How Important Are Informal Leaders?

Informal Leaders

There are many articles out there asking questions like:  Are great leaders born or bred? And there are many answers to this question.

I like this quote as an answer:

“Leaders born to be bred.”

Hierarchy or Not

Most of us realize that leadership does not have to come from the top in order to be effective.  In my 20 years working at a high tech global company,  I can attest that I have seen numerous informal leaders in every layer of the organization.

Leadership doesn’t always come from formally appointed leaders or managers. Vision is driven from above, but the implementation happens below.

And without good leadership at every level, success would not be achievable.

Informal Leadership

One of the best examples of informal leadership that I’ve witnessed actually comes from Pat, my Administrative Assistant of 5 years.  (Actually a title like “Right Hand Woman” or “Chief of Staff” may be a more appropriate title for her.)

Pat isn’t the lead admin in our organization, but she regularly steps up to lead everything from the monthly birthday celebrations to a site wide event focused on women.  I’d like to share examples where Pat stepped up and not only helped herself and her peers, but helped hundreds of women gain something either personally or professionally.

Here’s How It’s Done

Pat took charge of the Council of Administrative Assistants for our site when no one else would step up.  She turned the meetings from vent sessions to productive meetings not because someone told her to but because she saw the need.

One of the outcomes was setting up an Education Group focused on the development of Administrative Assistants.  Her first win was persuading me to train the community how to write their own accomplishments for their Annual Performance Reviews.

Most felt the daily, menial tasks didn’t have much impact.

But after 4 hours of sitting in a classroom with me and another senior leader, we had 80 motivated women, proud of what the contributed to their group and the company.

This was done out of one idea from an informal leader.

To Infinity and Beyond

Once Pat saw the impact, she was inspired to go broader.  I had given her a book I had randomly picked up at a ASTD Conference that greatly inspired me: Pitch Like a Girl by Ronna Lichtenberg.  She loved the book so much that when ideas were needed for an educational event, she wrote the author and asked if she would speak.  She said yes!

I didn’t help Pat initiate the contact with Ronna, she felt inspired and drew on her own courage to reach out. What could have been the worst outcome?  Ronna could have told her no and she would continue her search.  Not only did she bring Ronna onsite to talk to the admin community, but the senior women leaders had lunch with Ronna and all of the women onsite were invited to listen to her wonderful words of wisdom.

If that wasn’t outdoing herself from the Brag training and Ms Lichtenberg, this year, Pat convinced our Chairman of the Board to come to our site.

This time she not only invited the admins, but their managers.

It was an amazingly motivational day that still resides in the memories of all who attended.  Most employees, no matter how long they’ve worked at a company don’t get the opportunity to meet the senior leaders let alone the Chairman of the Board of Directors and here from the top what they contribute and how they can grow and develop.

Reaching with Vision

Who sparked Pat’s leadership and courage?  She did.  As her manager, I encouraged and didn’t get in her way but I provided Pat the opportunity to lead where she felt she could and where she saw the need.  No one told her “no” or it’s not your job.

Imagine what inspirational innovation would spark if we allowed more informal leaders to step up and do something wonderful?  As a leader, how do you empower informal leaders?


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Cheryl Dilley 
is a Program Director at Intel Corporation
She is a transformation leader, coach, and program strategist
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2 responses to “How Important Are Informal Leaders?

  1. What a great post, Cheryl. It’s the informal leaders who keep the organization producing, productive and connected to customers day in and day out. They are too often the unsung heroes.
    I love that your approach provided Pat both an opportunity to make a difference and a positive path to courage! I think a good number of leaders would have ok’d the idea–and then gave coordination and implementation (and ultimately the kudos) to someone else.


  2. Pingback: Leadership updates for 01/25/2012·

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