Announcing the Second Annual NLS Research-Practice Conference

The Network of Leadership Scholars’ second annual conference is taking shape, and the conference is designed to engage academics and practitioners in addressing leadership challenges of great importance for business and society.

Network of Leadership Scholars’
2nd Annual Research/Practice Conference

Leadership in the Informal Economy:
Addressing Challenges from the Field

Boston, Massachusetts
August 1-2, 2012

Purpose of the Annual Research/Practice Conferences

The purpose of the Network of Leadership Scholars’ Annual Research/Practice Conferences is to engage academics and practitioners in addressing leadership challenges of great importance for business and society. The conferences are designed to create a forum that combines the intellectual capital of leadership scholars with the expertise and wisdom of practitioners. The desired outcomes are advancement of knowledge and identification of new avenues for research that meets both the relevance needs of practitioners and the rigor needs of leadership scholars.


The conference is held prior to the Academy of Management meeting to capitalize on the largest assemblage of leadership and management scholars in the world. High-level practitioners associated with the topic are expressly invited to attend. Each year a new theme is selected appropriate to the overall conference objective. We engage around this theme using a Design Thinking for Scholars process developed expressly for our purposes. This process methodology engages researchers and practitioners as partners in creatively exploring and collaboratively identifying innovative and valuable new knowledge products.

Conference Theme for 2012

The theme for this year’s conference is Leadership in the Informal Economy. Consistent with this theme, we focus on informal leadership at the lower rungs of the socio-economic strata. We explore how leadership that emerges from within the base of the economic pyramid (BoP) is associated with successful (or unsuccessful) outcomes of poverty alleviation programs (e.g., microcredit, microenterprise formation, health awareness, education and training, and sanitation).

Drawing from stories and information provided by practitioners and research findings from scholars, participants will be challenged to work together to develop frameworks for informal (emergent) leadership in the context of poverty alleviation initiatives. Our goal is to generate a set of knowledge products that will help practitioners and scholars in researching and designing meaningful interventions to improve the success rate of such initiatives. In the process, we will also inform understanding of informal (emergent) leadership.


It has been estimated that over four billion people, earning less than $1500 per year, may lack basic capacity to participate effectively in society. This means insecurity, powerlessness and exclusion of individuals, households and communities who live in marginal or fragile environments, without access to clean water or sanitation (UN Statement on Poverty, 1998). Living in poverty robs billions of dignity and proves to be fertile ground for violent extremists and global pandemics. The problems of today will only worsen as the poorest nations suffer the brunt of global climate change and population growth. This dire situation calls out for leaders at all levels who can champion change initiatives to address humanity’s most pressing problems.

An informal economic system exists in many countries to provide products and services targeted at the poor and offer a means of earning a livelihood. Although these informal economies often account for a significant portion of total economic output and employment in these countries, participants in the informal economy often operate without any safety nets. They lack mechanisms for monitoring and enforcing basic human rights, and are at the mercy of powerful brokers/middle-men/creditors. Yet, despite these challenges, we know there are many leadership success stories. In this conference we draw from these stories, and other ethnographic data brought by high-level practitioners working in the domain of poverty alleviation, to engage a design thinking process focused on developing frameworks for explaining the nature and roles of informal (emergent) leadership in these contexts.As we engage in this process, we recognize that leadership at the base of the economic pyramid is considerably different from that in formal organizations:

  • Leadership at this level does not occur in formal structures and managerial positions, but rather in informal (emergent) hierarchies. Ordinary people, in response to the unacceptable conditions around them, rise up to do extra-ordinary things.
  • These leaders don’t have a title or status, typically are not celebrated as heroes, and deal with severe social and resource constraints that come from the effects of multi-generational poverty. They are often the primary reason why a poverty alleviation initiative came to be successfully implemented in their communities, and they typically work against great odds in an effort to make a difference in their communities.

Desired Outcome

The desired outcome is identification of a set of knowledge products that, if produced, would help significantly advance understanding of leadership emerging in the lowest rungs of the socio-economic strata in localized efforts to alleviate conditions of impoverished groups. The outcomes of our learning will be published in an edited volume on Informal Leadership in the Informal Economy (edited by Nagaraj Sivasubramaniam, Kzrysztof Dembek, and Mary Uhl-Bien). The outcomes will also be informative to informal leadership processes more broadly (e.g., in the formal economy). Issues of informal leadership have been largely ignored in leadership research. Our work here aims to rectify this problem by advancing a research and practice agenda on informal leadership of importance paralleling that given to formal leadership in the previous century.

Registration & Additional Information


For more information about the conference, please contact Chris Dembek at

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: