Academic journal article Journal of Leadership Studies

Formal vs. Informal Leading: A Comparative Analysis

Academic journal article Journal of Leadership Studies

Formal vs. Informal Leading: A Comparative Analysis

Article excerpt

Executive Summary

Though we recognize informal leadership and its role in small groups, little research has been done on informal leading in organizations. This exploratory national study set out to determine whether there is a difference between formal leaders, those in a position of leadership, and informal leaders, those not in a formal position of leadership but recognized as leaders nevertheless. Six areas of interest consisting of 161 variables were investigated using an instrument based on an earlier metaethnographic study of leadership (Pielstick, 1996, 1998). The six areas were: shared vision, communication, relationships, community, guidance, and character. All six areas showed significant differences between formal and informal leaders with informal leaders scoring higher in each area. Of the 161 variables, 87 (54%) showed a significant difference between formal and informal leaders. All but four of these showed higher scores for informal leaders.


Informal leadership has been recognized as an important factor in organizational behavior (Bass, 1990a; Doloff, 1999; Hall, 1986; Han, 1983; Robins & Zirinsky, 1996; Senge, 1996; Sink, 1998; Weiss, 1978; Wheelan, 1996; Whitaker, 1995). Nevertheless, a search of the literature reveals very little beyond a few references to informal leadership in small groups. For example, in his exhaustive review of the literature, Bass (1990a) identifies research on informal leadership only in the context of leading group discussions. Confirming this are similar findings from Bass & Steidlmeier (1999) and Wheelan (1996). Two organizational behavior textbooks (Kreitner & Kinicki, 1998; McShane & Von Glinow, 2000) include no mention of informal leadership and only brief discussion of informal groups.

There is very little information available that compares these two processes of leading in leadership research. In fact, most research is done on formal leaders, those in a "position" of leadership. This complicates the analysis of the process of leading due to ways that these leaders may use the various forms of authority and power (Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999; Fairholm, 1998; French & Raven, 1959) available to persons in these positions: legitimate, coercion, and reward (specifically extrinsic reward). In other words, the formal authority of persons in positions of leadership may mask the process of leading.

Informal leaders, those not in positions of leadership but recognized as leaders nevertheless, do not have such authority at their disposal. Accordingly, they must rely on "authentic leading" rather than "power-wielding" tactics available to formal leaders (Pielstick, 2000), although formal leaders may not necessarily use those tactics. Is there a significant difference between actual formal and informal leaders in the workplace regarding the use of authority? What other similarities and differences are there?

As a basis of comparison, the author turned to an earlier meta-ethnographic study emphasizing transformational leadership (Pielstick, 1996, 1998) that detailed a comprehensive "leader profile." This profile, later articulated as "authentic leading" (Pielstick, 2000), described leadership in terms of six major themes: shared vision, communication, relationships, community, guidance, and character.

Shared Vision

Shared vision emerged as the touchstone theme of authentic leadership. Vision is the most common distinguishing characteristic identified with leadership overall, and authentic leadership specifically. "The single defining quality of leaders is the capacity to create and realize a vision" (Bennis, 1993, p. 216). Burns (1978) stated that "such leadership occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality" (p. 20). Such a higher purpose transcends the individual. …

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