Formal and Informal Leaders

by smartamarketing

Dr Brian Monger

The formal leader is the supervisor appointed by the organisation to lead a specified group in the attainment of the organisation’s objectives.  The organisation gives the supervisor the necessary authority to carry out these objectives.  An informal leader, on the other hand, is “appointed” by the work group itself, usually because of their referent and expert power, their personal qualities and job knowledge.

A very effective supervisor may be both the formal and informal leader of the group.  However, work groups often have two leaders: the informal and the formal.  This does not necessarily mean that the supervisor is not supervising properly; it may mean that the informal leader is meeting certain team and individual needs that the formal leader cannot or should not be meeting.

The informal leader may or may not support the supervisor; whichever is the case, informal leaders usually have as much (and often more) influence on a group’s output as the formal leader.  So don’t try to eliminate any informal leaders in your work group, but rather ensure that they are working with and not against you, for the benefit of your work group and the organisation.

The informal leader is likely to be the person to whom others often go for advice, assistance or just a chat.  It is the person who speaks for the group, the person who is able to get the ball rolling”.  An informal leader may emerge because of a booming voice or an ability to make others laugh, or because of seniority.  If your work group concentrates on getting its work done, for example, producing 400 units an hour, the informal leader may be the person who can produce the most or generate the most enthusiasm for attaining results.  On the other hand, if your work group needs to have tension relieved because of the stressful nature of the job, the informal leader may well be the person who can do this.

A work group may have both of these objectives (400 units an hour and relief of tension); in this case, two informal leaders may emerge if one person is not available who can meet group needs in both areas.

Whoever the informal leaders are in your work group, their positions are precarious ones.  Being an informal leader today and a non-leader tomorrow is not unusual.  This is particularly true where the composition of the work group changes frequently or where the work location, product or task changes.  As a group’s needs change, so does its choice of informal leader.

Authority and Responsibility

Authority is the right to command or act and relates to the power you have over resources.  If you have authority, you can require a person to do something that you want done.  Every supervisor is conferred some formal authority by the organisation.

Responsibility, on the other hand, is the obligation that employees have to their managers and the organisation to do a job or task that has been assigned to them.  The key idea here is one of obligation or duty.  You are hired to do a certain job; therefore, you have an obligation or responsibility to do that job.

It wouldn’t be fair to hold people responsible for doing a job without first giving them the necessary authority to do the job.  Thus, although authority and responsibility are different, they should go together.  This means that when you have been delegated authority, it should be accompanied by sufficient responsibility.

What Type of Leader do Employees Look for?

No two people are exactly alike and therefore no one  type  of  leader  can  be singled out as the ideal for  which  everyone  is  looking.  One  person  looks for guidance and encouragement, while another prefers to be left alone to get on with the job.

Despite individual differences, surveys show that there are some specific behaviours that most employees look for in a leader.  Most, for example, want a leader who lets them know clearly what is expected of them and how they are getting on.  They want to be sincerely patted on the back when they deserve it.  They want training, and guidance when they are having difficulty in achieving their objectives.  They want to work for a leader who is approachable and keeps them informed about what is going on.

Employees prefer leaders who let them know honestly where they stand and what their chances of advancement are.  They want a leader who gives them a sense of importance, who makes them feel that they are valued members of the team and that they are doing a worthwhile job.  They want a leader who has ordered work habits (someone who plans the work and works to the plan), who has well-defined objectives and who organises resources efficiently.

People want supervisors who promote teamwork by emphasising the positive rather than the negative aspects of their performance and who provide opportunities to get their ideas heard.  Employees like to work for supervisors who are fair and impartial in their dealings, and who set a good example.


Dr Brian Monger is Executive Director of MAANZ International and an internationally known consultant with over 45 years of experience assisting both large and small companies with their projects.  He is also a highly effective and experienced trainer and educator

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