Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Emergent Leaders in the Classroom

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Half an Hour, Jan 02, 2024

"The kindest person in the room is often the smartest"


The Emergent Leader

I have a trait I'm not always proud of but seems to be inescapable: I am a leader.

Now to be clear: that does not mean that I have any sort of title or authority. True, in the past I have served in leadership roles: president of an association, editor of a newspaper, professor of a lass, manager of a program. But what I'm talking about is what happens informally, separate from any sort of title or role.

What does that mean exactly? I'll borrow from Linabary's account of 'emergent leader': "Emergent leaders gain status and respect through engagement with the group and its task and are turned to by others as a resource when leadership is needed."

That sounds great, right? But it also makes me really hard for someone with actual designated leadership to deal with. I've had difficult relationships with my managers. My professors could find me disruptive to their classes. In high school, I was in open rebellion. And in typical group projects, other people of ten find themselves working around me, or worse, often deferring to me. 

This sort of behaviour used to be referred to as 'alpha' and justified with reference to 'alpha male' theories of animal behaviour. But we know today that even in herds or packs of animals there aren't 'alphas' - none of the animals controls or directs the others. The animal we think of as a 'leader' is often reacting to a decision the group has already made, if implicitly.

Anyhow, all these thoughts came flooding into mind when a colleague from Iran asked me for "insights on how teachers can effectively manage group pressure and address in-group/out-group dynamics in the context of group learning. Understanding that individuals who establish authority within a group can significantly influence the final goals, I am particularly interested in exploring effective strategies to navigate and mitigate this dynamic."

The classroom is only one instance where a designated leader - the teacher or professor - needs to work with and manage an emergent leader. This can be an opportunity or a threat or anything in between.

Well, I am not an expert in this, but I've had a lot of experience on both sides of this dynamic, and so I did some quick reading to orient my thoughts, and framed the following as an exploration of strategies to navigate groups pressures and emergent leadership.

What Is It?

OK, so what sort of person are we talking about? It's a person who takes charge in a meeting or classroom, leading the discussion or collective opinion. It's a person whose opinions influence others through techniques ranging from raw charisma to persuasive power to outright bullying and put-downs. It's a person who may be intelligent, or think they're intelligent, and who may present themselves as the thought-leader of the group.

Does this sound like anyone you know (me, maybe)? What a pain, right?

This person is often demonstrative of their leadership. They are often the first to draw a conclusion or to have an opinion, which the share right away, without waiting for the rest to catch up. They may or may not listen to others. They respond non-verbally to other people (and especially the designated leader) with nods, shrugs, or rolls of the eye. They might appear unemotional, transactional, focusing on the flaws in other people's ideas or arguments with pointed questions, outright contradiction.

Effects and Traps

While such a person can, potentially, bring a lot of value to a group, they can also bring a lot of dysfunction and conflict. They are, after all, a font of ideas, opinions, and creativity. But other people in the group may be intimidated, may go along with them for the sake of getting along, or may tune out and feel excluded from the process. 

The emergent leader, meanwhile, may vary their styles and strategies to advance and maintain their influence.  Depending on circumstances they may shift their leadership style from constructive and challenging to intimidating or even abusive. This is when they transition from being merely a distraction to being a problem.

It's easy, if you're a designated leader, to fall into accommodation traps. These are strategies where the designated leader effectively cedes control. The first trap is passivity, of not responding in any way to mitigate any negative effects of an emergent leader. A second is a promise of confidentiality or secrecy in the hope of luring the emergent leader into more vulnerable behavior. Third, outright kowtowing to a self-proclaimed 'alpha' is to effectively surrender any management of the situation.

So, what to do? 

Well, like I said, I'm not an expert. So I did some reading to see what other people say (and surprisingly, it's not nearly as widely discussed as I thought - there's a lot of literature on how to become a leader, and almost nothing on how to deal with a leader). I kept reading until I found the articles just repeating the strategies I had already read about, which meant that I had probably exhausted the list of strategies. Then I organized them thought a bit about them  based on my experience.

