Some of the greatest achievements in history have been brought about by people who were not in positions of authority. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi are just two examples of informal leadership affecting large-scale change. Informal leaders are those who see a problem and go beyond their station of authority to address it. There can be many benefits to leading outside the constraints of authority, such as the ability to raise uncomfortable questions, focus on a single issue and gain frontline information. This last point is critical. Informal leaders are closer to their stakeholders and therefore gain a detailed perspective on the group’s thoughts, feelings, values and habits. Those in formal positions of authority often operate at too great a distance to be able to glean this valuable information.
This selection from Ronald Heifetz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers discusses the differences between leadership and authority. Heifetz uses historical figures as examples of how some informal leaders—such as Margaret Sanger and Gandhi—have ultimately taken on formal roles of authority by gaining the trust and admiration of the people. His thinking may be particularly useful in considering the power dynamics when dealing with boards.
Getting a front line perspective is something that nonprofit organizations strive to achieve. However, this can be difficult due to the constraints and politics involved with a formal system of leadership. Reading this chapter, we wonder how these organizations could benefit from creating a culture where dissenting opinions and a breadth of ideas are heard. Perhaps the next best idea for your organization will come not from the head of the table, but from your customers themselves.