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Emerging Leadership amidst Chaos and Crisis

Photo Credit: Sushil Nash on Unsplash
October 14, 2020

Lebogang Mahlalela is a 2020 Social Connectedness Fellow, working with Synergos Institute South Africa to identify how social connectedness builds better leaders through the Social Connectedness Programme. Lebo is passionate about social justice and committed to building a society completely free from all forms of oppression.

“We are the change, that we have been waiting for”

 – Barack Obama

The current COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to the brink of a crisis. We can produce endless reports and articles, elaborating eloquently about just how bad things have really become. However, each of us already has our own stories to tell that we can relate to. Stories about retrenchment and isolation. Stories about reconnection and hope. However, the most urgent story that we as a society must begin telling is that of transformation. How we as a society, have been able to assess, recalculate, and create a complete 180° shift in how we work and relate to others. How we are able to not only adapt to the times we are living in, but transform into the type of leaders who are able to use what we’ve been given to become architects of a new vision. And at the core of this story and this vision, is the notion of emergent leadership. At this present moment, understanding just how important emergent leadership is, for our society and for ourselves, can be the potential panacea to our problems.  

The idea of emergent leadership has been discussed through numerous articles, by various organisations from Google, to Forbes, to The Washington Post. The notion of emergent leadership can be summed up as this:

Leadership which manifests not from any formal position or power, but rather emerges out of an individual’s response to a challenge or crisis, through taking initiative in pursuit of a common goal.

Ultimately, emergent leaders are characterised by their adaptivity to changing contexts, deep listening which allows them to sense a deeper collective consciousness; trust, authenticity and a growth mindset. Emergent leaders are less focused on positions, power, and taking up space for themselves – but rather focused on how they are able to transform their social realities, and create space for others to emerge. Furthermore, at the core of emergent leadership, is the ability to respond and adapt to crisis, through collaborative and community-oriented solutions. This is the type of leader that we need to all become, in order to emerge from the current context of chaos and crisis. And as a potential panacea for many of the problems we are seeing in the world, this notion needs to thus find its way not only into mainstream thought, but within our own frameworks of thinking as well. 

But the central question then becomes: How? How do we pave the way into this brave new world and transform into emergent leaders, when the path is often so daunting? This ultimately rests on 4 principles: 

  1. Understanding who and where we are

Understanding who we are means recognising that the process of creating and becoming better leaders takes place from within. If we are internally resilient, confident, and empathetic, it directly translates into allowing us to be leaders who are able to in turn listen deeply, trust others, and lead by serving. Understanding who we are and where we are, requires deep introspection, as well as awareness of those around us. This means that we must be socially connected, and also demonstrate both empathy and belonging with the community we are rooted in. 

  1. Transforming ourselves to transform the world

Another important aspect of becoming an emergent leader is transforming ourselves in order to be able to transform the world. Oftentimes, in transformational leadership, we neglect to focus on ourselves, rather opting to inspire and transform those around us. However, transforming ourselves better enables us to transform the world. Learning how to be open for example, can help us learn from others and strengthen our collaborative skills and efforts. These abilities form capacities that are imperative in responding to challenges. This is exemplified in Nigeria’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. In Nigeria, academics, community leaders, governmental organisations, as well as a range of other actors came together to attempt to solve rising issues around poverty, inequality, and unsustainable practices further exacerbated by the pandemic. The group utilised a leadership approach called Bridging Leadership which focuses on inner work – on transforming ourselves – to work at a multi-stakeholder level, to then create leaders and relationships built on trust, collaboration, and authenticity. 

  1. Understanding the power of passion

The next aspect that is important in becoming an emergent leader, is understanding the power of passion. The power of passion not only works at the individual level, but it also acts as a catalyst to inspire and transform others within the society into emergent leaders. Much like how one single candle has the power to burn down an entire city, one enlightened individual and transformed emergent leader can have ripple effects on an entire society. 

  1. Envisioning the world we want to see

Lastly, being able to create a world and vision that we want to see requires intentional building. Central to this is adequately defining what it is that we want to see. Emergent leadership can be seen as resting on the idea that we can accomplish more when we rise up as individuals and work together toward a shared goal, instead of waiting for and relying on someone with a title to solve the problem. Thus, supporting structures which allow for emergent leaders to develop are imperative for our society. The deliberate inclusion of grassroots community leaders within decision-making processes, youth leadership development, community knowledge building, as well as the encouragement of grassroots activism can all help build systems that allow emergent leaders to flourish. Cultivating this society rich in individuals who see themselves as catalysts for change, and who employ collaborative methods to strengthen their communities, can be the change we need to shift from the current context of crisis.  

As we continue reimagining leadership within this ‘new normal’, so should we reimagine ourselves becoming the emergent leaders our changing world needs.