So here they are:


I may as well put this first and foremost since it seems to come up a lot. The designated authority might simply confront the emergent leader with evidence of his or her disruptive behaviour. There are some common subcategories here:

- accuse and criticize - to point out the person's poor behaviour, for example, by saying "you don't know a thing about people" or "your need to always prove you're right alienates the team"

- challenge and contradict - to point out to the person where they are wrong, finding facts that contradict what they are saying, or to identify a wider context or circumstances in which their advice is seen as incorrect

- discipline and punish - telling them to shut up, impose sanctions or conditions on their actions, file disciplinary or human rights actions

There are two things that can be said here. First, these actions often feel justified, and often they are justified. The person's actions definitely feel worth confronting. But second, in all of my experience at both ends of this relationship, these confrontational responses almost never work

If you find yourself in a position of exerting some authority over the person, you are essentially admitting that you have given up on any sort of productive relationship, and therefore, on the group or classroom process as a whole. Confrontation will not succeed


To mitigate, in this context, is to limit the extent of the emergent leader's influence in a not-confrontational manner, by effectively empowering others in the group as well. 

One process involves clearly defining roles for people in the project or group process, for example, by assigning one person to summarize discussions, another person to take the perspective of a product user, another person to define data types and strategies, etc. The types of roles depend on the type of group, of course, and are limited only by your imagination.

"Knowing your role and what is expected of you in that role is the first step to empowering each team member to contribute. A role will define guidelines for each member to follow and for what they are individually responsible for and will be held accountable for." - Prakarsa

Another process involves ensuring everyone has a chance and a space to talk. One common method is the 'round table', where each person takes a turn (and the facilitator needs to ensure people don't simple defer or 'skip' their turn). Another to use a device such as a 'talking stick' so that only one person speaks at a time. 

Finally, the effects of an overbearing personality can be mitigated by defining a clear group decision-making process. Decisions might be made by vote, or by consensus, or by a designated decision-making person. Methods vary, but the main point is that they're defined in advance, so that the group doesn't just default to whatever the emergent leader says.


On a related note, the mitigation strategies mentioned above, and some of the other methods mentioned below, are based on the recognition that the process matters more than the outcome.

This can be a difficult point for people to see. It is often interpreted as 'process for the sake of process', and perhaps reduced to 'politics' or some other sort of unproductive activity. But I think there is a case to be made here.

- checklists - in mission-critical environments, such as a medical operating theatre, or a jet aircraft cockpit, people (even highly intelligent and well trained people) use a checklist. They do this because there's a lot of evidence that shows that checklists prevent mistakes.

- trust and autonomy - there is evidence that shows that a question viewed from a variety of perspectives is more effectively answered than a question answered from a single perspective (which is why, for example, people like Suroweiki are able to identify 'the wisdom of crowds').

- the 'red team' - product teams as varied as journalists on a newspaper to programmers developing software have found the value in a 'red team' that tries to find flaws or hidden assumptions in decisions or arguments made by the group as a whole

Creating a commitment to process can be an effective way to direct emergent leaders into making more constructive contributions (though of course there is a danger that the nascent leader becomes a stickler for the rules at the expense of all else).


I'm going to group a few different strategies under this heading, because they all have to do with the idea of redirecting the emergent leader's behaviour from total control over the group process to something more helpful.

- co-option - engage the emergent leader in a specific task helpful to the group's objective or purpose, for example by recruiting them to fulfill a special purpose or special role. Co-option involves soliciting a clear commitment - "are you willing to work with the process, accept feedback, etc."

- distraction - a NY Times article suggests that you "sprinkle superfluous, even erroneous, nuggets into your own presentations, and thank the alpha when he or she spots the mistakes. That way, the alpha won't have to scuttle your project in order to feel in control." While this may be temporarily effective, you run the risk of undermining trust - your behaviour is either dishonest or incompetent, and neither is a good look

- engagement - this is a redirection from a competitive endeavour, where people need to convince each other, to a cooperative endeavour, where people are seeking to understand together. A simple redirection can accomplish this, for example, from requiring that a person defend or justify their point of view, to explaining or clarifying their point of view. 

Redirection requires subtlety and can be full of risks. Done without tack and without a clear goal in mind, a redirection can lead people to believe (probably correctly) that they're simply being shunted to one side rather than being taken seriously. This can lead to disengagement and resentment.


Challenging an emergent leader is to some degree a type of redirection, but more importantly, it's a way of communicating clearly that you expect more from them by virtue of this role they are playing in the group.

For example, emergent leadership in a group of often displayed in the form of complaints and criticisms; this is especially the case when the person feels they have no power to effect change. A common strategy is to require constructive solutions rather than just complains. But there are some caveats here:

- there needs to be a reasonable possibility that solutions, once identified, have a possibility of being implemented

- there is a danger of role reversal, where the person makes suggestion after suggestion, to be met only with complaints and criticisms about those suggestions

Challenges also need to be clear. Having specific standards to meet can be helpful (provided the standards are reasonable and attainable). " Meet this by setting out clear incentives, goals and milestones that, once met, will be recognized by the organization." (HRD)

A challenge isn't a confrontation. It is not something set against the emergent leader as an individual (even if it will require individual action on their part). A challenge can be based around agreements and commitments to process, shared outcomes, and behaviours. For example, at the end of a meeting or class session, it is ideal to be able to elicit an enthusiastic response to "is everybody happy with today's outcome". Meeting this idea can be a challenge.


