To put it bluntly- each and every group of people, regardless of its size, goal, and nature, needs a leader. Moreover, even when a leader isn’t formally chosen (i.e. through official hierarchy), the leader appearsthe group spontaneously “elects” her or him.

It’s safe to say that informal leaders came before the formal ones. Way back in history, when the societal organization and hierarchy was still in its embryonal phase, informal “bosses” were much more common than their formal counterparts.

According to the Business Dictionary, an informal leader is a person who doesn’t hold any position of high authority but still enjoys a great deal of respect and admiration of people. As we’ll see more clearly later, this informal leadership definition is purely descriptive, without any pretensions to explain the phenomenon. We will try to supplement it with ours and others’ observations.

Informal And Formal Leadership

Formal leaders assume important positions within the company’s hierarchy (e.g. CEO, CFO, etc.). Formal bosses are often chosen and accepted by the organization’s board of directors, who at the same time make the list of responsibilities for formal leaders. In other words, formal leadership is very much confined by a strict set of rules and standards and reprimands for the disobedience.

Informal leaders, on the other hand, don’t have to follow a strict set of rules or meet various requirements. They are often on the same hierarchical level as the people whom they lead, yet others recognize in them the capacity and zeal that make them “first among equals”.

What Does An Informal Leader Do?

First of all, this type of authority figures often handles a small team. Chiefs of smaller groups are in direct contact with other group members, which allows them to meet everybody and maintain a constant stream of communication. They often make quick decisions in the name of the whole team.

Most importantly, informal leaders deserve the loyalty of others by representing a sort of role model, one everybody can look up to. However, an informal authority figure isn’t only a teacher. He or she is also a friend! This is perhaps the most important part of informal leadership: being able to establish meaningful, trusting, and long-term relationships with other employees.

Less formal bosses also micromanage most operations and set short-term and long-term (although less often) goals. Thanks to their immersion in the emotional atmosphere of the group they lead, these people know very well when to reward somebody, when to punish, and when to act as a parent who understands and forgives. They are also very good at conflict resolution.

Why People Listen to An Informal Leader?

The simplest answer is: because they want to. This immediately points to another important distinction between formal and informal leadership: people must listen to formal leaders because of the rules. Inversely, nobody forces employees to listen to informal bosses, but they simply want to.

According to social psychologists, authority is an important term, able to explain phenomena like leadership and obedience. Less formal authority figures often owe their success to charisma. Weber, an astute sociologist, argues that charisma is connected with the perception of leadership’s legitimacy via a cluster of emotional factors. In other words, charismatic authority figures influence their “subordinates” on an emotional level. A logical question follows: how can one be more charismatic? Well, there isn’t such thing as a recipe for charisma.

Social psychologists argued about this topic for a long time. On the one side were people who believed that anybody can become a chief, it is the environment (e.g. social status, opportunities, education) that determines our chances to become a leader.

On the other hand, some social psychologists believed that a leader is born- you cannot become one.

The debate went on and on until the scientists settled on a compromise- both factors, genetic as well as environmental- are important.

We’d like to point out that that it’s extremely hard to “learn charisma”. One is either charismatic or not. Of course, with a lot of practice, everybody could possibly become more charismatic, but we’re talking here about big personality changes people are rarely ready to undertake.

To conclude, if informal leaders owe their success to charisma authority, then their success is more determined by personality traits which we presume are inherited to a large extent.

Now comes the moment we announced in the very introduction- the moment for us to define informal leadership once again, and try to give a broader, and more comprehensive informal leader definition. Informal leadership is the spontaneous emergence of leaders within a group of people, who decide to follow a specific individual because of his or her charisma.

However, charisma isn’t the only important factor. The so-called expert authority also plays an important role. More specifically, a charismatic individual who’s devoid of any kind of skills and abilities will hardly be held in high esteem.

Other forms of authority, like traditional and bureaucratic, are much less important for our topic.

Why Is Informal Leadership Important?

There are two main reasons:

  1. It has been found that informal leaders increase the efficiency of the groups they lead (Pescosolido, 2001).
  2. Organizations can never exhaustively define all the responsibilities and duties of a formal leader. Formal leaders also have to do the informal work- and quite often this part of their job is equally important as the one formally prescribed.

Thus, the importance of informal leadership doesn’t only reside in its ability to increase efficiency, but in its very embeddedness into the group’s identity. We’ll say it once again- groups need leaders.

Informal Leader Characteristics and Skills

Informal Leader Characteristics

  1. Charisma
  2. Assertiveness
  3. Initiative
  4. Ambition
  5. Enthusiasm

Informal Leadership Skills

  1. Ability to coordinate people
  2. Emotional Intelligence
  3. Proficiency in their field

Note that these characteristics and skills are provisional and may vary with context and type of work environment. Their relative significance also may vary. For instance, among the group of scientists, the level of expertise will be much more important than in a group of factory workers.

Similarly, it is not always clear what charisma should mean. In Western culture, charismatic individuals are often extroverted, self-confident, and sometimes even quite bold and audacious. On the other hand, societies of East Asia don’t hold these characteristics in such high regard.


    Informal leadership is one of the most important factors in the organizational context.

    Unfortunately, we often neglect it, emphasizing the significance of formal leadership.

    There’s a reason we’re in this kind of situation – it’s sometimes extremely hard to tap into the intricacies of informal leadership.