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Those Informal Leaders

| September 27, 2016

by Jim Bruce

There are informal leaders in every organization.  These are the people in the organization who, without formal title or authority, get things done, and done well, show others how to do them, and have a large network interconnecting many people in a variety of teams and organizations across the entire organization.  Often we do not even know who these people are nor recognize their importance in our organization’s success or understand the breadth of their networks.
The degree to which these informal leaders are effective in their organizations is highly dependent on the organization’s culture.
In their essay, 10 Principles of Organizational Culture, John Katzenbach (first author of The Wisdom of Teams), Carolin Oelschlegel, and James Thomas have a simple but powerful definition of culture:  “Culture is the self-sustaining pattern of behavior that determines how things are done.”  They go on to say that “Made of instinctive, repetitive habits and emotional responses, culture can’t be copied or easily pinned down.  Corporate cultures are constantly self-renewing and slowly evolving:  What people feel, think, and believe is reflected and shaped by the way they go about their business.  Formal efforts to change a culture … seldom manage to get to the heart of what motivates people, what makes them tick.”
Their essay goes on to name 10 principles for mobilizing an organizational culture.  I want to focus this essay on their fourth principle:  “Deploy your authentic informal leaders.”  (We’ll come back to some of the other principles in the future.)  They note that every organization has people who influence and energize others without benefit of a title or position of authority.  These individuals are called “authentic informal leaders” or AILs and are grouped in a number of categories including:
Pride builders:  Motivate others and catalyze improvement around them.  They typically have very good insight into the culture and what behaviors will lead to improvement.
Exemplars:  Role models.
Networkers:  These are the hubs of personal communication within the organization.
Early adopters:  They latch on the “new,” experiment with it, and seek to see how it might be engaged.
Reid Carpenter, in her essay How to Find and Engage Authentic Informal Leaders, points to the Derek Sivers’ TEDtalk First Follower:  Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy.  (Watch it here, even if you’ve seen it before.)  “In the video, a lone dancer wobbles around, looking ridiculous.  The first follower comes in and encourages his friends to join.  The first follower is crucial.  He transforms the lone nut into a leader.  The turning point comes when the second follower joins in, validating the action of the leader and the first follower.  Soon after, even more join in.  Eventually, the ones seated are a minority.”
Several key points:  The formal leader (the first dancer who starts alone) is essential.  The informal followers are like early adopters and influence and determine whether the new behavior is adopted.  The informal leaders are self-selected.  Something draws them into the action, here it’s the music and dancing.  They decide to become involved.  Carpenter points out that they stay involved as long as they feel the “beat.”
Organizations are different from dancing on a grassy hill, yet, if you look you can find the AILs.  They, like the first followers in the video, are likely to make themselves noticed if you are looking for them.
AIL networks are chaotic and unplanned.  On one hand, that’s why they work, and on the other, we may need to consciously choreograph them.  Four points may help us do so:
AILs are not always the stars:  They come in many flavors.  Some, pride builders, care about coaching and mentoring.  Networkers prioritize relationships.  Exemplars may only stand out in a narrow area.  Each has a special quality that allows them to contribute.  You likely won’t see them if you are not looking for them.
AILs may not stay on message:  They behave as their authentic selves.  This makes them attractive to others and therefore a source of influence.  You provide the information, they convey it in their own words.  You must trust their intuition as to what will work.
AILs may only be involved for a short time:  They stay involved as long as they are interested.  When they achieve their objective, they will likely move on.  And, then the next wave picks up the role.
There are informal leaders in every organization.  Do you know who they are in your organization?  Perhaps, if you don’t, you might stop and think about the question.  For example, who are the “go to” people?  You know, those individuals that people rely on for knowledge, for getting tasks done, for knowing who in that other organization might be helpful, …  Your next question is are they being effective?  How might they be more effective?  What do you need to do give your AILS permission to get into the action?
Making more effective use of AILs will introduce a certain amount of chaos into your organization but in the end can produce results that are significantly more effective.
Take some time and give it some thought. 
Make it a great week!  .  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO and Vice President for Information Systems, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
John Katzenbach, Carolin Oelschlegel, and James Thomas, 10 Principles of Organizational Culture, strategy+business, February 2016.
Reid Carpenter, Find and Engage Authentic Informal Leaders, strategy+business, July 2016.