Leading In Collective Emergence

Leading in Collective Emergence By Mary Shippy and Hendrik Tiesinga


The intensity of change over the last few years and the momentum with which the world is connecting in different ways can be mind-boggling. Successful leadership amid this change is less about the experience one brings to the present and more about the ability to respond to today’s realities and to prepare for a new emerging future. 

Leading within an emerging world discourse requires the capacity to influence systems through networks of relationships, almost demanding that leaders take on new knowledge and practices. Strong leadership today requires individuals to step forward with courage and commitment to lead sustainable, broad-based change. At the same time they are making these sometimes dramatic leaps, these leaders are working within a context that challenges assumptions of top-down, strategic initiatives. What shapes the lives of those who are choosing to step into leading collective emergence? And how do we support the growth of emergent leaders? These are the questions driving our inquiry into how to lead collective emergence.

Perhaps the shape of this inquiry is best illustrated by one of the participants. As context for each interview, we would ask the participants to share their leadership journey. This response seems to summarize what we heard over and over again.

“I ask myself the question, ‘How did I arrive at the place where I am in this
moment?’ I started my own company, and that is not really important because
in a way it is more about creating my life, and how can I create a meaningful life
and how can I invite other people to create the same kind of life? A place where
people around me are thinking about what is important to them and as a result
of these conversations how do we discover the life that is being created through
I think what I am learning from my experience is that you need to dream and
you have to create what you want, because only then can you start the journey
that will lead you forward. I am trusting that one day we will sit together –
people from different sectors; business, NGO’s, entrepreneurs, public sector –
and address critical issues that face us, finding a dialogue that emerges into
answers where we together create a better future.‛

With this story in mind we ask the question; what does leading collective emergence mean? The most straightforward definition of emergence comes from systems theory – the emergence of a whole that is more than the sun of its constituent parts. As we referred to collective emergence throughout this paper, it’s about seeing bits and pieces, glimpses of what lies ahead and facing the “next new thing” through adaptation with a type of collective intelligence we will refer to as communities of practice.

This emergent whole has new distinctive qualities that the individual parts do not possess. Like the wetness or taste of water that neither hydrogen nor oxygen individually possesses. These new qualities often cannot be predicted ahead of time. In an age of unprecedented interconnectedness and unknown challenges, emergent innovations materialize and are called for continuously.

Leading in emergence entails calling forth that which does not exist yet. And what does not exist yet can’t be planned for. Working with emergence thus confronts us with the limits of more traditional top-down planning approaches to leadership. Instead, deep relationships, values, trust and intuition take on new importance as fundamental leadership capacities.

Entrepreneurship and leadership throughout history have involved courageous people with big ideas and foresight. These historical leaders saw the future and explored the planet, navigated unchartered waters, invented new technologies and adapted to war, financial collapse, disease and disasters. Working with new emergent solutions is therefore nothing new. In fact, as we will see in the outcomes of our research, the developmental journey of the leaders we have interviewed share many attributes with the archetypal hero’s journey (as articulated by Joseph Campbell) overcoming new challenges along their path.

What distinguishes our research from the hero’s journey is the context. We looked at the developmental journey of the leaders, within the context of communities of practice. These communities sought to either intentionally create collective emergence as an outcome, or unintentionally as a bi-product of their desire to create global change. In our definition of collective emergence, innovations and new solutions are not led by a single leader or entrepreneur; rather they are co-created by a collective of entrepreneurs and leaders. Collective emergence thus involves shifting traditional systems and/or creating new organizations that facilitate the surfacing of many new solutions. Instead of following one’s individual intuition as a leader to create something new, the leader partners with others to collaboratively follow a collective intuition for new emergent innovations.

Collective emergence as we define it, not only focuses on collaborative innovation and leadership as a purpose in itself, but the collective also points toward the goal of the change, which lies beyond the narrow interests and perspectives of individuals, interest groups and stakeholders. One way of defining leading collective emergence then is, ‚collaborative leadership and innovation for the greater common good.‛

The leaders we studied sought to transform their existing or new organisations through collective emergent processes to develop new spaces for collaborative social innovation. These leaders are developing ‘urban spaces for social innovation,’ ‘multistakeholder innovation labs,’ ‘learning partnerships’ or are seeking to promote these new leadership capacities through coaching and training.

Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze in their article ‚Lifecycle of Emergence‛ identify three stages of how emergence evolves to create social shifts. The three stages they identified have to do with the way people organize themselves:

  • Networks – shared meaning and purpose loosely connected.
  • Communities of Practice – practice communities with committed membership.
  • Systems of Influence – communities of new practices that create norms and shift patterns.

These stages were helpful in developing a framework for defining the particular area of research that this study addresses.

Focus Of Study

We focused our study on two communities of leaders: the Art of Hosting (AoH)1 and the Pioneers of Change (PoC). 2 We interviewed an intergenerational and intercultural group of leaders who are part of these communities or closely related to them. Specifically, we were investigating the journey and experience of these individuals as they moved through the three stages of organization described by Wheatley and Frieze (networks, communities of practice and systems of influence). In particular, we were interested in the ‚what‛ and ‚how‛ of their experiences, since these experiences shaped the leaders’ relationships, practices and vocational choices.

We speak about and explore emergence in three ways:

  1. Relationships that are built and extended into broader communities of influence and support.
  2. Practices that support the creation of fields that promote and create emergent thinking.
  3. Vocational callings where courageous commitments to societal change are made.

The following topics framed the context of our interviews; (1) An overview of the leadership journey and significant mentors and teachers; (2) Questions regarding regular practices and routines that cultivate inner life/self; (3) Questions about the formation and maintenance of relationship communities and (4) Thoughts regarding the values, beliefs, and passions that shape vocations. With some leaders we added one further area; (5) Discussion regarding experiences with conflict, (self and with others) and within the communities of practice.

The Participants

The participants we interviewed for this study are presently working in a variety of fields including health, corporate social responsibility, social movements or business where they intentionally work to make a difference within their sphere of influence. All of them are leading new emergent initiatives within existing organizations or setting up new organizations, and all are committed to co-creating a more collaborative and sustainable world. They are initiators of participatory leadership practices and new sustainability initiatives within business settings, developing urban, social innovation spaces and instigating multi-stakeholder change initiatives.

Participants range in age from 24-62 years. Three are between the ages of 55-62; three are between 40-51 years of age; four are between 30-35 years of age and three are between 24-30 years old. Participants are 55% male and 45% female. They represent a total of 10 countries on 4 continents. All interviews were conducted in English.

Research Limits

In addition to researchers, we are participants in these communities. This allows us to discover and observe the patterns through the interviews we conducted and to connect what we discovered to our own experiences, contributing to the whole process.

Participating in the research also provides certain limitations and biases. This is not a prescriptive inquiry but rather it is descriptive in nature. It is not conclusive study but rather it is open-ended in its findings. It is a sampling of two communities, so therefore is not all-inclusive in its participant pool… In research terms; this is most similar to action research methodology where the researchers are participants in the research, contributing to the on-going process as an assessment. This is distinct from other conventional research which seeks to observe phenomena from an objective point of view and draw substantive conclusive results.

Overview of Research

As we collectively analysed the various developmental journeys of the participants interviewed, an overall pattern began to emerge. It is important to note that the journey of the participants was not linear; they started the journey at different entry points, and travelled fluidly between different discovery phases. However, viewed together there is a significant evolutionary pattern of these leaders and their relationships that we aim to describe in this paper.

The phases we have distinguished are as follows:

  • Disillusionment
  • Rupture and epiphany
  • Building new practices and alliances acceleration
  • Hubris
  • Growing reflective wisdom

We will briefly describe these phases here and then describe them in more depth later in the paper with examples and quotes from the research participants.

The journey of an emergent leader often includes an inner conviction or intuition, beginning with inkling that something different is possible, but importantly noting that they do not know how to act on it. This inner conviction or intuition comes to them at different stages of their lives, for example at university, following job promotions, during vocational pursuits, etc. What marked these experiences for leaders in our study was a feeling of increased disillusionment about themselves, about the world and about life in general.

At some point this disillusionment phase reached a tipping point. For some this happened early – for others later. Sometimes it happened gradually – other times suddenly. Each of the participants in our study experienced at some point along the way what we have called a ‘rupture’ and/or ‘epiphany’ experience that produced a change to the direction of their life. The rupture often involved a painful experience such as a loss of a deep relationship, illness, etc., which compelled the participant to deeply re-examine his/her life. The epiphany usually involved a deeply transformative experience that produced a new relationship with themselves, with others and with the world at large. The catalyst was often an experience such as meeting an extraordinary person, a significant spontaneous insight/vision, participating in a transformative program and/or retreats. What is common across the participants is the impact of these catalytic experiences in opening a window to a profound and deeply experiential insight that a different way of living in the world is possible. 

