9/24 – Emergence and Leadership – A Report from the Academy of Management Conference

Benyamin Lichtenstein

Benyamin Lichtenstein

Benyamin Lichtenstein

Benyamin Lichtenstein

Each year, scholars from business schools around the world gather to share our research and explore new ideas and approaches in management, leadership, entrepreneurship, strategy, ethics, organizational change, and more. This year the conference hosted over 10,000 academics who attended over 2000 different sessions, representing up to 100 different presentation sessions at each time slot(!). Although such a convocation is impossible to summarize, my particular focus—emergence and leadership—led me to a half dozen panels that were very intriguing. My aim is to share these insights from the field.

As you may know, the academic field of leadership is based in the mechanistic paradigm of hierarchical authority and linear causality that permeates all of the disciplines. Thus the theories that we teach undergrads and MBAs assume that leadership is a quality that is embedded within a supervisor, who wields it to motivate subordinates, accomplish goals, and pursue strategies that help the organization grow and change. Even the most influential theories of Transformative Leadership carry this assumption, for it is the charismatic manager who supports the development of her employees, and finds ways to leverage their skills to improve performance. This is indeed a positive approach, especially in its emphasis on personal and professional development for team members. However it still doesn’t quite capture non-linearity and emergence that managers are struggling to understand.

Amidst these paper sessions—63 research panels focused explicitly on leadership—there were a good number that called those assumptions into question, pushing the leading edge of leadership theory toward themes of shared leadership, spiritual leadership, and leadership emergence. After a brief review of the first two themes, I’ll present my impressions of the new work on emergence.

Shared Leadership refers to the presence of multiple leaders in some self-managed teams. This model works because each leader takes on certain functions or roles which are integrated within the goals and activities of the entire group. Current research (at the conference) explored the precursors and dynamics of these teams, and how shared leadership affected performance. For example, one study examined how shared leadership reduced relationship conflict, which improved performance; another showed how shared leadership in the team improved individual member performance, but decreased job satisfaction. Overall, research suggests that shared leadership leads to more effective teams, given certain conditions and constraints.

Spiritual Leadership refers to a broad set of papers exploring the role of mindfulness, authenticity, and ‘personal calling’ in leaders and in organizations. Although much of this work takes place within the “Management of Spirituality and Religion” division (one of 22 divisions at the Academy), leadership scholars have also examined how spirituality impacts leadership. For example, one study showed how spiritual well-being was correlated to commitment, satisfaction and unit productivity in Baldridge Award companies; another revealed that leaders’ mindfulness was related to subordinate ratings of servant leadership but not to formal leadership. One panel explored how Transcendental Leadership supports the evolution of individuals to create a more collectively focused world; another group of Authentic Leadership scholars considered how to expand on that theme. Overall, even as they struggle to define what spiritual leadership really is, researchers recognize that spirituality is an important quality of leadership.

Leadership Emergence focuses on the process by which leaders emerge in groups, and how leaders can spark emergent outcomes including innovation and change. Researchers in this arena use complexity science to identify the qualities of non-linearity, interdependence, and order-creation that are central to emergence, and examine how these qualities affect the outcomes of a team or an organization. For example, one study showed how large companies with high ‘relational climates’ were far more likely than their low relational peers, to display ‘courageous leadership’ and effect change in vision and execution that resulted in successful turnarounds. Another study examined how dialogic interaction and sense-making at individual (micro) levels led to dynamic relational leadership at the macro level, to increase collaborative and distributive leadership in organizations. Several studies argued that relationships were the key unit of analysis for emergent leadership, with integrity being the basis of positive relationships. In a similar way, emergence leadership for positive change was linked to an integration of emotional, cognitive, and behavioral processes; this ‘whole-person’ approach generated the most active and co-created forms of organizational change.

In sum, the presence of Shared Leadership, Spiritual Leadership, and Leadership Emergence at the conference was inspiring to all those who recognize that true innovation and change can only be generated through these non-mechanistic and interdependent approaches. Indeed, many of the scholars in these sessions had been managers and executives in their career, and were bringing this industry experience into their research. Thus, the leading edge of the academic field of leadership – the integration of multiple leaders on a team, the value of spiritual qualities for leaders, and the activation of non-linearity and relationality in organizations – is based on the real-life experiences of leading in the field of business and social change. I, like many of my colleagues, hope that insights like these from previous managers can help shape academic thinking, and that the rigorous models from scholars can offer leaders tangible ways to increase integrity, authenticity, and relationality in their organizations.

About the Author

Benyamin Lichtenstein Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Management at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and the Academic Director the Entrepreneurship Center at the College of Management. Professor Benyamin’s fourth book, Generative Emergence, was recently published by Oxford University Press; in addition he has published more than 50 articles, chapters and reports in top academic journals, and presented at nearly 100 conferences around the world.


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