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We’re not all leaders, but we all can practice emergent leadership

When you walk into a room, there’s no easy way to know who has the best ideas. At the office you might expect that person to be a leader, the person with the most senior title. We’re encouraged from a young age to accept hierarchical structure and trust that our superiors are smarter and more experienced than we are. But most of us learn quickly, as we enter adulthood and the workforce, that this isn’t always the case.

Being given a title doesn’t make someone a great a leader. And being a leader doesn’t equate to having all, or the best, ideas. Similarly, having a great idea isn’t meant to be a quick route to leadership and a new title.

From time to time, we all have great ideas—and a great workplace recognizes this. By embracing “emergent leadership,”

A ribbon for everyone!

One of the many complaints about the Millennial generation (which I happen to be a part of), is that we were coddled as children, each of us earning a ribbon even if we came in last place. My mother wasn’t one to congratulate me on receiving a last place ribbon, but I’m not unfamiliar with the “we’re all winners” mentality ascribed to my generation.

Maybe that’s why the idea of emergent leadership is so powerful to me. Emergent leadership isn’t about everyone being a winner, but is instead about recognizing that each person has great ideas. We can accomplish more when we work together toward a shared goal, instead of waiting for and relying on someone with a title to solve the problem.

Emergent leadership isn't about everyone being a winner, but is instead about recognizing that each person has great ideas.

My idea of business and leadership shifted dramatically when I read the book, The Great Game of Business, by Jack Stack. In 1983, Stack and his colleagues attempted to save the factory they worked at after International Harvester went bankrupt. They purchased the factory for $9 million and lost $60,000 the first year. But by 1991, their annual revenue was $70 million.

Their success was achieved through open-book management and simple gamification techniques that motivated everyone, from the CEO to the janitor, to take ownership of the company and its profitability.

Lead, or listen?

How many times have you sat in a meeting and thought you could solve the problem being discussed, but didn’t speak up? We’ve all been there.

Hierarchical structures are rampant in the workplace. No matter where you work, there is a pyramid of power to contend with. As someone who is self-employed and works from home, you’d think my power pyramid would consist of me and my foster kittens. (The kittens are at the top, duh.) In reality, the power dynamics I encounter shift on a daily basis.

I may set my own schedule, work from the couch in yoga pants, and take vacations whenever I want, but my client relationships vary. Sometimes I work directly with a client, sometimes through an intermediary. Other times I work with an editor, or as a member of a team.

From one moment to the next, I find myself shifting roles—but understanding the qualities of an emergent leader makes those shifts a lot easier. One of these qualities is

An emergent leader has this power: to elevate and inspire those around them, and they don’t need a fancy title to do it.

This can be hard because, as a freelancer, I’ve had to learn how to be confident and stand up for myself. It takes consistent practice, but as I get better at voicing my ideas, I’m also realizing that there are moments when I need to step back, listen, and even accept critique.

Ask any creative: our work is personal. I put a little bit of myself into each piece that I write. When an editor or client doesn’t like my work or offers feedback, I have to swallow my ego and seek to understand what they see. Just because I’m an expert at creating copy for the web doesn’t mean that I always have the best ideas.

We can’t all be in charge, but everyone can be an emergent leader

One of the highest compliments I can receive as a writer is someone reaching out to tell me they enjoyed my work. As a relatively young writer, new to the biz and without renown, this doesn’t often happen. But when it does, I feel all kinds of warm fuzzies.

An emergent leader has this power: to elevate and inspire those around them, and they don’t need a fancy title to do it.

I remember the first time someone asked me to be their mentor. My internal response was: Me? A mentor? I’ve barely got my own life, business, taxes, adulting, and kitten-caring skills honed. I was nervous before that first coffee date, but then I realized that I do have knowledge to share. I learned many lessons in my first year-and-a-half as a full-time freelancer.

I also try to remember: it’s never a one-way street. I don’t consider myself a collector, but I do collect mentors. Anyone willing to meet me for coffee and share tips has become a mentor. The people with whom I’ve connected the most deeply are those who’ve offered advice, but also asked questions and listened when I shared knowledge that I had.

I once received a mentor by assignment, through a professional group I’d joined, and I felt so proud when we both left that meeting with notes about things to look up, jobs to look for, and advice to ponder. She taught me how to hone my pitches and I taught her about the Buzzfeed style guide. She’s still my mentor, but I think she also considers me hers. Plus, she’s just plain fun to have a margarita with.

Emergent leadership requires summoning the courage to step forward and lead when you have a solution or great idea, and also the restraint to step back and listen to those around you. In the workplace, a culture of emergent leadership gives us all the opportunity to lead and to follow, and to choose the best way forward. None of us have all the good ideas, but all of us have at least a few.

Page Grossman became an entrepreneur at 22, knowing that she never wanted to settle down in a cubicle. With a degree in journalism, some money in a savings account, and Millennial-spirit, Page founded her own freelance writing business. Page writes about creating an intentional lifestyle through travel, finances, entrepreneurship, health, fitness, and nutrition. Depending on the day, you can find her writing for various blogs, slaying SEO, researching grammar questions, banishing the Lorem Ipsum, fostering kittens, and traveling the world on Instagram.