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Legacy of Leadership Part 2: Informal Leadership.


Criminal Justice

Developing your leadership environment in law enforcement – Informal Leadership

In this series, we reflect on the four overarching categories of leadership within law enforcement and how each stage offers unique opportunities for professional (and personal) growth. In our first installment, The Beginning, some of the key points we made may have seemed rudimentary and fundamental. I am sure most of you already knew before reading the journal that having a good work ethic, displaying a genuinely positive attitude, and maintaining respectful relationships with others will help you succeed. What you may not know is the first article also provided some essential steps in our journey together: a starting point to understand your partner, reflect on those you gravitate towards, and possibly come to the realization that not everyone does the “small things” leading to the next level. In our Legacy of Leadership series, that next level is The Informal Leader.

Where do these magical informal leaders come from, or where is the seed planted to ensure they grow? Honestly, we believe most informal leaders have no plan (we said most…), nor do they think they will be the next chief of your agency; instead, it is the joy of doing well and having a purpose that motivates most informal leaders. Becoming an informal leader is usually not a conscious decision and is certainly not something you interview for. Still, ironically, some would say the position is the most influential in any organization (especially law enforcement). That is a compelling statement, but since informal leaders influence internal culture, morale, and loyalty within an agency, it cannot be discounted. John Maxwell takes this point further when he reminds us that “leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less” (2002). Suppose we reflect on that simple statement and build on the premise from The Beginning when we came to understand that title and rank are not necessary to wield significant influence. In that case, we can conclude that informal leadership is about personal mindset, experience, and most importantly, the ability to enlist others – positively or negatively effectively.

Since the word negatively was just mentioned, let us get this question out of the way early in this article; “Are all informal leaders healthy for you and your department?” – no, of course not! Those are the folks we call “ring-leaders” driving the toxic bandwagon of destruction, hoping to spread their dreadful virus throughout your department and garner support from whoever will listen and jump on. Don’t let this be you; most importantly, don’t encourage this behavior in others. There are probably a few informal leaders within your department who fit the bill or are “ring-leaders in training”; please redirect those employees (or yourself) on a new path before it is too late. Retired law enforcement officer and now a behavior scientist consultant, Kevin Gilmartin, talk about cynicism in his book Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement; watch for those officers who are tipping the cynical scale and deflating your positive energy or environment. Your role is to influence or recognize the informal leader positively; what you do with it is your choice. Think of those healthy informal leaders who create a positive influence and are a benefit to you and your agency; nobody enjoys cancerous and destructive leaders. If you do, keep reading, and hopefully, we can shift your path, and maybe you can utilize your expertise as a benefit instead of a self-defeating trait.

As we continue to talk about informal leaders, remember we are talking about “leading without a title, “ which generally includes those presently inline-level positions. This is because authority and positional power are given once a person has brass on their collar or resides in the corner office (or at least it is expected). Maxwell (2011) puts these points into better perspective when he identifies his first two myths of leading from the middle of an organization as “I can’t lead if I am not at the top” and “when I get to the top, then I’ll learn to lead.” In that context, this article will also assist with dispelling those myths and emphasize the importance of informal leadership in law enforcement.

If we do not consciously decide to be an informal leader, how do we know if we have reached this stage? When this question is posed to others, the responses are usually grounded in the time when others started coming to them for guidance, advice, or direction in some form or fashion. This could be where informal leadership begins, but it is certainly not where it should end. When we speak to this critical stage, we are talking about consistently establishing trust in others, which leads to a positive reputation. If a person has a good reputation, peers call and ask for professional guidance. If this often happens enough and your reach extends farther into the organization, you move into the realm of coach or mentor, which to us is the informal leader at its highest level – but it takes time.

What do informal leaders do with the information they don’t agree with or about unpopular decisions by the agency creating angst among the troops? What about when the informal leader didn’t get a promotion or particular assignment? We both have been in these positions several times. The informal leaders find solutions; they don’t “knee jerk” respond; they understand the agency’s point of view, look at concerns systemically, and learn from failures or missed opportunities. What have you done in these situations, or what is your plan when things go sideways for you? Reflect on this for a moment… you need to understand your frame of mind and attitude.

