By Tony Ewing – Forbes

Emergent leaders are people whose colleagues see as informal leaders. Take, for example, people who managed the virtual transitions of their offices during the pandemic. Their bosses were often preoccupied with strategic concerns. As a result, they picked up the slack to organize themselves.

In other words, such situations gave rise to emergent leaders.

Psychologically speaking, it made them critical to their colleagues. They managed the terrifying and stressful shift in business scenery. And in a show of appreciation, those colleagues passed them the leadership baton. Of course, that doesn’t mean they discarded their formal leaders. It means a new domain of critical leadership emerged.

And that’s exactly what recent, behavioral research confirms.

Scientists from several universities conducted an enterprising study. During the COVID-19 lockdown, they sought to test a theory of how different environments spawn different leaders.

For example, the theory says traditional, face-to-face office settings should spawn typical leaders. These would include charismatic, innovative, and extroverted people. By contrast, virtual settings would spawn emergent leaders. These are people with organizational skills critical for that new environment.

In testing the theory, the researchers highlight at least 5, unmistakable, signs of an emergent, virtual leader. These include:


  1. You’re the one detecting and solving all the problems. Problem-solvers rarely seem to be the quintessential leaders we tend to envision. More often, traditional business leaders learn of problems and get specialists to solve them. But that could be because face-to-face environments are already well worked out. No one stresses about pressing the elevator button to a meeting with colleagues. Yet, research shows that teleconferences stress people. As a result, emergent leaders could arise simply if they manage a seamless transition. If they seek out the main stress points and remove them. Hence, professionals able to make things more convenient for their colleagues could emerge as leaders.
  2. You’re coordinating the meetings, the technology, or the agenda. Again, virtual communication is not as simple as it might seem. In a conventional office environment, people communicate using a variety of methods. Those methods include virtual meetings. But when all communication is virtual, a more organized communication is necessary. Indeed, psychologically speaking, much of the success of online interaction requires organization. For example, the technology choice must be common so as to eliminate misunderstandings. There must be some method of keeping track of what’s being communicated. Moreover, discussions must be more formalized so as to ensure they’re not contradictory or counterproductive. In the end, the person most capable of coordinating all of this inherits influence over the agenda.
  3. You’re the one keeping track of timelines and deadlines. Conventional office leaders rarely keep track of subordinate timelines and deadlines. They set timelines but leave the responsibility for them to project managers or individual staff. Yet, most staff members appreciate help keeping track of common deadlines. That responsibility is often more administrative in many conventional office settings. Yet, it takes on a more commanding flavor when the setting is virtual. Sending the emails and outlining the remaining deliverables is viewed as a mark of power.
  4. You’re assigning tasks. Both conventional and emergent leaders are seen as “in charge” when they assign tasks. Yet, how each assigns tasks differs. Conventional environment leaders tend to delegate work according to expertise. Again, that’s because many logistical issues are already worked out. Yet, emergent, virtual leaders often assign tasks to whomever best can solve them. For example, a tutorial for colleagues in using a platform could be created by anyone with a knack for the technology. It might not require an IT expert. In another example, information from across the organization can be fetched by almost anyone. Assigning colleagues to attend adjacent area teleconference calls is a good example. In any case, the research suggests colleagues don’t make distinctions. They see leaders as the ones making assignments. And it doesn’t matter whether those assignments are expert or mundane.
  5. You’re providing needed feedback to your colleagues. Virtual settings invite a more collaborative feel. Relative to face-to-face office settings, feedback doesn’t need a strict schedule. Yet, virtual meetings require undivided attention. Hence, members of virtual groups are more likely to offer efficient feedback that can trigger immediate improvement. And, what’s more, staff members like this. The study’s researchers found more frequent feedback of the virtual setting engenders the esteem of one’s colleagues.

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