It is tempting to think of education in this context as getting people to agree with the ideas, methods and outcomes desired by the designated leadership. But that's not what I mean here at all. Education here is not about what you know or believe.

An HBR article puts this well: "We helped him see that it wasn't politics—the real problem was that he had only one tool to get what he wanted: the hammer. 'Politics' was a smoke screen." A person might emerge as a leader but not have the skills to that leadership effective. They argue, for example, because they don't know how to explain.

What we want is for people to have what amounts to a toolbox of effective strategies. The intent here is to recognize leaders and develop their leadership skills, or as Covey says, develop them "From individual contributor to leader." There is a range of skills that help help here; how to give effective feedback, for example, or  how to communicate, or how to respond to criticism of your ideas, or anger management techniques, or "recognize his underlying emotions while they are still at the niggling, flurry-in-the-gut level, long before the big eruption occurs" (Ludeman and Erlandson).

Below (after the references) is a table of key leadership behaviours. Each one of these is a skill that can be performed more or less well, and can be improved with instruction and practice.



Education in this context also isn't simply about "how to win friends and influence people". It isn't about just learning a bunch of tools that help you be manipulative and persuasive. Helping an emergent leader be reflective about how they behave and how they are perceived is an important part of their education. How would they classify themselves, for example ("The Rebel reflexively sees the world as full of people to be acted against. The Driver thinks the world needs supervision and discipline. The Jock views others as either winners or losers" (Ludeman and Erlandson))?

The idea here us to have the person be able to see themselves is a new or different light, for example, to see themselves through others' eyes, or to be provided "undeniable proof that his behavior (to which he is much attached) doesn't work nearly as well as he thinks it does" (Ibid). This provides evidence for them to react against; it's not just one person's opinion versus another's, but a set of facts both can examine for themselves.

But this doesn't mean just finding the emergent leader at fault for their behaviour; this would just be a form of confrontation. Rather, it amounts to an invitation to them to do their own research by monitoring their own actions (defensiveness, say) to to see how quickly they can catch himself and to be able to evaluate in real time how effectively the strategy is working.

There is also an important role to be played in translation. People - and especially younger and less experienced people - are often unable to communicate well with each other, perhaps because they have different backgrounds, perhaps because they have learned different concepts, or perhaps because they are at different levels of development. An emergent leader might be misconstruing messages from co-workers or classmates. A facilitator should provide a channel for messages from others to be presented in a language they understand.


Because the emergent leader acts a leader, they should be able to predict that others will take their cue from them, and be influenced by them, so leaders must be accountable not only for their actions but for the broader impact of those actions. 

This notion of accountability is keeping with the theme of education, challenge and reflection is some notion of accountability. Even when willing to be accountable for their own performance, people sometimes have difficulty accepting responsibility for their impact on others (Ludeman and Erlandson).

The emphasis here is not on blaming, but on encouraging the emergent leader to claim his or her own share of responsibility.

Lead by Example

The fact is, designated leaders are also leaders, often more experience than the emergent leaders we are discussing, and certainly have more power. And some of what I've said above matters a bit if the designated leader does not adhere to the same values and principles they expect emergent leaders to follow. Leading by example is crucial.

For example, I liked to tell people "when you are successful you are responsible and you get the credit, but when you fail, I am responsible and I take the blame." I think this is a pretty sound principle to follow, and shows a commitment to accountability of my own actions. But the words have to be backed up by practice. I made it a point to give people credit when talking to my own managers, even though they weren't there to see it. Because this sort of thing gets back to them, eventually.

There are different ways to express this. For example, some people write about the concept of 'servant leadership', "where you model the behavior you want to see in your team" (Indeed). I had a manager who used to tell me "I want you to be successful," which made me feel good (until I found this same manager had a very different definition of 'success' than I did).

What counts as success? This isn't simply something that can be stipulated; it needs to be negotiated. What is the social contract for the group? What will count as a group success, and what is allowed as an individual success? Set the example my making the case with facts and logic and avoid personal attacks or insults.

