Leadership Development For Informal Leaders: Some Pitfalls To Consider When Thinking About Developing An Informal Leader

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In Understanding Informal Leaders In An Organization (and Benefiting From Them) we provided a brief overview of the power of informal leaders in organizations. It makes sense for formal leaders to recognize the pivotal roles these “influence leaders” can play, and to develop their abilities when appropriate.

There are two different situations involving the development of an informal leader, and a third context where attempts to “develop” an informal leader are not recommended.

First is the situation where an informal leader already exists, and there is a desire to assist that person to become more successful in that role.

The second situation involves grooming an already existing informal leader to take on the responsibilities and role of a formal leader (i.e., a kind of succession planning in anticipation of a future promotion).

The third situation (the one that is probably unwise) is to try to develop someone who is not yet an informal leader, and make him or her into one. This kind of attempt is likely to fail. Informal leaders are not “created” by fiat, or by training, or by the intervention of formal leaders. They “occur” in other ways, most notably because the informal leader comes to be respected by his or her peers based on his or her performance, demeanor and attitude. Trying to create one when when does not already exist smacks of manipulation and creates the opposite of what is needed for informal leaders to thrive. It’s more likely that attempting to develop and create an informal leader will result in that person being seen as a “pawn of management”, which, of course, is probably true.

Here are some bullet points on the issue of leadership development for informal leaders.

  • If the desire is to promote an informal leader into a formal position, recognize that not all informal leaders want formal power and authority, and that developing leadership skills in a systematic way may actually undermine that person’s ability to lead informally.
  • Grooming for promotion to a formal leadership role is probably best done informally, and through a mentoring and communication process with the informal leader, and with the consent of that person. For example, one of the most powerful methods of helping any leader develop is for an experienced leader to explain his or her thinking around both leadership and management decisions within the organization. The modeling of leadership thinking is very powerful, provided that the formal leader is in fact an effective leader.
  • Remember that one of the elements that gives informal leaders the ability to lead (and inspire) is their perceived independence from the formal authority structure. To make this clear consider a person who is respected for his or her integrity and performance, and compare this to how a person might be perceived if he or she is perceived as a tool of management. Perception is very important. If you want to develop informal leaders, the process needs to be subtle and gradual and non-intrusive or the risk is that the informal leader will lose his or her informal influence.
  • It may be best to offer the opportunity for an informal leader to learn more about how to become a more effective leader than to push that opportunity onto the informal leader. Let the person decide. Many informal leaders don’t really want to be in the spotlight, or don’t see themselves as leaders, and will see management attempts to “help” as negative or intrusive. So, offer opportunites, and communicate.
  • Providing a graduated and progressive degree of authority may seem to be a good way to develop informal leaders. For example, sports teams will sometimes appoint an informal leader to the position of “captain” of the team. This can work. However if management appoints the person as captain it tends to alter the relationship of that person with his or her peers. That’s why a number of sports teams prefer to have the choice of who will be “captain” be decided by the team members, rather than make a management appointment. The captain then is more likely to be perceived as “one of us” rather than “one of the management team”.
  • One of the biggest influences on the development of informal leadership is the existence of proper role models. That means that if you are a formal leader (CEO, VP, manager, etc), you will find that informal leaders will learn about leadership from watching how you behave, how you treat others, and how you communicate. The upshot is that how you lead from your formal position is not only important in terms of the rank and file, but that you may be the prime source for learning about effective leadership. YOUR actions are powerful. On the flip side, you’ll find that if you act in ways that seem to demonstrate poor leadership strategies, informal leaders will recognize that in you, and you may turn informal leaders against you. In short, this multiplies the effects of your actions as an organizational leader. Pay attention.
  • To summarize: If you are in a position of formal authority, you need to be extremely careful in how you go about trying to develop informal leaders. Give control over any development process to the informal leader. Be aware that doing too much may sacrifice the informal leaders’ ability to lead informally. Remain aware that your own behavior as a leader is magnified, since informal leaders will learn what is (and is not) effective leadership by watching you carefully, and making their own decision.
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