Emergent Leadership








Emergent Leadership differs from both Formal and Informal Leadership in a number of ways:

  • Formal Leadership takes care of the organization’s future results. It tries to control engagement, progress, accountability, and authorization for people doing the work by using formal structures such as processes, tools, documentation, contracts, roles, and plans.
  • Informal Leadership takes care of people’s need to belong in the organization. It tries to influence engagement, progress, accountability, and authorization of the people in the organization by using informal or invisible structures such as norms, culture, stories, status, and relationships.
  • Emergent Leadership takes care of people’s and the organization’s needs to discover hidden resources. It tries to develop engagement, progress, accountability, and authorization within the organization by using fluid, temporary structures such as invitation, opt-in participation, direct learning experience, stewardship, and personal development.

Organizational learning and innovation takes place at the level of Emergent Leadership – when people can take initiative and lead something that they have passion for and would like to try. When it’s safe to “suspend belief,” “act as if,” and “pretend” that they can lead, the whole organization is learning and discovering hidden resources within its people and processes. In order to allow Emergent Leadership to occur, both Formal and Informal Leaders have roles to play:

  • Engagement. For emergent leaders to step up and step outside of their comfort zone, they have to be invited to do so. Any perceived risk for stepping up will prevent people from trying, so there can be no formal assignment from Formal Leadership and no informal assignment or peer pressure from Informal Leadership. Invitation means anyone can accept and decline regardless of formal title and informal status.
  • Progress. Progress of an OpenSpace Agility Adoption is measured through stories about initiatives, experiments, emergent leaders and direct learning experiences. Formal Leadership needs to communicate and celebrate stories of safe space learning efforts regardless of the outcome. Informal Leadership needs to support and encourage people to challenge their own learning edge.
  • Accountability. Emergent leaders step up because they want to sharpen their alignment of purpose, autonomy, and mastery.  They say: “I want to make this happen.” Where Formal Leadership emphasizes accountability through contracts and Informal Leadership through relationships, emergent leaders feel accountable to a purpose as well as to their own and their team’s sense of autonomy and mastery (i.e. learning).
  • Authority. Where Formal Leadership authorizes work through making plans and Informal Leadership by responding to reality, Emergent Leadership authorizes anyone to emerge as leader and experiment within their temporary leadership role. Emergent Leadership must be authorized by Formal and Informal Leadership, just as anyone who steps up as an emergent leader must be authorized by the group to lead. “May I lead this initiative?” is an invitation that can be accepted or declined.


Written by Louise Kold-Taylor, OSA-Certified Trainer