When a person moves from the problem-identifier position to include the problem-solution mode, it indicates a significant change in leadership stages. We all know those people who throw their hands up in the air in frustration when something additional or unexpected is thrown their way – they have not reached the stage of informal leadership. I would imagine not many people coming to them for guidance. Take the same situation, and while frustration may be building inside, the person accepts the ‘new reality,’ then uses their energy to adjust or develop solutions to the issue immediately. This is where flexibility and situational leadership present themselves. The sooner a person understands that a one-size-fits-all approach does not apply in most situations, the better off they will be. It took us a long time to realize that, and looking back; it could have saved us a great deal of stress if it had been embraced earlier in our careers – we know, easier said than done!

At its core, informal leadership develops when trust and reputation are perfectly intertwined with experience and maturity. For example, suppose a highly-educated person attempts to offer unsolicited advice to someone early in their care before developing a reputation. In that case, the perception can be one of arrogance. In the same respect, if an experienced, well-seasoned officer offers advice, but that information is not grounded in basic knowledge of policy or law, the perception could be ignorance or being ‘out of touch with present-day policing. In either case, the advice will fall on deaf ears, and influence will not occur. When experience and knowledge are perfectly combined, respect is earned, and trust is established.

Probably more than any other stage, informal leadership within law enforcement requires courage because peer pressure and cynicism are alive and well in the profession. As I (Jeremy) reflect, the turn into informal leadership came when I consciously decided to address rumors rather than blindly perpetuate or promote them. This effort was not easy, but when unsubstantiated information (i.e., word) came to my doorstep, my action plan was to identify the source, seek them out and ask them directly about it. After that, it is vital to go back to the person who brought it to you in the first place to correct the information. Rumors and conjectures can create widespread, toxic work environments; the informal organizational leader is the first defense preventing that from happening. What do you do when gossip hits your doorstep?

An informal leader also develops a better understanding of followership and ‘leading-up.’ This is not about being a “yes man or woman”; instead, it’s about respect, understanding your role, and building trust with professional communication. According to Maxwell (2011), if we add value to those above us, we can influence the best. This expands our leadership reach to our peers and subordinates and those in formal positions above us in the chain of command. When that happens, your trust and reputation are bolstered again, and your informal leadership is strengthened. Informal leaders can dramatically influence various aspects of the organization at its peak and when it is done in a correct, respectful way. Good formal leaders (supervisors) recognize this relationship and understand how critical informal leaders are when implementing organizational change, effective succession planning, and empowering others. Informal leaders affect change and are responsible for the health of corporate culture; this is often overlooked and undervalued.

Informal leadership does not happen overnight, and it is not something a person “turns on or shuts off’ – it requires patience and consistency in action. Informal leaders learn many traits, styles, and approaches from those around them (other informal leaders), formal leaders, parents, friends, former coaches, etc. It is sometimes difficult to determine, but we also believe everyday leadership can be intrinsic. Performing consciously or within your subconscious, genuine leadership comes from within. Just about all members of the law enforcement family have some form of leadership skills. Many of those skills fall within the beginning or informal stages of leadership, and thus why we continue to reflect on why each of these individual categories is so important.

As I (Jason) moved from my Beginning to an Informal Leadership role, I found myself driven by particular job duties I enjoyed or what gave me motivation, doing better than expected (a learned trait from The Beginning) and moving beyond the status quo. I didn’t know it then, but I was genuinely building leadership skills as I drove along within my career by simply doing what I enjoyed. My instructor roles (hard skills) took off as I began my career in law enforcement and building skills for other law enforcement officers was rewarding. In my case, having the authority, freedom, and ability to take firearms training to a higher level was a catalyst for future endeavors and informal leadership roles. I noticed what I just said in my last sentence? I was given “authority, freedom, and ability” to do good things! Earning the trust of your formal leaders is critical for them, allowing you such freedom to try something new. Looking back, this was a huge reason my informal leadership roles were so successful and enjoyable; I can only thank those formal leaders who believed in me years ago. But everyday leadership is not simply about building trust in those above you; more importantly, it is about those around you. Line level trust, accountability, and respect are paramount.

In most cases, a point is reached within any informal leader when they feel comfortable in their role and want a new challenge. For me (Jeremy), this meant taking on more responsibilities and, at the same time, maintaining my current work ethic in the role that I was in. Specifically, I volunteered for committees, pilot projects, and additional training sessions and lead instructor positions within the organization. Once again, this goes back to the points at The Beginning, where taking on time-consuming tasks that may not be appealing to others can set you apart as an informal leader. This premise of selflessness seems to hold in every stage of leadership and can open the next door of your journey.