These combined experiences compelled our participants to expand their traditional ways of learning and knowing, leading them to explore experiential learning paradigms. This, in turn, introduced them to communities of practices that embraced whole system theory, collective leadership practices and complementary forms of self-development. In this process, they developed new relationships, friends, mentors and support networks. The building of new practices and alliances had different durations for the different participants.

As a result of building new allies and embracing new learning, a natural saturation point was reached and the participants started implementing changes to their lives; ending certain relationships and starting new ones that were more aligned with their new orientation in life. They changed jobs or started bold new projects. At the acceleration phase, the momentum of their self-propelled changes, the synchronicity of life, and elements such as work and life, private and public, started to merge together and their new life started to mysteriously fall into place.

As inertia ended and momentum carried the leader forward, they took on increased responsibility for their project, explored larger areas for collaboration, and envisioned greater circles of impact. As a result, often their self-image, worth, esteem and confidence swelled in these early stages of success to a feeling of virtual invincibility. We called this the hubris phase. We defined hubris as a new, excessive self-confidence, and the aggrandized perception of the leader that he or she is in charge of and responsible for the mysterious synchronicity that they are unleashing rather than being a servant of it. Personal hubris squelches the collective flow and synchronicity and replaces it with individual control. This leads to group conflict, collective rejection of close allies, and ultimately the demise of the larger vision as the project dissolves.

What followed was a deep sadness that, when harvested for learning, begins the ongoing phase of growing reflective wisdom — coming to terms with personal limits and failings and the inherently instable and complex nature of working with collective emergence. The practice of personal resilience, humility and letting go of control ultimately helps the leader become an extension of their mastery in serving collective emergence.


Our participants describe the start of their emergence journey with an awaking to a deeper longing. Some of them had a keen awareness at a young age. One of the participants said:

  “…from an early age I think I was quite keen on following my inner voice, my intuition, a bit cliché, but what my heart tells me rather than what everyone else was telling me.”

Another said:

  “When I was 13 I had some experiences that really showed me that there is something in me and around me, some forces that I cannot understand quite yet, but if I can learn to communicate with them, they will help me.”

Others described the journey as a place of curiosity or awareness as seen in these quotes:

  “I don’t know if you can become a curious person. I think I always was. It’s more like discovering that this is part of your own nature and not something strange…it is more like investigating a deeper sense of finding something new.” 

  “I think there is a strong driver in this journey, I call them insight moments. It’s the beauty of the whole journey; it’s like those moments where…like Eureka! Those are moments where some of the pieces found their way to fit together and this is quite rewarding. Sometimes they happen in talks like we are having, or they happen while you are writing, or while you are meditating. There are a lot of ways this can happen, but you have to appreciate those moments and honor them.” 

Still others talked about this experience as having a deep sense of disillusionment with their lives – with work, in their professional and in their personal lives. One of our participants talked about this time as an emotional place:

  “I became angry for a long time and at some point I got involved with transformational commitments.” 

Several others talked about it as a gradual discontentment with the status quo, not only within business but in all sectors. For example, one of the participants worked within the NGO community and stated that for them:

 ” The whole dynamic I began to discover, kind of a shadow side of the NGO movement which has a lot of talk, of peace and love and tolerance, there is actually very little practiced of it among themselves or toward anybody who doesn’t believe in the same thing.”

And yet another talked about the desire or need to be connected to something larger then themselves:

  “It took me awhile to figure out and to maintain the spiritual aspect of who I am… to understand a deeper sense of what connects me with the spiritual world and what works for me.”

Overall, it was these twin motivators — a growing disengagement with their current life, and a deep sense that something else was possible — that was a common thread in the phase of disillusionment.



