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The advantages of informal authority

By Sam S. Rainer III
Ambitious leaders often pursue positions with formal authority. It makes sense. Those who desire to lead want the official capacity to do so. Positions with titles imply a legitimate endorsement to lead. But there is an advantage to leading with informal authority. Informal leaders have no official titles and no authoritative positions, yet they can wield much influence.

While much power comes from formal positions with legitimate authority, a different kind of power is found in leadership roles with informal authority. How is this power exhibited?

Informal authority allows leaders to raise difficult questions. Leaders without titles and positions can vocalize the questions everyone is thinking. Some questions are so difficult that if top leaders began posing them, people might question the viability of the organization. For instance, imagine the media reaction if our president openly began asking about what’s really going on at Area 51. Whether or not the president really knows the answer, such questions are better suited for people with informal authority.

Informal authority allows leaders to focus on one issue. Top leaders typically deal with a number of issues within an organization. Such is the nature of positions with formal authority. A CEO must be concerned about human resources, cash flow, marketing, and public relations. An individual with informal authority, however, is free to focus on more nuanced and narrow issues, or even a singular issue.

Informal authority allows leaders to break through formal hierarchies, policies and protocols. Formal authority, by design, has a hierarchy with an expected protocol. A leader with informal authority, however, is not bound by the structure of a formal authority system. A school superintendent, for example, must follow certain protocols in dealing with problems. An informal leader at the school, however, has more flexibility in breaking through these formalities and can deal with the problem in a way the superintendent cannot.

Informal authority allows leaders the flexibility not to be a figurehead for all people in the organization. Top leaders with formal authority must act on behalf of all people within an organization. They represent the people. They speak on behalf of the people. Leaders with informal authority do not have to act as figureheads. Unlike formal leaders, informal leaders can offend some and play favorites with others to accomplish a goal.

Informal authority has its limits, but also its advantages. Organizations need both informal and formal leaders in order to keep power and authority balanced.

Sam S. Rainer III serves as president of Rainer Research (rainerresearch.com), a firm dedicated to providing answers for better church health. He also is the senior pastor at Stevens Street Baptist Church in Cookeville, TN. He writes, speaks, and consults on church health issues. You can connect with Sam at @samrainer or at his blog, samrainer.wordpress.com.

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