Want to know where to find your best and brightest emerging leaders? Here’s a hint, you’ll have to use your peripheral vision to see them, because they are moving sideways at a high rate of speed.

The Rise of the Informal Leader:

While it’s unlikely that hierarchical leadership will disappear anytime soon from our long-standing organizational models, it is my opinion that we’ve entered an era characterized by the rise of the informal leader.

The ever-shrinking middle layer of management has been replaced by a variety of different individuals fulfilling roles as project and product and team leaders. Their titles say, “manager,” but the real meaning is something like, “tons of responsibility and no authority.”

These Informal Leaders are the ones busy getting work done through and with others by marshaling resources, building coalitions and cutting through the organizational crap that slows many functional leaders to a “protect my turf” crawl.

Informal Leaders are often on a mission to change the world and improve their organizations for the better.  They are organizational and initiative focused zealots with the passion and confidence necessary for success.

Existing leaders will be well served to cultivate an Informal Leader culture and class to cope with the prevailing market forces. The need for speed, flexibility and adaptability have never been greater, and the better your people are at traversing functional boundaries to “get stuff done,” the better your odds of success.

And for those seeking to strengthen and grow your careers, instead of looking up the organizational ladder, it’s time to rethink your view of success and start looking sideways as the best way to make a difference.

7 Ideas for Cultivating Informal Leaders in Your Organization:

1. Give your people room to run beyond your boundaries. Hell, encourage them to run. Don’t create artificial silo or turf barriers for your people. You will succeed if your people are encouraged to create value and build coalitions across the organization.

2. Use your functional power to broker alliances with peers that pave the way for people and teams to tackle the big issues of the day. Actively encourage teams to work to solve problems across boundaries and you will be supporting the development of an Informal Leader culture.  Those with passion and skills will take the opportunity to grab these initiatives.

3. If your culture is already project centric, recognize that great project management has two components: the tools of the trade and the socio-cultural (people) issues. You can be mechanically sound and still fail. Invest in strengthening people skills to improve your chances of success.  Don’t assume that people know how to collaborate.  I see far too many cross-functional initiatives reduced to “debating societies” to be comfortable assuming that people truly get how to collaborate for results.  Provide resources and coaching to teach teams and Informal Leaders how to succeed.

4. Change at the top to promote growth across the organization. Current leaders need to learn what it means to effectively sponsor working teams.  Those at the top of the ladder (yeah, there is still hierarchy) need to consistently model the right behaviors for cross-functional and Informal Leader success.

5. Design developmental assignments to push people into informal leadership roles. Ensure that assignments challenge individuals to quickly form relationships and guide groups towards problem resolution.  Ensure an ample flow of feedback from participants and stakeholders, and provide a reasonable blend of skills development in areas such as: communication, negotiation, critical thinking and facilitation.

6. Engage Informal Leaders in the strategy processes of the firm. Too often, the people driving progress are simply “receivers” of direction. This devalues their understanding of talent, organizational capabilities and their tremendous insights and lessons learned along the way.

7. Create diversity in your upcoming Informal Leader ranks.  Far too many organizations create “project managers” out of just their technical professionals. While cautious to generalize, many of these same organizations end up with a project management culture that is mechanically excellent but truly weak on the soft, people side of the equation.  Draw from and build informal leaders in all areas of the organization.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The issue of building a powerful Informal Leader culture transcends the topic of project management. This is neither a functional nor a vocational issue as much as it is about building an environment that works effectively in this challenging and ever-changing world.

I see successes all of the time, although they tend to emerge due to the tenacity of one or more passionate individuals, rather than through a deliberate development process. The challenge now is to find ways to deliberately develop an Informal Leader class and quit relying on its emergence by accident.