An Essential Partnership – Formal & Informal Leaders

 “The key to successful leadership is influence, not authority.”

 Kenneth H. Blanchard (born May 6, 1939) is an American Management expert, professional speaker and co-author of The One Minute Manager that has sold over 13 million copies in 37 languages.

Essential Partnership 2014-08-26

Discerning leaders and managers know that there are informal leaders found throughout the organization, no matter their level. And, these informal leaders’ roles are critical to any organization’s success.

Often “behind the scenes,” informal leaders bridge functional departments, assure processes are effectively implemented, or suggest innovative ideas, different perspectives, even reality checks. These individuals may be a comforting presence of friendship or invaluable mentorship, or are trustworthy, inspiring role models who do things passionately.

Nonetheless, informal leaders can be:

  • Assets – an enabler of change and progress, assisting the formal leaders in overcoming organizational inertia; or,
  • Liabilities – a source of negative organizational inertia that impedes or prevents change and progress.

How can formal leaders increase the likelihood that the informal leaders in their organization are assets rather than liabilities?

Step one: Identify the informal leaders. Observe group dynamics in formal and informal gatherings. Who asserts themselves? To whom do people listen?

Step two: Gain the support of these individuals. The axiom, “people don’t care what you know until they know that you care” is true. Take time to get to know what makes these informal leaders tick. As appropriate, factor their perspective into your decision-making. When the situation doesn’t allow for that, take the time to explain why you are unable to do so.

Step three: Engage their partnership. Involve your informal leaders at the appropriate time – early-on if you have some latitude in how something is conducted, or later in the timeline if the approach is locked-in. This could be the initiation of a project, an organizational change, or a potentially unpopular reallocation of resources, etc. As time and the situation permits, get their inputs, hear their concerns, but also share the factors you are weighing. With them inside the decision loop, they will have a sense of ownership to be your advocate and support your decisions.

Ensuring informal leaders are on your team requires effort, foresight and adroit leadership skills… and is essential to the success of your organization.


(a method from social network analysis)

The actual number of participants in this exercise, and the number of identified informal leaders depends on the size of your organization.

  • As an individual exercise, ask each of your participants to list the names of 5~7 people who they felt had (and continued to) contribute to their work progress and learning. These people on the list need not be situated in the same department. They are contacted when he/she is in need of advice or connection.
  • Your participant should also briefly introduce the chosen names, by indicating why these chosen people were vital to their career, connectivity, or learning at work.
  • Next, correlate the lists from all your participants. The names which are more often duplicated across the lists, are most likely the social hubs (i.e. the informal leaders) in the organization.
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Stephen Kreipe



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