A New Generation Defines Leadership

Amanda Siegel  |  5 min read

As a rising high school senior, I have started writing my college essays. I have been asked to be introspective. The schools I will apply to want to know who I really am. This has forced me to reflect on my personal qualities and which ones will be valued.

Leadership seems to be one of the most important. But what is leadership?

Am I a leader?

The dictionary defines it as “the power or ability to lead other people,” yet somehow that doesn’t seem to shed much light on the topic.

Our society values leadership, and high school students are often told it is critical to achieving success. In middle school and in high school I was invited to attend student leadership conferences. I was thrilled to meet young leaders from all over the United States and found the conference activities powerful and inspiring, but then I had a troubling thought: If everyone is a leader, who will they be leading?

I learned new skills and had great experiences at both conferences, but that question remained unanswered. I wondered if leadership was simply about telling other people what to do (and getting them to listen) or something more. Is it leading by example? Do leaders lead in every situation? Is a leader simply appointed or does one come into that role in another way? The more I thought about it, the more complicated it seemed.

As Thomas Friedman pointed out in a recent New York Times opinion piece on Google’s hiring practices, Google rejects the standard view of leadership. Rather than focusing on traditional leadership skills, the company focuses on “emergent leadership” — the ability to emerge as a leader without a formal role.

While those in charge at Google believe that it is crucial for an individual to step up and lead at the right time, they also think it is equally important that he or she step back at the appropriate time. It is valuable to let others lead, and in turn to follow them. Organizations need to recognize the importance of emergent leadership and to understand that a set hierarchical structure does not work for all problem-solving situations. Instead of concentrating on influencing the behavior of specific individuals, in this approach people aim to influence the group as a whole in order to achieve success.

Emergent leadership was probably first formally described in 1974 by communication researcher B. Aubrey Fisher. He noted that this brand of leadership depends largely on communication skills. The traits that are associated with emergent leadership are the ability to be involved in discussion, informed about the task at hand, and willing to ask the opinions of others. In addition, emergent leaders tend to initiate new ideas and are firm but not rigid in their approach. Emergent leadership requires strong listening skills and the confidence to step back at times and allow others to make a contribution and help guide the group. As I considered these ideas, it occurred to me that schools need to teach these skills.

If there is a better way, why is it so often ignored? It seems well-accepted in modern society that leaders are those who captain the soccer team, serve on the student government, or run the school newspaper. Of course, these individuals are leaders in the traditional sense. However, others can be leaders in a way that differs from the norm.

The person on the soccer team who most greatly affects the success of the team may be the soft-spoken player who leads by example — pushing himself or herself as hard as possible at all times and encouraging others to do the same — rather than the person who calls out orders to everyone else. This is a form of leadership that can be very powerful.

Sadly and interestingly, research has shown that emergent leadership can be impacted by gender biases. For example, a study published in 2004 showed that while female leaders succeeded in influencing their group at the same rate as men, they were rated lower than their male counterparts on their leadership abilities and were liked less by their groups. So, although women can succeed as emergent leaders at the same rate as men, they may be less inclined to do so because of negative feedback.

The traditional view of leadership seems flawed. Groups will succeed more quickly and at a higher level if each member is allowed to lead when he or she has something constructive to contribute. Most, if not all, organizations have appointed leaders who oversee a number of people. But it is important to recognize that the best leaders are those who at times allow others the opportunity to step forward and take charge.

This piece originally appeared in The Providence Journal