Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Informal leader

Informal leaders within an organization are in general the individuals considered worth of credibility by their peers and who are followed by these by virtue of the way these are actually perceived.

An informal leader has no formal authority over colleagues and his power to influence others simply rests on his capability to inspire the other individuals respect, confidence and trust. A leader is indeed supposed to lead naturally and not because this is trying intentionally, or even making some particular efforts, to do so.

How can organisations benefit from informal leaders
Informal leaders can indeed effectually contribute to the success of an organization and of its formal leaders. They can, for instance, help managers to achieve their objectives and lighten the workload associated with their position considerably. Acting in a different way compared to a formal leader they can, for instance, say things that a formal leaders for different reasons cannot or that whether said by a formal leader might produce a different outcome. Whether, for example, is an informal leader who says a colleague that he has made a mistake, the effects would be different than that produced by this activity being performed directly by the formal leader. An employee is likely to be more willing to accept a remark from a colleague he appreciates and trusts, rather than from a manager who acts on the basis of his formal authority and makes decisions on his pay and career prospects.

Informal leaders have the innate capabilities to influence in different ways the people who establish and maintain relationships with them and this is actually why they are essentially perceived differently.


Individuals recognized as informal leaders do not habitually intentionally assume this role; they just "emerge" simply because others have and show great respect for them.

Whilst informal leaders can definitely reveal to be important employers allies for the attainment of the organizational success, these can also turn to be particularly harmful to this extent in the event these should pull in the opposite direction set by the formal leaders.

Albeit it may seem that promoting informal leaders to formal positions could be a good move, in practice giving formal authority to these individuals might in some cases be the cause for informal leaders abruptly becoming ineffective leaders. This may happen because the formal authority they receive may alter the quality of the relationships these have built and developed over time with their peers.

Care needs invariably to be taken when trying to harness the power of informal leaders. Informal leaders clearly derive their influence from the perception that the other employees have of them as individuals completely independent of the management power and influence, for their integrity and for standing up for what they believe in. These employee convictions are actually developed on the basis of the practical behaviour exhibited by informal leaders over time. Whether formal leaders should try and manipulate informal leaders, the risk is that these would rebel or "stand against" the formal leaders. Attempting to coerce or put under pressure an informal leader may thus have severe backlashes and has to be invariably averted.

Longo, R., (2009), Informal leader, HR Professionals, [online].

Related article in this website
Can informal leaders help employers to develop and shape organizational culture?

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Leadership or Management?

The debate is still, and will arguably permanently be, alive. Hundreds of definitions and theories have been coined about leadership and management over time and as often as not the same formulations have been used to describe both management and leadership.


Over the last decades, leadership has been defined as the “ability to get others to do what they don’t want to do and like it” (Henry S. Truman); as “an influencing process aimed at goal achievement” (Ralph Stogdill) and as the capacity to have “foresight, knowledge and intuition” (Margaret Malpas), just to cite a very few formulations.

These definitions and all of the others (estimated in roughly 350) formulated so far have indeed a common factor: these all refer to traits and personal capabilities, which all result in the leader “making things happen” thanks to his particular ability to manage interpersonal relations.


According to K. Grint, management is the equivalent of “déjà vù” (already seen), whereas leadership is the equivalent of “vù déjà” (never seen before).


Research has shown that the list of traits typical of a leader is extremely long and it is objectively difficult to reach a common consent on determining which amongst these are the most important.


According to Professor Abraham Zaleznic, management is most concerned with processes and structure. Ignoring people, managers tend to avoid responsibility, whilst leaders accept it. John Kotter claims that leadership and management are different but complementary, “management is about successfully addressing organisational complexity, whereas leadership is concerned with successfully handling change.”


More than a role, leadership definitions basically tend to emphasize an approach, or rather, the way to perform an activity and attain results. Leaders are not supposed to have subordinates; at least not as part or as a consequence of them having these distinctive features. Many leaders can have subordinates just because they incidentally also are managers. When leading, individuals having these peculiar traits essentially do not exercise any formal control, because as leaders they have followers and following is indeed invariably considered as a voluntary activity.


Managers, by definition, have subordinates and their power over others stems from formal authority. These have been appointed to carry out specific tasks, such as planning activities and managing staff, and do not necessary have any leadership traits. In contrast, within the same organisation there could be a number of individuals, who have not been appointed as managers and who have not let alone been “appointed” by their employer as leaders, who may actually have these distinctive characteristics. In practice, the figure of a leader not necessarily and sometimes even hardly coincides with the role of manager.

