Best Leadership: Formal vs. Informal Leaders

Updated on June 21, 2016

Do you consider yourself to be a leader? Even if you aren’t officially designated as the leader of a group, it may turn out that you are considered to be a leader by the people you are in a group with. If you tend to find yourself in this position then you might want to explore the difference between being a formal leader vs. being an informal leader.

You may also be interested in this information if you operate any sort of small business or team. That’s because knowing who your informal leaders are is just as important as knowing who you’ve assigned to a leadership role.

Neither one of these is necessarily the best leader; the best leaders can be either formal or informal leaders. And the best leadership situations are sometimes the ones in which the formal and informal leader of the same group can work together.

What Is a Leader?

First things first: Let’s define what it means to be a leader. It’s a term that gets bandied about a lot but it does have an official meaning. A leader is anyone who directs a group.

This individual exists in every single group, even groups that are supposed to be cooperative. The best leaders know how to work with the unique type of group that they are leading.

What Is a Formal Leader?

Formal leaders are given leadership based on their position with a group. They are actually assigned to be leaders as part of their role in the group. Examples of formal leaders would be the teacher in a classroom or the manager within a company.

The formal leader has a job to organize and direct group members to meet the goals of the organization or team. Formal leaders are often the best leaders in a company but that's not always the case.

What Is an Informal Leader?

In contrast to the formal leader, the informal leader is someone who does not have the official authority to direct the group. Despite this, the group chooses to follow the lead of this person. For example, the class clown may be someone that the students in the class take cues from even though the teacher is the official leader of the classroom.

The informal leader may arise because he is charismatic and outgoing so that people want to listen to him, because she is easy to talk to, or because she exhibits certain knowledge and ideas that seem useful to the group.

He may specifically choose to take on a leadership role or this may just naturally happen as part of the dynamics of the group. The informal leader can be the best leader in the group because of the fact that the group has naturally chosen him or her.

Understanding the Difference

The difference between a formal and informal leader goes well beyond just the fact that the formal leader has been given official authority to lead the group. We can see this when we look at the teacher / class clown example. After all, the goals of the class clown are in direct competition with the goals of the teacher. It is important for formal leaders and informal leaders to figure out a way to work together if a group is going to truly have solid leadership.

Creating a positive balance between informal and formal leaders begins with an understanding of their different roles. Formal leaders direct individuals in meeting the goals of the company, organization or team. Informal leaders may or may not do this as they tend to follow their own agenda.

In the case of the teacher and class clown, the teacher is encouraging the group to follow the rules of the school whereas the class clown is encouraging the kids to have fun. They are each the best leader in their respective areas.

The Issue of Loyalty

It’s important to understand the issue of loyalty when figuring out how formal and informal leaders can work together. That’s because these two types of people have different loyalties and the group has different levels of loyalty to each of them.

The formal leader’s loyalty is to the organization or team (the teacher’s is to the school) whereas the informal leader’s is generally to the group itself. (The informal leader may be self-involved but needs to please the group to become a leader.)

As a result of this, the loyalty of the group tends to be with the informal leader rather than with the formal leader even though the formal leader may be able to issue consequences or provide rewards that the informal leader cannot.

Reconciling the Two Types

Groups that are experiencing any kind of conflict between the formal and informal leaders should consider this issue of loyalty carefully. If the formal leader can gain the trust of the informal leader then the goals of both the group and the organization can be aligned.

We see this happen in sports teams where the goal of both the team and the team leader is to win games. An informal team leader would have this same primary goal. The fact that everyone wants the same thing tends to lead to success.

What If You Don't Want to Be a Leader?

Some people find that they are frequently in the role of leader even though they never apply for official leadership positions. These people tend to be smart, charismatic, and likeable people who are empathetic enough to relate to big groups. If you find yourself in this position, consider these things:

  • Being chosen as a leader is a positive thing. It means that you are a strong character with a group and that people like you. You may not want the burden or responsibility but it’s really an honor.
  • You aren’t obligated to play this role. Don’t let a group pressure you into any activities or choices you don’t want to make. They may see you as the best leader for the group but that doesn’t mean that you have to do anything special in your role as an informal leader.
  • Working with the formal leader will make your role simpler. There will be less conflict within the group and less pressure on you in terms of the group’s demands and needs.
  • You may want to get paid for your role. Why is it that you’re not applying for leadership roles if you’re constantly being seen as a leader? Think carefully about this. It usually has to do with either self-esteem issues or problems with being an authority figure. You might want to rethink your position and get paid for your work.

Conversely, if you want to be a leader but never get chosen as one then start figuring out who the informal leaders are in your groups and figure out how to take cues from that about becoming one yourself.

Questions & Answers

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    • Dallas Wilkinson profile image

      Dallas Wilkinson 

      2 years ago

      The role of informal leadership has always been an intensely interesting one for me. I worked in the information systems field for nearly 40 years and always had to identify the informal leaders on any team attempting to accomplish something. They are very often crucial to the success of teams in general. Great topic and thoughtful treatment.

    • speechtotxtsrvc profile image

      speechtotxtsrvc 

      7 years ago from Worldwide

      I am happy to know the deeper side of being a leader. Maybe I can consider my self within this. :)

    • profile image

      what is leadership 

      7 years ago

      Hey Kathryn! Thanks for taking the time to put together this fantastic hub.

    • teamfusiongroup profile image

      teamfusiongroup 

      7 years ago from Ontario Canada

      I am surprised that Stephen Covey's book 8th Habit was not mentioned. A powerful book that addresses this topic very well. One of my favourite quotes by Covey that I feel summarizes an effective leader is "communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it themselves". A leader needs to inspire and help others realize their true potential - a powerful team is created when this is instilled.

    • LeanMan profile image

      Tony 

      8 years ago from At the Gemba

      I have worked as a consultant and trainer for several years, recognizing the "informal" leader in a group is very important in ensuring the success of what you are doing, failure to do so and not influencing their behaviour towards what you are trying to achieve can totally undermine your project.

    • profile image

      8 years ago

      You accidentally switched from 'he' to 'she' in the informal leadership section : )

    • Unchained Grace profile image

      Unchained Grace 

      8 years ago from Baltimore, MD

      The issues you bring up in this Hub are many times showcased in a smaller group setting wherein the ranks of leadership are not well established except for who the primary might be. That is, for example the teacher/class clown.

      Therein, within the classroom scenario, there can be any number of informal leaders. The class clown being one.

      Recently, our Bishop provided to us 10 Key Points to Leadership. Perhaps these may help in further exploring leadership qualities:

      1.Honest-Integrity

      2.Ability to define a purpose

      3.Kindness-Compassion

      4.Humility

      5.Communication

      6.Team Development

      7.Courage

      8.Committment-Determination

      9.Justice-Fairness

      10.Leadership Development

      I really enjoyed the way you defined the formal/informal leader. When the primary goal is to unite the group toward a specific vision or goal, it is, as you said important for the formal and informal leaders to be on the same page or the result is a continuous struggle where nobody really wins in the end.

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