Informal Leadership: Leaders from Unconventional Places

Informal leadershipWho are the most important leaders in your organization? Make a list of the top five to ten.

Chances are good that your list consists exclusively of team leads, supervisors, managers and executives. Unfortunately, this means you’re forgetting some of the most important and influential figures your company depends on every day.

Associating leadership skills only with traditional leadership roles is an easy mistake to make, and the people who fill those roles should be able to lead and possess the personality traits, skills and innate qualities of leaders.  But they are far from the only people who do.1

In traditional organizations, there are a number of individuals who, while not in traditional leadership roles, are nevertheless influential. They are usually highly skilled professionals who have been with the organization for a number of years. The long-time administrative assistant to the CEO, the senior IT technician, the experienced specialist with extraordinary institutional knowledge – all of those people are sought out by others for advice and information. In other settings those individuals may be highly experienced nurses, lab technicians, financial experts, paralegals or other seasoned niche professionals with extensive knowledge.2

These informal leaders are incredibly important to an organization, in part because they are left off of leadership lists. Employees don’t think of these unconventional leaders as management, and so are willing to talk to them about management issues.  Management, on the other hand, tends to see them as something akin to colleagues, and so they are also often confidantes of people in traditional leadership positions. They sit in a sort of neutral, middle ground that makes them accessible to anyone, and their knowledge and expertise make them indispensable to everyone. This positioning makes them key players whenever an organization needs to make some kind of systematic change.3

How do you take advantage of these informal leaders? How do you even know who they really are?  Evolving Strategies, a leadership and learning consulting firm,  has a three-step plan to walk you through the process.4 In a nutshell, you first identify your informal leaders (and they have an exercise to help you with that as well), get their buy-in for your plan (communication is key here) and then engage them in your project (timing is everything).

Of course, if you really want to help out your informal leaders – and your company – you can provide them with leadership training. Imagine the results if your informal leaders were empowered by some additional knowledge that helped them inspire, communicate with and elevate others?  Plus, as some of your top performers, they might welcome the opportunity to learn and look at the additional education as an extraordinarily valuable benefit that keeps them from looking elsewhere. Great leaders, especially ones who are content to lead from the sidelines, are precious resources that you can’t afford to lose.