For each of our research participants, the searching and disillusionment phase came to a tipping point of some kind. This tipping point was abrupt for some and gradual for others. This evidenced itself in a type of traumatic experience which included significant losses, rejection, failure, divorce or break-up of relationship that propelled them to deeply question their own identity and life trajectory. For one of our participants, it was a wake-up call through a conversation with a consultant:

  “It was a hugely dramatic year and during that year I decided I needed some new thinking about how to approach this project…I hired a guy who said, ‚this will fail again if you continue to be the only person driving this initiative…If you won’t give up control and ask for help…it will fail again.‛ I remember thinking; ‚you want me to give up control‛…I was terrified. I literally had nightmares at night of people dying and all kinds of stuff…but I felt that I trusted him and I felt that there was something inside of me that said, ‚You are right!‛

For others it was a gradual accumulated disengagement with their current work, life and/or relationships that reached a moment of choice or decision to change direction as seen in this quote:

  “I was emotionally pretty dead and numb and depressed and my marriage fell apart…and I went through a big breakdown at that point that opened me up again to the excitement of learning…the joy of life…I feel like my own personal work really began at that time.”

The impact of personal experience on this difficult aspect of learning should not be minimized or short-circuited. The emotional intensity provided the fuel for the journey of examination.


As a result of these experiences, many of the participants began to live differently. They sought out new experiences and new learning opportunities as illustrated by the following statements:

  “After my divorce… I began to meditate and travelled the world… a life changing experience.”

 “Learning to meditate, getting a real deep mystical experience… but also emphasizing, ‘How do we   bring this into the world’?”

Others developed new relationships and new learning networks as seen in the statements by the participants below:

 ” When I connected to these people, I realized that there were all these practices and ways of being in the world, ways of learning and communicating and working together that I was actually longing for.”

  “I think the first person who really opened my eyes was a girlfriend who was a doctor and healer… doing things that were completely weird to me.”

  “And just to recognize the power of being alone in nature, being confronted with yourself and see what can be there. And having a circle of people speaking from their authentic self and really share with each other”

All of these phases we have described are the experiences, sometimes singular more often through multiple exposures that opened the participants to a very different and somewhat new way of relating to themselves, to the world and to others, and introduced them to new communities of practice.

As one’s journey begins, its emphasis is on discovery. As it deepens, the experiences encompass an ‘emergent’ or ‘generative’ learning (fluid experiences of being present and creating action, exercising a process of connecting intimately and deeply with each other) and seeing the world that aligns and integrates it into life

Building New Practices and Alliances

As a result of, or as a by-product of, these emergent and generative learning experiences our participants describe a moment of conscious choice where they actively decided to dedicate their lives to changing the world. Several of them describe it as a point of clarity and purpose as seen in these comments:

  “Suddenly it was clear that my purpose in life is to unite the world. So over the years this is kind of being my guiding star.”

  “After that [living in Africa] I went home and took on the source of the problem and basically going to change the whole global economic system.”

Many of the participants describe a moment where they wrote down this new- found dedication in their lives as a purpose statements for their lives:

  “…I wrote a mission statement in my life, my principles are around living and working with integrity.”

  “One day I wrote something which was like a mission statement for my life. It was in four points; develop my spirit; develop my body; share with others; and make the world better.” 

Following this place of clarity, we noticed that our participants increasingly talked about an alignment process by which they began to take their new learning into their everyday practices and routines. As a result new practices were cultivated and new relationships and alliances were formed to support them (ally building). ‘Life practices’ such as regular journaling, various forms of meditation, yoga, martial arts, and bodywork were explored rigorously and incorporated into their lifestyles. The results of this alignment provided tangible feelings of well-being as indicated by the comments below:

  “…all these practices are an increased sense of freedom and clarity about who I am in the role I have to play and an increasing sense of commitment” 

  “My practices support me in maintaining the confidence in what I am looking for or what is important for me.”

Also as a part of this realignment, our participants sought out support through peer networks and coaching/mentoring relationships. These support relationships allowed participants to work on a deeper level that was more aligned with their purpose and passion for doing specific work in the world. Several mentioned that they would not be doing the work they are doing without these support networks, as seen in these comments:

  “POC… I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now…I wouldn’t be where I am right now in terms of employment…something that connects us all. You’re still frightened, you’re still afraid of what’s happening, but you are able to share it with others, and that is reassuring.”

  “When I saw what was possible, I felt inspired and I felt empowered to also try and create in my own life a support network, I call this group my tribe.”

The support network also provided connection to practitioners of emergence and the communities of practice that these individuals belong to. These communities provide conversations, resources and support for engaging in likeminded work in the world. These communities become a rich resource for innovative new projects and enterprises.

