Differences Between Formal & Informal Leaders: The Advantages Associated With Each

Differences Between Formal & Informal Leaders: The Advantages Associated With Each
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Formal vs Informal: Which is Better?

One of the more interesting questions posed by these two concepts of leadership asks which form of leadership works the best? One the one hand, you have formal leaders who hold power that is more absolute because they hold official positions. On the other, you have informal leaders who are selected by their peers, which means people willingly choose to follow this person.

There are many situations for which informal leadership is great. It can help with cherry-picking people with leadership qualities to become formal leaders. Also, it creates a more relaxed environment for those working on a smaller, less intricate project. Informal leaders can also be great in non-project situations as they can act as guides for less experienced workers around the office. Using or exercising informal leadership qualities is a great way to better yourself in a formal leadership position, allowing you to exercise power with charm rather than authority.

The reality, however, is that in a situation where a project needs to be managed effectively, informal leadership tends to be a wild card concept. You can have an informal leader who handles the situation with grace and ability or one who is unable to get the results required by your company’s standards. That’s where formal leaders shine; despite the more authoritative atmosphere workers, are more likely to stay on task and projects are better handled.

Informal Leadership

Informal leaders are charismatic and helpful people.

Informal leadership is more of an abstract concept, but it’s one that we should all be familiar with. Informal leaders are those who are not officially designated as leaders but are often called upon or considered by their peers to be the authoritative figure. What’s interesting about informal leaders is that there is no attention to the fact that they are in charge; their leadership is rarely ever mentioned. Subconciously, we can be drawn to informal leaders based on their experience, charisma, and other factors that make them more trustworthy or guiding.

While there are differences with informal and formal leaderships, sometimes formal leaders can be informal, though this can only be done with those outside their authority. For example, a businessman can aspire to be a high powered CEO or government official and as a result mimic or change his ways to match that leader’s way of doing things. In a nutshell, informal leadership is 90% influence and inspiration while the other 10% is suggestion.

There are plenty of pitfalls that go alongside informal leadership. Since an informal leader can be just about anyone, it’s easy for groups to choose a leader based on superficial reasons, rather than select potential leaders based on true leadership qualities. Informal leaders also cannot exercise any sort of authority in order to get a project done, which can become troublesome in a situation where full cooperation is required to get things done.

Examples of Informal Leaders

Martin Luther King Jr NYWTS

Informal leaders can be anyone and they might not even really know it. The thing about informal leadership is that the judgement on whether or not an informal leader should be followed is based on an almost subconscious level and sometimes for superficial reasons. Informal leaders often spring up as the strongest or most attractive or most intelligent and maybe a combination of all three of these qualities or none of them at all.

Charisma, social status, and wealth all play a big part in the selection of informal leadership. Though superficial, we often try and emulate or at least network with these considerably well-off people in the hopes that as a result we will end up just as, if not more, successful.

While no one can say what type of person makes up the most common group of informal leaders, the most recognizable are particularly charismatic activists, celebrities, or athletes.

Some notable informal leaders include:

  • Martin Luther King Jr., African-American Civil Right’s activist, used his considerable charisma and determination to help end race segregation in the United States.
  • Michael J. Fox, American actor, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and uses his illness and star power to advocate the continued funding and research of stem-cells for a cure.
  • Stephen Fry, British actor, writer, and humanitarian, uses his considerable talents and personality to entertain and influence political, world, and spiritual views as well as contribute to a wealth of charitable efforts.
  • Jared Fogle, Subway Spokesperson, inspired thousands of people world-wide to diet and exercise to live a healthier life-style.

Formal Leadership

Parliment leaders are officially appointed formal leaders.

Formal leadership is perhaps one of the most common and most recognizable forms of leadership that we use. The simplest way to define formal leadership is to say that anyone who reaches a leadership position by way of some official appointment, including voting or being appointed by a superior, is a formal leader. Project managers often fit in this category because the position usually requires a level of authority in order to keep things moving.

Formal leaders wield their authority directly. They are able to task with subordinates with responsibilities that they are expected to meet in a timely manner and serve as experienced individuals that employees can come to for advice and feedback. Formal leaders can also use informal leaders in order to gain some support. For example, presidential candidates can rely on the financial support and endorsement of celebrities in order to gain a considerable following from the public which can identify more with their favorite role models. In one particular case, during the 2008 United States presidential election Barack Obama gained several celebrity endorsements such as Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney, and Samuel L. Jackson while John McCain has been endorsed by Robert Duvall, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Angie Harmon.

On the downside, formal leadership creates the obvious sense that employees are being handled or controlled. Professional leaders will have no problem maintaining a balance between boss and co-worker, but it can still lower team morale if this power is being abused.

Examples of Formal Leaders

Elected and appointed government officials are formal leaders.

Formal leaders can come in just about any form because they are selected as the cream of the crop. Typically, some common traits are that this person has to be charismatic and trustworthy and/or well-versed in the type of projects they lead making them ideal for sharing experience and knowing what they’re doing.

Since formal leadership is so much more common and noticeable than informal leadership, it’s not hard to pick them out of a line-up. Presidents, monarchs, CEOs, principals, project managers, teachers, or even a shift manager at a fast food restraunt are all types of formal leaders because they were chosen to fit that role by an authority figure or their peers.

Some notable leaders include:

  • Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, Chairman of the American Red Cross, was appointed by President George W. Bush in June 2004.
  • Robert Greifeld, CEO and President of NASDAQ, was appointed by the NASDAQ Board of Directors in May, 2003.
  • Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States, was elected by the citizens of the United States in January, 2009
  • David Cameron, United Kingdom Prime Minister, was appointed by Queen Elizabeth II in May, 2010


All images are from Flickr, used for promotional purposes only and are listed in the order they appear.

Leaders discussion before opening parliment by European Parliment

Discussion Leader by Evan Hamilton

Thought Leaders in Brand Management Conference by Brand Management Conference - Lugano


_Eastern Washington University College of Business and Public Administration. Chapter 14: Leadership Basics. Retrieved at https://www.cbpa.ewu.edu/~pnemetzmills/326ch14.html_

_Leadership Expert (blog). Leadership Exposed. Retrieved at https://www.leadership-expert.co.uk/leadership-exposed/_