Leadership Caffeine™: Supporting the Rise of the Informal Leader

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The ever-shrinking middle layer of management has been replaced by a variety of different individuals fulfilling roles as project and product and team leaders.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.

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Kira A. Wirges March 28, 2011 at 10:54 am - Reply

    Art – Great Blog! It’s so important for leaders to recognize the informal leader and publically support their growth and development. Even though they may not have actual power the support of the top leaders in the organization really allows them to grow trust and loyalty within their teams. Great commentary! Thanks -Kira

    • Art Petty March 28, 2011 at 10:56 am - Reply

      Kira, thanks for reading and sharing! -Art

  2. Peter Thorburn March 28, 2011 at 5:29 pm - Reply

    Great post! This is such a growing aspect of business that is too often overlooked, or micro-managed out of existence. Empowering employees is priceless to growth and depth of a company!

    • Art Petty March 28, 2011 at 5:40 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Peter!

  3. Chuck Hebert March 29, 2011 at 12:59 am - Reply

    Art – Thanks for the post. I had to “chuckle” as I read it. The rise of the informal leader at my company is in full effect. At first it was out of necessity and budget (or lack of). We needed to have leadership focus, but still needed them to contribute as an individual contributors. Probably not the best reason. The reality, is these folks totally stepped up. We did spend some time sharing with them best practices in communicating across organizational boundaries. We also spent some effort in coaching them how to motivate and manage people/team. Again, most of that was a quick reaction to meet our needs. Looking back, we should have been doing this all along. The whole experience now has us really focusing on how we can cultivate this approach on purpose and empower the informal leader. Thanks for sharing!

    • Art Petty March 29, 2011 at 5:39 am - Reply

      Chuck, thanks for sharing as well. Necessity is truly the fuel for invention. Kudos to you/your firm for recognizing and now supporting the development of informal leaders. -Art

  4. Jo March 29, 2011 at 7:54 am - Reply

    Great blog on the informal leadership, most individuals don’t understand that these are the ones who get the work done, know what is happening outside of the box and know who to contact when all is said and done. When you lose one of these individual it is like losing a big part of your business or the one who knew what was going on. Free range to make those contact is very important in any environment.

    • Art Petty March 29, 2011 at 8:50 am - Reply

      Jo, well said! Your perspective on losing an informal leader amplifies the value of these individuals. Too often, our systems aren’t set up to identify, develop and RETAIN these valuable players. Thanks for reading and sharing! -Art

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  6. Christian Fey March 29, 2011 at 9:05 pm - Reply

    It is hard to change organizational culture, but you’re absolutely right, individuals are consistently expanding their capabilities throughout organizations. I have, however, found that it is those who likely would make amazing managers regardless. For the majority, expanding their job beyond their position title is also beyond their interest. For those who want to move up in the rank and file at their organization, expanding your focus to include other facets of other positions is the key to success.

    • Art Petty March 30, 2011 at 7:31 am - Reply

      Christian, I struggled to follow you completely here as it relates to my post. The informal leaders would make great formal managers..in that we agree. There are fewer of those mid-level positions…and my perspective is that the way work gets done is shifting towards projects, distributed teams etc. Those firms and people that cultivate the skills to move beyond vocational or functional boundaries are key. -Art

  7. Kathy Bornheimer March 30, 2011 at 6:33 am - Reply

    You “hit the nail on the head” with this blog! The issue of peripheral vision is one that I’ve been preaching to people for years.
    As a Career Coach I always use an exercise where people not only can recognize their informal leadership abilities; but be able to express them.
    It’s been my experience with employers that few recognize this as an asset in their workforce and even fewer encourage or use this trait to its fullest potential.

    Kathy Bornheimer

    • Art Petty March 30, 2011 at 7:27 am - Reply

      Kathy, glad there’s a kindred spirit on the “peripheral vision” view! Kudos to you for helping people recognize the importance of their informal leadership abilities. -Art

  8. Beyond Horizons June 15, 2011 at 1:08 am - Reply

    Brilliant insight! And one that is often overlooked.

    These ‘informal leaders’ do their job brilliantly considering the fact they do it without the power that comes with the title. Nurturing and encouraging such a set of leaders is essential for the smooth functioning of an organization. And this can happen by developing a mutual respect and by not letting ‘the ego of the title’ get in your way.

    – Sindoora (http://www.beyondhorizons.in)

  9. Daniel March 29, 2013 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    This article exactly pertains to experiences I’m going through with my organization/employer. Although, my employer has no clue what to call it/me. I’ve been wanting/hoping to move up by way of a promotion, but have yet to see it happen. Two years have now passed.

    I’m very curious to know, what Mr. Petty is referring to when he states, “And for those seeking to strengthen and grow your careers, …… it’s time to rethink your view of success and start looking sideways as the best way to make a difference.”

    What constitutes “sideways”? What does, “rethink your view of success”, mean? Please explain.

    • Art Petty March 29, 2013 at 12:11 pm - Reply

      I checked with “him” and here’s what he means/meant:

      -The best opportunities are often in situations where you can serve/lead horizontally…e.g. project manager and product manager. Those roles are critical…very responsible and accountable for significant results. They require cultivating skills to manage and lead others who don’t report to you, and they are priceless for growing your own leadership skillsets. Leading thru influence is much more difficult and much more challenging than leading when you have hire/fire authority.

      -Rethink your definition of success. Being in charge of a function or having direct reports is not the only way to grow and succeed. Running initiatives may be a much better way of ensuring the bosses notice you for future opportunities.


      • Daniel April 1, 2013 at 7:16 am - Reply

        Hey, thanks for the response. That clarifies. It also confirms some current thoughts/perceptions. I appreciate the help.

        • Art Petty April 1, 2013 at 7:19 am - Reply

          My pleasure, Daniel! Best of success. -Art

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