Formal v Informal Authority

People often ask me whats the difference between formal and informal authority and which do I feel is more important.

Whenever someone is promoted to a Leadership position, there usually a formal level of authority which comes with the role. So this authority is usually given by someone senior, so it invariably comes from above.

This authority is associated with the position, e.g. in the Head of Architecture position, the role holder usually has authority over such things as the Architecture decisions, direction, and all of the staff within the Architecture team. They have the power and control of this area.

With informal authority, this is not something which comes from being nominated to a formal position. This authority is usually bestowed by the people within an organization, i.e. it comes from below rather than above. Informal authority can be granted for any number of reasons: level of trust; level of expertise; personality; charisma; or characteristics; etc.

With informal authority, the holder becomes an informal leader within of an organization. They play a critical role in the effectiveness of the organization, as they may, at times, wield more power than the formal authorities.

So which is better, formal or informal authority?

This is a tough question to answer.

Ideally, if we have got our talent management processes working correctly, then we should be promoting people who are already informal leaders. Especially since they are probably trusted, have good expertise, are respected, etc., etc. This would then make their promotion understandable, and more readily accepted by the teams that they will look to lead.

I always remember a line from the movie Braveheart, when William Wallace talks Robert the Bruce about leadership.

Wallace says “Your title gives you claim to the throne of our country, but men don’t follow titles, they follow courage. Now our people know you. Noble, and common, they respect you. And if you would just lead them to freedom, they’d follow you. And so would I”.

I agree with this statement, people don’t follow titles, they might do what they are told to do, but they are just following orders, and this is not the same as really following a leader.

With informal leadership people had a choice and they chose to follow you.

With formal leadership, it’s not really the same, and if given the choice, then the teams may choose not to follow you.

I would encourage anyone who wants to be a leader to focus on developing informal leadership skills, if you can do that, then you will show that not only are you are ready to be a leader, but that people are ready to follow you.

This is why, wherever possible, I try to implement leadership training at all levels, so that people can start to learn leadership skills and put them into practice in their current roles, where no formal authority exists.

I am always wary of people who wait to be appointed to a leadership position before they start leading. I tend to see them as people who are more interested in power and authority, than actually leading. In my experience, these types of leaders do not attract many followers.

Both types of authority and important, but if i could only choose one, I would take the informal.