Is leadership an emergent property?

Note: this post is in early Beta.

Is leadership an emergent property of people working together (social capital) or is it something delivered, in a top-down fashion by an individual? I was asked about this recently, and immediately thought about the Apache nation that had only situational leaders, Nantans, who were in charge as long as warriors were willing to follow them. Because of this decentralization, they were able to fight the Spanish for a long time, regrouping as necessary, ultimately destroyed by a “benevolent” United States.

Looking at my outboard brain (my blog) I’ve reviewed some thoughts on leadership, which has not really been my focus, but is perhaps more of an emergent property after almost eight years. These are some of the ideas that still resonate with me.

Let me begin with this quote from Peter Levesque, which I picked up in 2004, showing how digital  interconnectedness may change our view leadership:

I suggest that the leaders will be found among the aggressively intelligent citizenry, liberated from many tasks and obligations by technology freely shared; using data, information and knowledge acquired from open source databases, produced from the multiples of billions of dollars of public money invested through research councils, universities, social agencies, and public institutions.

But an aggressively intelligent citizenry needs access to its own ideas. This in an ongoing battle with the established powers. Open information and access to our common knowledge assets seems to be a required part of any new leadership model.

Leaders may be required in hierarchies but are they necessary in wirearchies? The great work of our time may be to design, build and test new organizational models that reflect our democratic values and can function in an interconnected world. Leadership today may be more of an architectural task, or one of setting up the right systems.

We’re now at the stage where we have some new ideas for work (wirearchynatural enterprisesworkplace democracy) and some new technologies (social, nano-bio-techno-cogno). The next step in this evolution is for a new organizational model and that conversation has already started. The ideology will come later.

Ideas lead technology. Technology leads organizations. Organizations lead institutions. Then ideology brings up the rear, lagging all the rest—that’s when things really get set in concrete.

Does ridiculously-easy group forming mean that leadership can now emerge when people get together for collective action? What kind of leadership is there in mass, decentralized, social movements, like the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street movements?

Warren Bennis wrote that hierarchy is a prosthesis for trust. With open systems, trust emerges.

Knowledge workers, collaborate, you have nothing to lose but your managers. This is a statement I made a bit in jest on Twitter, but the truth behind it is that management is less useful to the interconnected, professional, concept worker. With fewer managers and hyperlinks subverting hierarchy, will a different breed of leadership emerge?

It takes different leadership, or leadership for networks, to do the important work in complex work environments, which, in my opinion, is to increase collaboration and support social learning in the workplace.

I haven’t really answered my own question whether leadership is an emergent property of net work, but I have little doubt that we need different kinds of leadership (more open, transparent & diverse) and people with these attributes may emerge as their peers allow them to lead; for the time being.

5 Responses to “Is leadership an emergent property?”

  1. Stephen Downes

    ‘Leadership’ is the trait people who have been successful ascribe as the reason for their success.

    It is one of those properties that appears to be empirically unverifiable and is probably fictional.

  2. Nick Howe

    Great post Harold. Really struck a cord with me. We are in the middle of a big collaboration/social business rollout here and it’s amazing how much can be done by self-organizing groups. It is frightening/energizing depending on your POV.


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