Emergent leadership: The trait that smart, innovative companies seek out in employees


Want a call from Google? Here’s what to work on. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

Google’s Laszlo Bock famously said last year that “GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless…. We found that they don’t predict anything.” So how can talent be evaluated? How do you find the person who will come up with and nurture your organization’s next great idea?

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times had the senior vice president of people operations fill him in on what Google looks for.

One key trait: Emergent leadership.

While all bosses are supposed to lead, and have leadership roles, there’s no guarantee they will have the best ideas and motivate their employees to innovate. Bosses are assigned leaders; emergent leaders are the ones who inspire, are respected and followed.

Here’s one of the best quotes on how to lead, from the French writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Sometimes leaders bubble up from lower down in an organization. These emergent leaders are situational. When they have a smart idea, they raise their hands. They have responsible egos and don’t have to come up with the winning idea or final plan in all circumstances. As Bock explains to Friedman:

When faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.

Google’s approach brings to mind Zappos’s strategy of eliminating traditional managers, as Jena McGregor explained in January:

The move is an effort to keep the 1,500-person company from becoming too rigid, too unwieldy and too bureaucratic as it grows.

“As we scaled, we noticed that the bureaucracy we were all used to was getting in the way of adaptability,” says Zappos’s John Bunch.

Just how important do you think emergent leadership is? Let me know in the comments.

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Matt McFarland · February 21, 2014