As part of this wider realignment process, participants start to shift to more holistic and integrated world views as exemplified by these statements:

  “I’m just noticing a new type of leadership that is much more networked; organic…based much more on relationships.”   

  “I am attracted to holistic models because I see organizations as living, not as brick and mortar.”

  “Most of the people I met and I connect to; we are all gravitating to something…around the concepts of sustainability, collaborative leadership, integral thinking like everybody is intercultural, cross-cultural, different interests but kind of generalists across the board.”

Overall this phase is characterized by setting a clear intention to change followed by practical steps such as the integration of new life practices, developing new relationships and an interest in more holistic world views.


LParticipants described what we call acceleration, when they shifted from learning about emergence to practicing and incorporating emergence in their leadership practices. One of the more interesting areas for observation was the profound shift in how participants perceive the role of work in their lives. This often happened in a combination of these three distinct but not necessarily separate ways:

1) Participants take on a more active leadership role within their organization, bringing in new concepts and ways of working. One of the participants, for example, shared how he now has weekly two-hour meetings with his senior management team, where the team sits in circle and discusses anything from a leaky roof to racism issues:

  “So our leadership team… meets for two hours in circle every week…the hosting of those meetings shifts amongst us, there are eight of us. We have been meeting like this for seven years.”

Other participants were involved in developing sustainability initiatives, knowledge learning networks, and/or different ways of conducting leadership retreats. One mentioned introducing a new participatory approach to leadership and change by bringing what they learned in their emergent community into their work environments:

  “I got inspired by a PoC principle…be prepared to be surprised, that just resonated well…so I used open space in a session here in my company.” 

Additionally these leaders continue to develop new projects; gatherings and training programs outside their focus area of work.

2) Others decide to leave their organization altogether setting up new projects such as urban social innovation spaces, multi-stakeholder sustainable innovation labs, and learning centres and networks. These major shifts are seen in the following statements:

  “I decided instead of getting another school assignment [as a teacher] I would…take on the source of the problem; basically change the whole global economic system.”

  “Someone said to me, ‚this is a great idea why don’t you create it?‛ There was no moment of hesitation, it was just clear; this is what I need to do.”

3) This third strategy focused more exclusively on the deeper relationship work, either in a one-on-one setting as coaches who were developing leaders’ capacity to work with emergence, or working with large groups as process facilitators or hosts.

Outside of these three ways, we also identified a shared shift in how participants perceive the purpose of work in their lives. They see their job and life purpose as a marriage or commitment to something larger then themselves as seen in the quotes below;

  “I guess I don’t use the word job anymore. My work is creating the world I want to live in you know, whatever serves life, whatever offers me learning, helps me grow.”

  “The difference of working for myself is that I’m doing what I really love all the time. And I’m really living in the presence of what has been given me and taking full advantage of it.”

  “I can’t separate work and life.”

We also observed how participants described the quality, depth and significance of their relationships both at work and in their personal lives. These relationships are built with an intentional selectivity as highlighted by our participants:

  “I’ve become very selective about the people I want to work with, the people that I can share everything with and accept who I am and I them.”

  “And that is in fact conscious attention to developing quality relationships, that are connected not just by skills but what our intentions are what our hearts are, what our love is — a necessary condition for shift”

For many of the participants, the boundaries between public and private also blends in new ways as authenticity and emotional transparency in relationships take on more significance in their lives. In the following quotes we see this stated well:

  “[You get to know] your colleagues at such a deep and authentic level and space and they get to know the true you, your real self, the bottom of the iceberg kind of stuff and I prefer having working relationships with people that meet me at that place”

  “I look for authenticity in somebody and in the relationship and a level of some kind of inner work of being is being done so that they kind of free themselves from let’s say a more ego impulses and a commitment to work world essentials.”

Working with collective emergence as described above works on the level of deep relationships, emotional connection and trust. It releases tremendous energy and allows people and groups to go beyond their individual perspectives to co-create that which is needed to respond to a greater need. This level of depth and openness also carries with it new challenges which we describe in the next phase.



The emergent approach has its own challenges. These challenges seem inherent within communities of practice, where there is desire for systems of influence, and where communities join each other to create new norms and shift patterns. Participants described many of the challenges and pitfalls of working with emergence in developing new initiatives, projects and organizations. Most of our participants have worked through or are currently working through painful lessons as they seek to create new emergent systems of influence.

