How to Become an Informal Leader

woman leading a team at a meeting

You are more than your job title.

Formal leadership is one that is tied to a job title or rank. Think CEOs, directors, and managers. Because of their hierarchy in the workplace, formal leaders have the authority to influence opinion and make impactful decisions in the organization. 

Informal leadership, on the other hand, is connected to one’s reputation, experience, and skills. Informal leaders also hold a high degree of influence in their organization. While they may not have a formal CEO or manager job title, their experience and leadership qualities have earned them the respect of their peers and higher-ups. 

The benefits of becoming an informal leader

If you feel pigeon-holed by your job title or if you believe your current position isn’t reflective of your talent and potential, becoming an informal leader can help you bridge that divide and reach that next step in your career.

Being an informal leader can help you:

  • Feel empowered
  • Build a good reputation
  • Raise your visibility
  • Put you in a good position for a promotion 
  • Develop a strong community and network

Want to become an informal leader? Key questions to ask yourself 

How does one become an informal leader? In order to answer that question, take a moment to do some self-reflection work. It’s a good idea to assess where you’re currently at before figuring out where you’d like to ultimately end up. 

Here are some key questions to ask yourself. 

What are my strengths? What are my interests?

Maybe you have a passion for design or you have strong opinions on office culture or you’re the type of person who can connect with others easily. Let your skills and interests serve as a compass, pointing you in the right direction of where you can display your talents. 

Also, what do people come to you for? Are you the go-to person in your office for all things IT-related? Do your coworkers flock to you for career advice? Are you known as someone who can give great pep talks and motivate others? You can build on this reputation.

If you’re unsure where your strengths lie, ask yourself: what is something that I could spend hours on? A natural interest in a topic is a good indication that you’ll be excited to develop your skills and share your knowledge with others. 

What are my weaknesses? What are my fears?

Sometimes, it’s not your strengths that help you rise in the workplace, but your perceived flaws, insecurities, and weaknesses.

Maybe you have a fear of public speaking. Or you’re worried that you’ll never be able to balance your family and work obligations. 

If you have any work-related fears or insecurities, chances are many of your colleagues feel the same way too. And in this day and age when everyone shares their perfect lives on social media, it can be a breath of fresh air to see someone who is honest and frank about their weaknesses. 

Julie Zhou, author of The Making of a Manager, became a new manager at 25, and had no idea what to do. She began sharing her fears and challenges of being a new leader, and her stories struck a chord with others who were also having a hard time navigating this role.

When being honest about your struggles in the workplace, you’ll still want to be professional about it, and be mindful of your office culture. Maybe start small at first. Confiding in a colleague or two, and then slowly developing your network of people, and being a sounding board for others. 

Define your goals

Take some time to reflect on your professional goals. Where would you ultimately like to be at the end of the year or in two years? If that time frame seems too big and overwhelming, then think short term. What would you like to be doing in three months? Or one month?

So if your goal is to move away from being an admin assistant to doing more substantive work, what informal leadership skills can you demonstrate to help you move up?

Or if you would like to earn the respect of your peers, what steps can you take to build credibility and share your knowledge with others by the end of the year?

Develop your informal leadership skills

Now that you’ve finished your self-reflection exercises and identified your goals, it’s time to examine the different areas that you can work on to help you become an informal leader.

Remember: You don’t have to develop everything at once. Set a goal to work on one particular aspect of your leadership qualities each week or month. 

Become a respected source. If you have a unique talent or specialized skill, make sure to keep putting in the work to build trust and credibility.

Becoming a respected source could mean cross-referencing your sources or consulting with others who share your knowledge or being detail-oriented. Set the bar high for yourself so others know they can trust your work.

While it may take some time to create word-of-mouth, your talent and hard work will inevitably shine. 

Share information. Informal leaders are eager to share their knowledge with others. Whether it’s sharing advice on how you got your job or blogging about do’s and don’ts in your industry, your information is a valuable resource. 

And when you share, you’ll be surprised by the generosity and willingness of others who want to share their knowledge in return. 

Be genuine. If you’re just doing something for the social media likes or networking potential, it will be obvious to others. Embrace the things that you genuinely enjoy doing. And embrace who you really are as a person. Don’t pretend to be overly confident if that’s not your style. Or show interest in a trend because others like it. It is your willingness to be authentic that people will naturally respond to.

Develop relationships. Take the time to build relationships in your professional life. If you’re worried about coming across as a schmoozer, try to shift your focus and remember to be genuine. 

Of course, it helps to connect with people you genuinely respect and like. And don’t disregard someone just because they’re a lower rank or position than you.

Too often, we feel the need to connect with certain people just because of their popularity or authority. Warren Buffet’s rule of thumb is to only do business with people he trusts and admires, and avoid doing business with bad people.

That’s sound advice that anyone can follow.

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