Following the disruption of COVID-19, organisations should resist returning to leadership-as-usual.
As the COVID-19 pandemic changes how we live and work, our vision of who should lead is also changing.
A new study from Monash Business School shows how organisations need to adopt a critical lens to not only examine who traditionally emerges as a leader but to consider the leadership talent that may be going unnoticed.
A team from Monash Business School’s Department of Management ̶ Professor Julie Wolfram Cox, PhD candidate Karryna Madison and Associate Professor Nathan Eva ̶ have developed a process for practitioners to help businesses understand how leadership emerges.
“A critical analysis of the emergent leadership field was needed to understand what we know about emergent leadership, how we know it, and whose views are privileged,” Prof Wolfram Cox says.
Based on their research, they encourage practitioners to reflect on how certain individuals come to be seen as leaders, even when they are not in formal leadership roles.
Post-COVID reboot opportunities
The COVID-19 pandemic systematically changed business-as-usual, encouraging us to rethink how leaders and leadership emerge.
As a result, a broader array of perspectives on emergence is needed to understand, research, and foster emergent leadership.
“When a crisis hits, there is a tendency to be more restrictive and controlling. But micromanaging behaviours can be the wrong way to go in a crisis,”A/Prof Eva says.
“By empowering employees there is a better outcome, one that includes more ideas and more opinions from a broader range of people.”
For Karryna Madison this includes looking closely at who is appointed as a leader in the organisation to unearth overlooked talent.
“They could be missing out on some great leaders who are stifled under current practices,” she says.
In the new paper, they offer practical assistance in enhancing organisational environments to benefit from multiple, diverse forms of emergent leadership, and provide an agenda to assist future researchers.
The analysis revealed previous studies were marked by a limited theoretical and empirical base.
But they caution this is inadequate for moving forward in a post-COVID-19 world.
“Much of the knowledge on emergent leadership derives from studies from the United States where a single leader emerges within a gender-blind group of white, or race-unspecified undergraduate students,” A/Prof Eva says.
“This perpetuates a narrow view of emergent leadership that may be inadequate in a world where past assumptions about leadership have been disrupted.”
So these biases may have previously held back leaders who would naturally be in line for the role.
“The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have reminded us of the significance of differences in gender and race over any assumptions of sameness in leadership,” Madison says.
Practical applications for managers
The study outlines practical applications based on five perspectives that offer particular promise for rethinking emergent leadership.
“We suggest starting with specific observable events and everyday practices and then working toward more deep-seated issues that may also take longer to address,” Prof Wolfram Cox says.
No 1. Recalibrating to allow different leaders to emerge
COVID-19 resulted in an observable, systemic disruption where past ways of working may no longer be feasible nor wanted.
The researchers suggest this disruption provides an opportunity to explore how and why different leaders emerged during the pandemic.
It also allows organisations to foster conversations about how they can recalibrate and experiment in order to be proactive and receptive to emergent leadership in the future.
“This could include fostering psychologically safe spaces for workers to emerge, withdraw, and re-emerge as informal leaders within a team,” A/Prof Eva suggests.
No 2. Reflecting on everyday practices
Through reflection, teams can examine how emergent leadership may be stifled by everyday practices such as how meetings are run or how employees socialise.
“Practitioners can help leaders map out daily practices that hinder and encourage emergent leadership,” Prof Wolfram Cox says.
“For example, reflecting on practices within meetings, identifying barriers and then changing seating or Zoom arrangements can allow or afford different voices and forms of leadership to emerge.”
No 3. Reviewing unfolding events over time
The organisational norms that may help or inhibit emergent leadership can be more difficult to address.
In this case, organisations need to examine and question how routines, rituals, and norms allow or prohibit informal leadership from emerging over time.
“This could include examining the downstream processes and effects of surprise events, policies that centralise decision-making to one formal leader in a crisis, or of masculinised rituals that only allow one prototype of leader to emerge,” A/Prof Eva says.
For example, a senior male regularly playing golf with the CEO may exclude women or minority leaders from emerging.
No 4. Removing individual biases and other blocks to diversity
A/Prof Eva also stresses the importance of addressing internal biases held by existing leaders that may inhibit emergent leadership.
“Existing leaders in the organisation may need to push back against their own biases that are seemingly associated with survival and reproduction,” he suggests.
“As existing leaders reject a ‘primal’ urge to reproduce leadership clones – such as in terms of height, age, and gender – this raises the opportunity for diverse leaders to emerge in the organisation,” he says.
5. Recasting social assumptions
Organisations are encouraged to adopt a wider perspective to encourage the emergence of more diverse identities within leadership.
By taking a step back to look at how they are currently identifying and choosing leaders, they can critically examine the underlying process of how leadership emerges within teams.
“This could include examining how a mixture of social assumptions, institutionalised segregation, and manager indifference create barriers for different workers, such as neurodiverse workers, to emerge as leaders within the team,” Madison says.
Here, practitioners can work with leaders to examine the unobserved social roles, institutions, and systems that allow or prevent informal leaders from emerging within their work teams.