The power of informal authority: Unlocking your leadership potential 

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Last week, I ran a workshop for a group of 17 leaders. It was a public program which meant that each of the leaders came from a different organisation and from what I could tell by the participant list, from several different industries, too. 

About 20 minutes before the workshop started, I received a text from one of the participants. Unfortunately, she had tested positive to COVID and wouldn’t be able to attend. But given that her spot had been paid for and she wasn’t sure when she would next be able to take time out for an external course, she was sending someone else along in her place. His name was Gavin, and he was on his way, but would probably be a few minutes late. 

Before getting stuck into the ‘real’ workshop content, I typically let the participants know what my expectations are for the program (in other words what I expect from them in terms of focus, contribution, collaboration, etc). I then hand over to the group and ask them to introduce themselves and share what their expectations are of me, and what they are hoping to take away from the course. 

Gavin walked in as we were about half-way through the group doing their introductions. He waved, made a ‘sorry I’m late’ gesture, and found an empty seat at one of the tables. 

Clearly I wasn’t the only one somewhat surprised to notice just how young Gavin looked compared to the other leaders in the room. 

Once everyone else had introduced themselves, all eyes were on Gavin. 

“My name is Gavin”, he said confidently. “I’m six months into my first graduate program rotation at [company name]. Yes it’s my first real job after university”. 

You could have heard a pin drop. 

“I’m currently shadowing one of the sales directors who’s come down with COVID. I can show everyone my negative RAT if anyone wants to see it.” 

A few laughs from around the room. 

“What I’m really keen to take away from this course is how to expand my informal authority as an aspiring leader”. 

“You’re already doing it, mate”, one of the other participants said. 

More laughter. 

“And I really hope everyone here takes me seriously”, Gavin continued. “I can see that I’m clearly a lot younger than most people in the room. But I’m a sponge. And I’m very grateful to be here and I want to learn as much as I can”. 

Applause erupted around the room. 

I could tell it was going to be a great two days. 

Even before getting into the crux of the workshop, and probably without actually realising it, Gavin had just reminded the group that whilst informal authority might be important for an aspiring leader, along with formal authority, it is just as important when it comes to succeeding as an experienced leader.  

The path to leadership success is not solely paved by formal authority.  

In fact, expanding your informal authority can significantly enhance your ability to lead, influence, and inspire others. 

Formal authority typically comes with a job title, is associated with someone’s official position or role within an organisational hierarchy and implies an ability to make decisions and enforce policies.  

In contrast, informal authority is based more on personal attributes, the ability to inspire and guide others. While both types of authority play important roles in the workplace, informal authority allows individuals to lead and influence others based on personal qualities and relationships rather than relying solely on their official roles and reinforces why true leadership goes beyond positional power. 

Informal authority is often derived from factors such as knowledge, charisma, trustworthiness, and the ability to effectively communicate with others. It is based on the respect and recognition that individuals gain from their peers, allowing them to influence others in a non-coercive manner. 

One of the fundamental pillars of informal authority is trust.  

For any leader, establishing trust and rapport with your team members is key. When you cultivate authentic relationships, you create an environment where people feel safe to share ideas, collaborate, and support each other. By demonstrating integrity, empathy, and active listening, you build trust and credibility, becoming a leader who others naturally turn to for guidance and advice. 

Expanding your informal authority allows you to unlock your power to impact and influence.  

After all, leadership is not about issuing orders; it’s about inspiring others to contribute their best efforts willingly. 

Who can you think of who doesn’t necessarily have an official ‘leader’ or ‘manager’ job title, but who nevertheless can drive change and motivate others to achieve common goals; whose ideas carry weight, and whose colleagues respect their knowledge and see them as a trusted source? 

Informal authority is often derived from those who lead by example even when they aren’t listed as a leader on the org chart. 

When you consistently demonstrate the behaviours, values, and work ethic you expect from others, you inspire them to follow suit. Your integrity and willingness to go over and above the call of duty are traits others want to emulate. By embodying the qualities of an effective leader, you earn the respect and admiration of your peers, solidifying your informal authority and creating positive change. 

Remember that your leadership journey is not solely defined by formal authority. At the same time, though, expanding your informal authority takes time and consistent effort. 

Are you looking to expand your informal authority? 

If so, it’s important to focus on developing meaningful connections with your colleagues and stakeholders. Take the time to understand their perspectives, show genuine interest, and above all be approachable. Share your knowledge with others, offer insights, and be a resource for your teammates. Listen actively and empathetically and be open to different viewpoints. Be proactive, take initiative, engage in cross-functional projects, volunteer for initiatives, embrace feedback and learn from both your successes and failures. 

*       *       * 

It wasn’t the first time someone booked into a workshop had sent along a replacement at the last minute due to unforeseen circumstances. However, it was definitely a first for a graduate to take the place of a senior leader on one of my courses. 

Gavin had clearly already demonstrated huge potential in the team he was working with, and I applaud the sales director who suggested Gavin come along in her place. 

Throughout the two days, Gavin held his own and contributed to the discussion as much if not more than some of the more experienced leaders in the room. 

He truly embraced the power of informal authority and I look forward to keeping a close eye on this aspiring leader as his career no doubt flourishes in the years ahead. 

Remember,  hellomonday can provide support to every leader, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, helping leaders harness the power of informal authority and unlock their true leadership potential. 

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