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Leader Member Exchange: Rethinking the Emergent Leader's Role in a New Environment


As of July 2020, It has been about four months since many teams shifted to work-from-home scenarios because of COVID-19. Tumultuous as this has been, it also presents an opportunity to re-frame traditional leadership theories in this new environment. The leader-member exchange (LMX) theory is one of those.

LMX focuses on the relationships the leader has with each follower. Those followers who work better with the leader belong to the ‘in-group,’ tend to do more than is asked of them, and are generally more engaged. Those who do not work as well with the leader belong to the ‘out-group,’ generally do only what they have to do and are less engaged.

The leader’s challenge, therefore, is to build strong relationships and bring all team members into the ‘in-group.’ The theory has traditionally focused on assigned leaders, or those identified as leaders by virtue of their position — but could easily be applied to emergent leaders as well.

Two recent discussions caused me to think differently about the LMX, wondering what emergent leaders, or those identified as leaders because others perceive them to be influential, might do to help bring ‘out-group’ members to the ‘in-group.’

While facilitating a leadership discussion, an IT manager in the group lamented that she found LMX the most challenging theory to apply, as her teams always sensed those who weren’t contributing as much and resented the subsequent capitalization of their leader’s attention as she attempted to bring them in.

Similarly, a coaching client recently expressed exasperation at attempts to bring a newly hired, ‘out-group’ member ‘in’ during the pandemic. She discussed the challenges of now remotely leading an East Coast team from a Midwest location, no longer able to conduct ‘drive-bys’ and other more frequent in-person office interactions with the new hire. I also happened to notice during our conversation that she repeatedly mentioned a member of her team who everyone felt was an influential mentor — an emergent leader.

Curious, I asked what help this mentor might provide to bring the ‘out-group’ member in. Suddenly, possibilities emerged that she had not previously considered. She now realized that physically distanced face-to-face conversations between the mentor and ‘out-group’ members were possible because the team had recently been permitted staggered in-office workdays.

We continued brainstorming and other ways the mentor might help then developed a plan of action to enlist her assistance. While the results of this effort remain to be seen, it hopefully serves as an example of how leaders might re-frame their approach by engaging emergent leaders in their efforts to bring everyone on the team into the ‘in-group.’

[1] Northouse, P. (2019). Leadership: Theory and Practice (8th Edition). SAGE Publications, Inc.

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