There seems to be almost a second rupture in the developmental journey of the interviewed leaders, which seems to come as the idealism and highs of working with collective emergence encounter the waves of complexities of human relationships. The vulnerability of deep relationships can create new spaces for misunderstanding and conflict. The egalitarian and inclusive ways of working can blur distinctions of experience and meritocratic judgement. And the released energy and creativity can create a misplaced sense of personal power and influence.

These complex human dynamics that occur in processes of collective emergence are at the edge of our research. It still requires much further work but for the moment we have grouped them together under the banner of hubris. This phase concerns a shedding of an initial naiveté about the warm feeling of co-creation and addressing personal hubris issues surrounding the notion of being able to control the changes brought to the world. Hubris as defined in this research is both personal and collective. It is the mistaken perception that the leaders themselves are in control or in charge of the synchronicity that is unleashed in systemic shifts, instead of being a servant of it. Participants described it as both messy and complicated in the quotes below:

  “…this kind of collaborative leadership that we…inspire to which turns out to be a lot more difficult, I guess pretty mess.”

  “My expectation was that if people are interested in this kind of work means that they are going to be naturally collaborative, my experience is that it is really complicated to be collaborative.”

This reality check with both old and new human dynamics in the face of new generative working methods is both disillusioning as well as transformative for the interviewed leaders. For many it has deepened their own personal work on transformation and initiated a deep learning process around conflict, personal ‘shadows’, and power in non-hierarchical settings as noted by the participants below:

  “Sometimes my fierceness and assertiveness hits other people’s resistance, it creates resistance in other people. It comes from an early on; I had to fight around my identity.”

  “my greatest learning around creating emergent fields is just because people get excited about a field and want to be part of it, doesn’t necessarily mean they are the right people.”

  “How do you balance that kind of inclusivity [of collective intelligence] and at the same time have exclusivity based on hierarchy or experience? We are trying to figure that out.”

One participant describes the conversation in their community of practice as shadow work:

  “We were very explicit about the shadow…it has to be done in a very skillful way…if it weren’t done like this people would have gotten hurt.” 

Besides the highs of generating collective emergence, participants discover that there are inherent challenges when working with emergence. These challenges have no clear answers, but require an on-going dedication to learning about themselves and being in the right relationships.

Growing Reflective Wisdom

The final phase of the leadership pattern that we are describing here can be seen as an on-going maturation in the development of the interviewed leaders. We describe this as the growing reflective wisdom phase. We noticed in interviews that the leaders learn to cope with the challenges listed above by bringing attention and intention to their own personal and emotional resilience. Some of the learning suggested by our participants includes:

  “The work allowed me to see society with less judgement, what was going on and it kind of pushed me into getting serious about my own personal development work.”

  “I guess I would suggest that a leader who’s in the practice of emergence needs to be cultivating their own emergence no matter what age they are.”

A maturity starts to develop around leading the emergent processes. Another way of defining working with collective emergence is working with purposeful relationships, instead of functionalism and rational control. Working from an authentic trust allows for more fluid, creative and innovative processes to emerge. A reflection of one of the participants on purposefulness stated a conviction that when:

  “…being hosted [facilitated or led] fully, engages not just the thinking but the hearts and souls of the people that are involved in it. It creates relationships that have the potential not just for that particular thing but lots of things.”

“…being hosted [facilitated or led] fully, engages not just the thinking but the hearts and souls of the people that are involved in it. It creates relationships that have the potential not just for that particular thing but lots of things.”

  “We often talk about emergence lying in the space between chaos and order. There is something in there about the space in relationships where there’s approaching a quality of unconditionalness.”

  “It’s just that we’re in a moment of emergence that there is a huge amount of experimentation going on and initiative popping up and the breakthrough points in a new field happens when different experiments. Different pieces begin to see themselves as part of a bigger whole”

  “It’s one of those experiences where you lose your grip on everything basically and have to surrender to what’s happening.”

The challenges and complexities of working with emergence simply don’t disappear. What we have observed is that through maturity, conviction, and commitment to growth, the individual can increase their capacity to hold the chaos and uncertainty as individual contributors and collective facilitators.

Reflections and questions going forward

This research process is very alive for us. Before and during the research, we were personally on this journey of working with emergence as coaches, facilitators and social entrepreneurs. And we will continue to be, going forward. This project has been as much learning about other journeys as about stumbling on the path ourselves.