Also, when I (Jeremy) reached this stage of comfort in leadership, I began my first research into returning to formal education and earning higher academic degrees. Naturally, the concern of being able to dedicate enough time to family and work and then adding the stress of taking college classes was something to consider. In the end, along with the exciting classes I took, the entire experience also honed my time management and prioritization skills, which are beautiful proficiencies to develop no matter your leadership stage. Ironically, I (Jason) found the passion for lifelong learning and additional formal education as a catalyst for growing as an informal leader, professionally and personally. It wasn’t about having a degree but more about becoming more well-rounded, looking at situations systemically, and understanding what is important in life while dragging myself out of the linear world I lived within. This impacted my move into the informal leadership stage and eventually into a formal leadership role.

After several years of working within informal leadership roles, we both finally felt comfortable taking the next step and tackling formal leadership roles within the organization (or thought so). This involved preparing for written testing, panel interviews, and other requirements of the promotional process. Our next article, The Formal Leader, will provide insights into that phase. Still, talking about the informal leader’s behaviors and actions is essential before reaching the next stage. A great deal of work and pride is invested to achieve the goal of promotion, but what happens when the rug is pulled out from underneath you and the job is offered to someone else. This is a critical point in everyone’s career, no matter what the profession may be, and you can tell a lot about a person by how they move forward after receiving this disappointing news. This is a crossroads, and make no mistake; there are always others watching how you react and carry yourself forward. Do you stay the course, learn from the experience, work harder and continue to support the agency’s mission? Or, do you take a turn into self-pity, become cynical and undermine the person who got the job? If it is the latter, you practice negative/ring-leader informal leadership and have not achieved a true sense of this vital role in the organization.

How you move forward from disappointment (some might say failure – it’s not) is a valuable reflection of an informal leader. Although Jeremy and I have been put in this position and disappointed (we are human, too), we made a conscious effort to grow from it. I (Jason) can still remember the first couple of promotional processes I attempted (I thought I was ready), but I didn’t get the job and was told, “It just wasn’t your time.” Fortunately, another opportunity within the agency became available (because I didn’t kick and scream), which took me down the road within our training unit, ended up being a perfect fit, and allowed me to hone some additional leadership skills. Even the chief at the time told me, “this is a great opportunity for you to grow as a leader while impacting the entire agency.” Wow, those were powerful words of encouragement from the person leading the agency, but these words of encouragement from an established informal leader might have had even more impact. Remember this as you reflect on your role and leadership stage.

Informal leadership is the building block to being effective in a formal supervisory position within law enforcement. This stage is where a person develops adaptability, knowledge, and experience, and it cannot be omitted during the path of your Legacy of Leadership. Many would argue this is where a person needs to spend most of their time in their career. It is a phrase that cannot be skipped and provides the most significant opportunity for dramatic intrinsic growth. As Maxwell (2002) states, “not everyone will become a great leader, but everyone can become a better leader.” Going from The Beginning into The Formal Leader without experiencing informal leadership can certainly be done, but the road to a better leader has its proper foundations in this stage.

How are you moving from The Beginning to the Informal Leadership role? Don’t rush it, don’t overthink it, but reflect on where you are at and where you would like to be (goals are a good thing). Are you well on your way to an informal leadership role, or are you just realizing you are in one? Here are a few things to think about: are you happy? Can you do more? Are you creating a positive legacy? What is next? If you are a formal leader, what are you doing to promote informal leadership within your department? How can you reflect on your previous everyday role to influence those around you? Are you motivating and encouraging or distant and uninformed? These are some of the areas we will explore in our next installment, focusing on the Formal Leadership category. Thank you for spending a few minutes with us today, and we hope this article brings a few thoughts and discussion topics to the surface. Go forth, thrive, and do great things.


Gilmartin, K.M (2002). Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement – A Guide for Officers and Their
Families. Tucson, Arizona. E-S Press.

Maxwell, J. (2011). The 360° leader: developing your influence from anywhere in
the organization. Tennessee. Thomas Nelson.

Maxwell, J. (2002). Leadership 101: what every leader needs to know. Tennessee. Thomas Nelson.