Leading by example is a two-step process: setting expectations, then meeting them. Reporting one's own work in terms of clear performance indicators. A scrum leader, for example, will set five key principles - courage, respect, focus, openness, and commitment. Leading by example means tracking this and adhering to those principles. 



The favourite saying of many an ineffective leader is that "it's not personal". This applies as much to the executive in the boardroom as to the troll in a discussion as to a teacher in the classroom. But of course there are no human relations that are not personal. Being an effective leader, emergent or otherwise, recognizes that.

Probably the most important part of setting an example is to recognize that it is personal and to take this into account. A person isn't just a problem and their behaviour isn't just something to be mitigated. It means meeting a person where they are. It may mean making eye contact, or respectfully avoiding eye contact, depending on culture and norms. It means active listening - hearing what they have said and demonstration that it has been understood.

Equally important, though, is to not personalize. There is a tendency to say "you should do this" or "you should do that" or "your reasoning is wrong", etc. These statements are all about you. They are confrontational, and should be avoided. As we have seen in any number of movies and dramas, work the problem, not the person. Talk about processes and outcomes, not behaviours and motivations. Talk about objectives and principles.


If none of this works, it's not going to work. So instead of moving to confrontation, which also doesn't work, it is perhaps best to move right to exile. Remove the person from the discussion, the team or the class.

I know this sounds extreme. But no matter what your best intentions and practices are, there may be cases where a person in a group is gaining sway and at the same time does not have the best interests of the group in mind.

There are many cases like this. Online we call such people 'griefers' and 'trolls'. In business and industry we think of them as 'bad actors'. They may be purely self-centered, interested in personal profit, or want to undermine or disrupt the group process. They might be advertisers, competitors, or political opponents. It doesn't matter. Once it is understood that they are not willing to contribute in a positive or useful manner, then it comes a time to cease negotiation and simply terminate the contact.


Like I said, I'm not an expert. What I've offered here is a combination of my own experiences from over the years and some things I read to help organize those experiences. So don't gtrant me more emergent leadership than I deserve.

At the same time, as a designated leader - a manager, perhaps, or a professor, or an association president - your first responsibility is to the people you lead. Being a leader isn't about assuming control or giving directions. It isn't about making a lot of money or having a lot of power - these are anti-social behaviours and should be avoided. Being a leader means being kind, being generous, and being empowering, and dealing with emergent leaders means modeling and practicing those in your own life and work.

There are many more resources on emergent leadership in the classroom. If you liked this article don't stop here. Start here, and look up those resources, and form your own opinions.


These are not academic references. They're just things I read in order to organize my thoughts, and thus deserve credit for that contribution.

Kate Ludeman and Eddie Erlandson. 2004. Coaching the Alpha Male. HBR. May, 2004.

Emily Douglas. 2018. How to manage an 'Alpha' employee. HRD. 17 Aug. 2018.

Diane Gottsman. 2019.  How to Navigate Strong Personalities in the Office. LinkedIn.
February 6, 2019

Aditya Prakarsa. Managing Team Efficiency When Faced with Multiple Alpha Personalities. /slash.
January 10, 2023.

Claudia H. Deutsch. 2006. Dealing With Those Alpha Types (and Winning). NY Times, September 24, 2006.

Chloé Gray. 2020.  Got an Alpha Boss? The Secrets to a Healthy Relationship
The muse. 6/19/2020

Tony Lynch. 2023. 5 Keys To Navigating Your Team To Success. KTB. August 21st, 2023.

FranklinCovey. The 6 Critical Practices for Leading a Team.

Faisal M. Aldhorgham. 2023. Navigating Effective Leadership: A Guide for Team Players. LinkedIn.

Indeed Editorial Team. 2023. 8 Positive Ways To Lead by Example in the Workplace. Indeed,
Updated June 30, 2023

Linabary, J.R. (Ed.). (2021). Small group communication: Forming and sustaining teams. Ch. 12, Identifying leaders. Pressbooks. 

Title Image: Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota.


Table 1: Key Leadership Behaviors

Source: Linabary

Task Functions     

    Contributing ideas
    Seeking ideas
    Evaluating ideas
    Seeking idea evaluation
    Visualizing abstract ideas
    Generalizing from specific ideas

Procedural Functions    

    Goal setting
    Agenda making
    Verbalizing consensus
    Generalizing from specific ideas

Relational Functions   

    Regulating participation
    Climate making
    Instigating group self-analysis
    Resolving conflict
    Instigating productive conflict

Source: Cragan & Wright (1991)    


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Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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Last Updated: May 20, 2024 01:29 a.m.

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