The quotations are from the interviews with emergent leaders, which included us as practitioners in the AoH and PoC communities. When we speak of the excitement and deep fulfilment of leaders who work with emergence, or of the challenges, pain and disappointment along the way, we are also echoing our own experiences. This project itself is emergent and came from our on-going dialogue and deepening relationship. Being in conversation with other leaders has greatly helped to increase our own understanding of the journey we are each on. We hope it will be illuminating for others in this emerging field, and that it will help others to notice the signposts along the way and bring greater understanding of the potholes as well.

This initial paper is just the start of a conversation that we and many others are having. Our approach and interest is in leadership formation, not only by describing the past but focusing on what is emerging in the present, and how we as a community of practitioners can shape and form the phenomena we are living through an ongoing, collective, action learning cycle. This paper hopes to be a modest contribution to the field. Coming out of this research to some extent are more questions than answers, questions we invite you to join us in for more shared inquiry.

Each stage in the journey raises more questions than answers. Many are about how we can support each other in the different stages of the journey. How can we form learning relationships across generations? How do we create places to practice in a safe space? How do we create greater awareness around our own blind-spots and create safe spaces to learn together about them? How can we work in flat and agile ways while allowing people to lead and take responsibility? Along with leadership, what does it mean to follow well, in a collaborative emergent way? How can we experience the power of co-creation whilst remaining unattached to what we create a new?

This journey crosses generations. As we speak about the journey of leading collective emergence we wonder how this journey can be shared and shaped from an intergenerational perspective. How do we work together more collectively? How do we honour the differences in experiences and challenges to lead in an emergent way?

One of the more interesting stages of this learning journey that invites significant further inquiry is the stage we identified as “hubris.” As we addressed the conflict/ego issues we found significant hints and some stories of personal and group break-ups and break-downs. We believe that investigating this phase offers the potential for many new insights and wisdom. What is the mechanism by which this is true? For example, does this collective wisdom allow for a deeper capacity to hold emotional paradoxes and in the process increase our emotional resilience? How does maturity build in relationships? How do we negotiate and navigate the breaks in the trust field that occur during this journey? How do we cultivate growing in wisdom?

There appears to be a collective wisdom, insight, and a sense that the “real” emergence work begins at the point where our need to know and be in control is no longer paramount to our work. It seems that the emergent journey might begin to bloom more fully when the ability to be unattached to specific outcomes is a consistent practice. Are there ways to help leaders avoid the trap of hubris along their journey, or is this a necessary part of the process? How can we help leaders in the throes of hubris to emerge on the other side with little negative impact on their worthy pursuits? How can the collaborative unit work with a leader who is beginning to show signs of being overtaken with the power or responsibility of their newfound calling or vocation?

When asked if she had anything else to share on this journey, one of the participants, after a few moments of silence, said, ‚I think we just need to teach people to dance.‛ Dancing requires people to be flexible and open, aware of their surroundings, and focused on what is possible when one surrenders to the music. Perhaps this statement contains a larger truth. Participating and leading in emergent environments requires a certain mental and emotional openness and flexibility, simultaneous awareness of the larger context and focus on the present, and finally a surrender of the ego in the work of collaborating initiatives. Perhaps we do just need to teach people to dance.


Art of Hosting – http://berkana.org/berkana/www.artofhosting.org

Campbell, J., 2008. The hero with a thousand faces. New World Library, Novato, CA. Pioneers of Change – http://pioneersofchange.net/

Wheatley, M. & Frieze, D., 2006. Lifecycle of Emergence: Using emergence to take social innovations to scale. http://www.berkana.org/pdf/emergence_web.pdf

Research Team

Mary Shippy PhD

Mary is a leadership consultant with Align Leadership. Her expertise is in organizational development, leadership facilitation, and executive coaching. For 30 years she has worked in leadership transition, multi-cultural management, and cross-cultural and executive communication. In these, she concentrates on building personal awareness and skills that lead to leadership focus, adaptability, and mastery.

Hendrik Tiesinga

Hendrik is a co-founder of Natural Innovation and is an experienced designer and facilitator of collaborative learning and innovation processes. He has over 6 years of experience in the field of sustainability in business, social innovation and new ways of collaborative working. Hendrik holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Amsterdam and an MA in Organisation Studies from the Warwick Business School.