Discovering your informal leaders

Let’s start with the meaning of an informal leader. This term refers to someone who does not necessarily hold a formal position of authority; but because they are well respected by their peers, they exert influence, allowing them to sway the opinions of others. Their peers often go to them for direction, support, and advice; which, in turn, naturally enlists them as potential agents of positive change.

There is one problem though. Sometimes your informal leaders may unfortunately lead with their chin, offering nothing but complaints and grumbles about what went wrong. Think back to the suggested activity from the previous post, Rethinking your own leadership. You were urged to create a depiction or map of your organization, making a note of any telling dynamics. Is it safe to bet the informal leaders were a major focus in your reflections? Or were they? Do you know who your informal leaders are? Let’s find out.

Try this.

At your next staff meeting find out who your informal leaders are by means of a formal survey. Make sure that all responses are anonymous. This can take shape by way of a paper pencil method or an electronic questionnaire.

Word it somewhat like this: At (company name), which one to two employee opinions do you most respect?

Tallying and scoring the names of individuals should reveal your three to five most influential informal leaders. But what attributes do your informal leaders possess that lead to this magnetism? Is it their persuasion or interpersonal skills? Maybe they have some sort of distinctive physical characteristic (e.g., good looking, size, etc.). Whatever the reasoning, it is what it is. When they act or speak; others watch and listen.

Informal leaders can be incredibly powerful allies. Make a habit of calling on them to talk about the change process or other ideas about how to improve the organization.

Try this.

About one week following the formal questionnaire, casually meet with each of your informal leaders. Don’t use the shotgun approach and meet with them all at once. That method could backfire. Instead, talk to each of them individually. First, let them know that they are leaders within the organization and that many of their colleagues respect them considerably. Don’t reference the questionnaire; they may not even put two and two together. And if they do mention it, steer clear of specifics. For example, you DO NOT want to share with Mrs. Smith the fact that she had 14 “votes.” This will become a competition and spread through the organization like a cancer.

Next, share with each of your leaders the need for a strong partnership. In a roundabout way, let each of them know that the success of the organization may be dependent on an open, honest relationship between the two of you.

Finally, listen to them. If your relationship has been damaged in the past, then it is time to mend fences. If you listen to what they have to say and display your willingness to walk in their shoes, more often than not, the relationship will begin to mend itself. The repairing of trust might sometimes require you to become vulnerable. In order to gain trust, one must extend their own trust.

Keep in mind you may still have one who refuses to give in and resist the direction of the organization. After all, this is a part of change. Whether the source is burnout or stubbornness, you should take every measure to change their outlook so they do not impede ongoing progress. Remember, they have the ability to sway others—stopping initiatives right in their tracks.

If, after multiple attempts, there is still no hope in rekindling trust and getting an informal leader back on track, you have to turn up the heat—in other words, documentation, documentation, documentation. It is a last resort and they may fight it with tooth and nail, but it will prove your commitment of on-going progress to others.

Final Thoughts

Leadership is about influencing and motivating others; facilitating new directions. I use the word “facilitating” because we can no longer work in a vacuum. We must find ways to listen and tap in to the ideas of others around you. Ann Marie E. McSwain’s defined leadership by stating:

Leadership is about capacity: the capacity of leaders to listen and observe, to use their expertise as a starting point to encourage dialogue between all levels of decision-making, to establish processes and transparency in decision-making, to articulate their own values and visions clearly but not impose them.

This begins with your informal leaders—listen to them, encourage dialogue, and establish transparent processes. As agents of change they can then begin to cross-pollinate those same conversations and ideas to others throughout the organization.

Activities in a nutshell

  1. At your next staff meeting survey your staff using the following question: At (company name), which one to two employee opinions do you most respect?
  2. Meet with each informal leader individually and begin to build trust and seek ideas.


Perry Wiseman, author, Strong Schools, Strong Leaders: What matter most in times of change

Strong Schools Strong Leaders Cover

One thought on “Discovering your informal leaders

  1. Pingback: Creating explicit norms or protocols « WiseFoundations

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