 Leaders at large are people who have some innate abilities, charisma and to some extent charm. Individuals having these distinctive characteristics but do not filling any management role are habitually called informal leaders. Informal leaders are hence those employees who have leadership traits and characteristics but that do not practically cover any management positions. These instinctively and instantly win the respect, trust and appreciation of the others and, in many circumstances, their opinion sensibly affects that of their colleagues.


Managers should by no means try and discredit informal leaders; in contrast, they should invariably do whatever they can to have these on their side and try to improve their leadership abilities, whilst winning the trust and respect of informal leaders.


So is leadership an inborn feature or can it actually be learned?
It could be claimed that leadership is something innate which is hence nurtured and developed further, but it should not be overlooked the circumstance that the most effective and powerful component of leadership is definitely the innate one. Whether an individual has it this can be effectually developed, but whether a person has no inborn leadership traits gaining these is likely to prove to be a sorely demanding, tricky and lengthy process. Yet, no warranty of success can be given at the outset.


What should hence executives do with the managers who do not have this gift and what should they rather do with the employees who naturally have this significant feature?


Managers who do not have leadership traits can hardly influence their reports “to go the extra mile”, notwithstanding managers should never stop being managers to start being leaders. Technical knowledge, organisational abilities, business acumen and other typical managerial abilities are fundamental in order to these effectually perform their tasks and contribute to the organizational success as expected by the employer.


Being able to influence others and being able to let them do what they would not actually want to, for instance, would prove to be totally pointless whether a precise direction has not been previously identified and specific objectives set, consistently and coherently with the business strategy and aim.

Management is hence definitely important, but it is undeniable that whether coupled with leadership abilities management would acquire a dramatic, powerful strength.


As argued by Rob Briner (Head of the School of Management and Organisational psychology at Birkbeck, University of London), nowadays “everyone wants to be a leader. Nobody wants to be a manager. Being a leader sounds dynamic and exciting. Being a manger seems mundane”. What was once recognised and defined as management, or rather, the most appealing part of that is now defined leadership, leaving the less exciting part of the job still linked to the management concept.


Managers who do not perform well are typically blamed for poor leadership, rather than for poor management. As Rob Briner put it “trying to replace management with leadership causes many difficulties but, in particular, it encourages the idea that leadership is something other than or above management. In the words of Mintzberg “leadership is merely management practiced well.”

Leadership ability could be ultimately considered as something manager should better have in addition to the habitual specifications required by the position and a feature which organisations should strive to develop amongst their managers who do not have it.


Informal leaders
Every organisation should indeed provide opportunities for training, development and career advancement to its entire employee population; nonetheless, particular attention should be paid to those individuals who show natural leadership traits. In a way or in another, employers should definitely gain their commitment and involvement in the organisation activity and do their utmost to increase their participation and contribution to the organizational success. Their truly sense of belonging can prove to be of paramount importance to elicit and inspire the same feeling in many others colleagues.


Leadership and good practice
First and foremost, it is necessary to determine whether leadership has anything to do with good practice. Whether it would be considered as a specific part of the most general “training and development” activity, it can be deemed it does.


Every organisation should invariably provide to all of its employees opportunity for training, growth and development. As part of this overall aim, leadership programmes should be therefore provided to the individuals currently filling management positions and to those who will be very likely called to play that role in the near and distant future.


To this extent an additional important organizational issues actually comes to play, namely succession planning.


Organizations should invariably have for each key role existing within the business a person capable to fill those roles. Habitually it is an executives’ responsibility to indicate the name of the managers who are likely, for their current capabilities and traits, to fill the key positions which will fall vacant in the future. This crucial activity has to be indeed performed regardless of the circumstance that this need might arise in the incoming or in the distant future.


The identified managers should be hence assessed, with regard to their current and potential leadership capabilities, by an external consultant.


Specific programmes will be therefore designed and provided to these individuals in order these to acquire and/or develop the leadership capabilities and skills necessary to effectually perform their future role.


Periodical refreshing sessions and assessment activities will need to be planned and held, in addition to an activity aiming at constantly monitoring the individual progress and eventually identified gaps.


To these managers should also be offered bespoke, dedicated coaching and mentoring sessions preferably delivered by the incumbent relevant senior managers. The CEO should actively participate in the identification and planning phases of these activities and should give her/his contribution for the identification of the future protagonists of the organisation, on which essentially depends and relies the future of the organisation itself.

Longo, R., (2009), Leadership or Management?, HR Professionals, Milan, [online].