Informal leaders of organization design projects

Typically designated organisational leaders draw on formal authority, control of resources, and use of organisational structure, rules and regulations. But they have to draw on other sources depending on the situation. In many organisation design projects formal leadership is vested in consultants or contractors who are not directly employed by the enterprise. These leaders have to use different sources of power – while they may have formal authority they may not control resources or the use of organisational structures. If these 'outsider' leaders are not skilled at identifying and using the power sources at their disposal they often get sidelined for not being 'one of us'.

As well as the organisation design leaders – those in the formal designated roles shown in discussed yesterday (August 17 2010) or the consultants mentioned above – there are others inside the organisation who can wield power to influence or control organisation design work. These may be people with positional power (i.e. in other leadership roles but not directly involved with the organisation design project) or they may be people who do not have any formal leadership position but who can influence the behaviour of people by wielding other types of power; these informal leaders may have more impact on an organisation design than the formal leaders.

Informal leaders emerge in organisations usually because they have a particular passion or belief and have characteristics which engage people in their cause. These informal leaders are found at any level in the hierarchy because what they spearhead is independent of hierarchy.

Informal leaders muster support not only by their approach but also by their use of referent power (which derives from the belief that people have in them after seeing them in action) and their personal characteristics including their:

• Support of subordinates
• Intolerance for poor quality
• Lack of political orientation
• High regard for competence
• Admission of error and failure
• Standing up for values and beliefs
• Outspokenness and candor
• High ethics and integrity
• Calmness and effectiveness in crises
• Sharing of victories and a sense of fair play
• Ability to influence without authority

Whistleblowers – those who expose misconduct in the workplace – share these characteristics and also have the power to change the design of the organisation but they usually find that they are not able to rock the boat and stay in it:

Informal leaders can initiate new organisation design work by their actions or they can intervene in an already initiated project. To achieve their goals they use predominantly referent power combined with an approach and a set of characteristics which enables them to muster support without jeopardizing their position.
Being able to influence without authority is at the heart of an informal leader's ability to get what is wanted – often a tricky thing to do in difficult situations where, for example, there is no opportunity for a second chance, or there is a lot of resistance from another person or group. In these instances a systematic approach to influencing helps.

(As a sidenote: One of the most useful influencing skills courses I ever attended was run by the Impact Factory (UK). I frequently practice one of the techniques I learned on their course of acting your way into feeling and thus coming across as on the same level as the person you are interacting with. It works very well if someone is trying to use positional power as to your disadvantage).

If you would like to read more on the leadership of organization design projects look at my books: Organisation Design: the collaborative approach, or The Economist Guide to Organization Design. Both discuss this topic in more detail.