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Informal Leaders—The Backbone of the Organization

One of the best leadership examples I saw during my Air Force career came from one of the youngest people in the organization. She was not an officer, supervisor, team leader, nor in any other formal leadership role. In fact, she was a young Airman that had only been in the Air Force for a few years. However, whenever I think of effective leadership traits, she always comes to mind.

We were deployed to a base in the Middle East that simultaneously supported operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the living conditions were relatively austere, we had it much better than many of the military members deployed around the region. The host nation took good care of us, and though we were always prepared, the threat of attack was comparatively low. There was a large city nearby that attracted a robust tourist trade, and people in the organization had the opportunity to travel downtown once or twice during their deployment. One of the favorite locations was a hotel with luxurious accommodations, including restaurants that served alcohol for their guests. As you might expect, we had a strict no-alcohol policy for anyone traveling downtown, as public intoxication was a very serious offense that could result in imprisonment, flogging, or both.

For one group, the temptation was too much. After a long day in the sun they decided to have a few drinks—which led to several more—and they called their friend to let her know how much “fun” she was missing. Realizing the potential danger they were in if they were arrested by the local authorities, she acted to ensure their safety by asking her supervisor to help her get them back to the base. The information quickly worked its way up the chain, and we dispatched a team to go downtown and discreetly bring them back. After verifying the facts, I redeployed them to their home base where the proper administrative actions could be taken by their commanders.

Being sent home from the combat zone for misconduct is no small matter, but by comparison, it’s much better than going through the Islamic justice system in the Middle East. This young Airman understood that calculus, but many of her friends didn’t see it that way. They ostracized her for “getting their friends in trouble” and treated her like a pariah for the remainder of the deployment. Regardless of the pressure placed against her, I admired the way she stood resolute. She knew she made the right decision, and even knowing the consequences, would have made the same decision again. That’s why I held so much respect for her as a leader, and continue to do so to this day.

Too often, people tend to associate “leadership” with “authority”. In other words, they assume that effective leadership can only be exercised in a position of authority. However, almost every successful organization has a mix of formal and informal leaders…and often, it’s the informal leaders that make the mission happen. Some lessons I learned along the way:

  • Actively search for the informal leaders in your organization. I found them relatively easy to identify…they are the ones that volunteer to take on the most difficult task, and are willing to make the tough calls, even when it appears to be the hardest thing to do.

  • Once found, empower them as much as possible. I tried to provide them with clearly defined goals and objectives and the resources they needed to accomplish the task as best I could, and I then gave them as much leeway as possible to accomplish the task. I was rarely, if ever, disappointed.

  • Leverage your informal leaders to get feedback on how things are really going within the organization. They often provide an unfiltered perspective that is extremely enlightening.

  • Provide positive, public feedback for these leaders. Once people know what you value, others may be more willing to step up to the plate.

Unfortunately, I have no idea where this Airman is today, but based on what I saw many years ago, I’m sure she’s doing well…courageous, resolute leadership is valued at all levels, in all environments.



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