by Captain Ian Martin, Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services
Officers within an organization can reap huge benefits from cultivating and developing informal leaders. When the informal leader works within the leader’s goals and vision, they can take away much of the burden a leader manages. In fact some of the management functions informally can be carried out by the informal leader, but still have no actual authority.
In a way, informal leaders carry more capabilities than the formal leader. This may seem strange, but not having the position of authority, the informal leader can say and do things that may have a greater influence on the team than the actual leader. Their influence can be expressed in a more personal way and can influence in a slightly different manner.
The informal leaders are highly respected by the crew or team and can sometimes be trusted more. This leader has been with the crew for some time and has gained there trust. Their influences will be seen differently than would the formal leader. Not all informal leaders have slated themselves as so; sometimes they are simply the informal leader because others on the crew have a great respect for them.
While informal leaders can be an important part to the success of the leader, it can also work against them. The informal leader can pull the crew in a direction away from the leader. This opposition can be detrimental to the leader’s mission and vision. To combat this, work to develop the informal leader, have an open communication line. Avoid putting the informal leader in position that will break the trust and respect they have earned from the crew.
One of the greater advantages in utilizing an informal leader is when implementing change. Informal leaders are great influencers. They are most influential when a group is first exposed to change. As the crew becomes more certain and experiences succeed, the informal leaders influence may diminish, simply due to the necessity of influence being unwarranted.
Informal leaders also can be excellent followers. Although a follower is thought of as weak, ineffectual, or prone to failure, followers can easily move in and out of an informal leadership role by supplying energy, enthusiasm and interest. Followers also have emotional attachment to the leader, and through mentorship may become an informal leader themselves.
In my experience, I have had good success with an informal leader at the station. Situations are sometimes taken better being addressed by the informal leader versus the officer of the station. It is simply due to the aforementioned criteria of an informal leader. The respect and trust of the informal leader brings meaning to the issues that cannot be recognized by the leader or officer.
Unfortunately, I have also had poor experiences with an informal leader. Much of this was my own fault and my failure to communicate well and not setting a clear vision of what was expected.
An officer’s role can bring many challenges when dealing with the crew. Take advantage of your informal leader in dealing with issues that can be better resolved through a person they trust, respect and follow.
Ian Martin is a Captain with Cobb County Fire and Emergency Services. He has 22 years of service and is currently stationed at Station 19. He holds an Associate’s Degree in Fire Science and a Bachelor’s Degree in Emergency Management.