Who Gets to be a Leader? A Combinatorial Investigation of Leadership Emergence in Student Teams – Arran Caza

Who Gets to be a Leader? A Combinatorial Investigation of Leadership Emergence in Student Teams

Arran Caza

Bryan School of Business and Economics, University of North Carolina Greensboro




Leaders are important. All human societies have influence hierarchies, suggesting that leaders are an inherent feature of social life. As a result, recognizing and developing leaders is important to researchers and practitioners alike. Businesses struggle to identify and develop leaders, complex global problems require leadership, and social justice advocates highlight the lack of diversity in many leadership roles.

Leadership emergence – the process by which individuals become perceived as influential – can occur at any time or level, but the most important instances of emergence are early stage ones. Formative leadership experiences play an outsized role in individuals’ subsequent leadership identity and behavior. Early opportunities to lead reinforce one’s self-concept as a leader and provide crucial opportunities to develop the skill of leading. It is therefore particularly important to understand when and why young adults emerge as leaders. Which qualities, behaviors, and situations give them the opportunity to grow into leaders?

Research has identified many characteristics that make a person more likely to emerge as a leader. Most of these characteristics are individual differences (e.g., intelligence, gender, personality), though work has also considered behavioral and interpersonal factors (e.g., task-related action, network position). Despite numerous studies, the domain remains nascent, both in terms of theoretical explanation and practical application.


A combinatorial perspective has not been systematically applied to the study of leadership emergence, though logic and evidence suggest its promise. For example, we know from studies of leadership in general that followers’ responses are highly contingent (e.g., the same leader behavior is perceived differently when enacted by a man vs a woman; people expect different things from older vs younger leaders). In emergence specifically, prior work has identified interaction effects and potential threshold levels among predictors, which suggests the causal complexity and equifinality to which combinatorial approaches are suited. Understanding the characteristic combinations that lead to the emergence of young leaders will enrich theory and guide practice.


Arran Caza

Associate Professor

Department of Management

Bryan School of Business and Economics

University of North Carolina Greensboro

Bryan 362

Dept. of Management 336-334-5691