by management.

Leaders are very context dependent. In a software team during different development phases different people can emerge as leaders and even designing different parts of the system it might well be that the people who best understand the requirements and situation naturally take the lead.

A good manager should understand to cede control when someone else is better fit to lead. Arbitrarily holding on to power will only interfere with teams capability to perform. Ceding control requires a confidence and trust in the team.

Emerging leadership is a natural phenomena. Take a travelling flock of birds for instance. A wedge of cranes has a leader, somebody has to fly in the peak. The leader position is however circulated naturally.


The form of the wedge is fairly stable, but some other flocks change the form dramatically and peculiar forms and patterns can emerge. “When birds fly in flocks, they often arrange themselves in specific shapes or formations. Those formations take advantage of the changing wind patterns based on the number of birds in the flock and how each bird’s wings create different currents. This allows flying birds to use the surrounding air in the most energy efficient way. ” (http://birding.about.com/od/birdbehavior/a/Why-Birds-Flock.htm) Should an agile team think it’s form should stay constant.

Leadership implies followers. When it is not by authority as when manager tells his team to do something, its naturally good measure to check if the actions are agreed upon. If you have a good idea and people are willing to follow you because they agree with you, that makes you a leader.

Emerging leadership is an ongoing self organization activity by the team. Self organization is one of the fundamental agile -principles, but it’s not always understood as an ongoing process. Emerging leadership is a natural phenomena in a truly self organizing team. Agile team should be more like a flock of bird that is prepared to change forms to best benefit from the “currents” every team members skills create any given moment of time.

Posted on 16/02/2014, in Agile, Leadership and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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