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Bringing about change when you are not in charge:
The importance of informal change leadership in academic advising
Authored by: Jeffrey L. McClellan

Myths That Stifle Change
Those who find the above description familiar and who feel incapable of doing anything about it may be buying into a number of myths. The first myth is that an individual must hold a formal leadership position in order to lead change. The second myth implies that executive level support is needed to effect change. The third myth suggests that change is complex and challenging thus only professional change agents are capable of leading it.

Myth 1: An individual must hold a formal leadership position in order to lead change.

While it is true that leadership is positional in nature, it is not true that a formal leadership position is necessary in order to lead; nor is it true that positional power increases one’s capacity to lead. Some of the most influential leaders in history became such not by seeking formal positions of leadership, but rather by leading those around them to bring about change. Consider Benjamin Franklin. Though Franklin was one of the most influential political minds of the revolutionary period and a major change agent, virtually every contribution he made was self-initiated; few can name any formal, directive leadership roles he held. In fact, Franklin’s career began in anonymity when he secretly published his thoughts and opinions about changes needed in society under the pen name “Silence Dogood.” Franklin knew that leading change comes from initiative, passion, and thoughtful action as opposed to the formal acquisition of authority. Additional examples include virtually all of history’s great revolutionary leaders, few of whom began their work after receiving formal authority. Instead, their positions of power came as a result of the work they already accomplished and the informal authority they had attained!

In confirmation of this assertion, an abundance of research has demonstrated the reality that informal leadership possesses greater power for change than formal leadership. In a number of classic studies of power, scholars have discovered that legitimate power, most commonly associated with the use of formal authority, had mixed and often negative impacts on follower performance, attitude, commitment, and behavior. In contrast, informal bases of power, such as expertise and relational influence, consistently demonstrated positive impacts(French Jr. & Raven, 2005; Hinkin & Schriesheim, 1989; Lee, 2008; Lussier & Achua, 2007; Podsakoff & Schriesheim, 1985; Rahim, 1989; Rahim & Buntzman, 2001; Yukl, 1998; Yukl & Falbe, 1991).

Pielstick (2000) discovered that none of the ten traits followers most associate with formal leaders were included on a similar list describing informal leaders. Furthermore, every characteristic identified as those of informal leaders was more positive in nature than those associated with formal leadership. Consequently, Pielstick concluded that followers generally perceive informal leaders more positively than they do formal leaders, which likely increases their influence. Smart (2005) focused on understanding informal leaders and came to a similar conclusion.

Additional research revealedthat informal leaders play a significant role in the implementation of innovation(Wilkening, 1952), impacting organizational change efforts(Peters & O'Connor, 2001), emotional management, group efficacy, decision-making and goal setting(Pescosolido, 2001, 2002), and other “group processes, norms, and outcomes”(Pescosolido, 2001, p. 79). Thus informal leadership represents a critical need in our efforts to advance the work of advising in our universities and colleges.

Myth 2: Executive level support is needed to effect change.

While it is likely true that informal leaders may ultimately need and seek the assistance of those formally in charge, rarely do they begin their work by doing so. In fact seeking support too early may actually hamper the work an informal change leader. As Heifetz(1994)asserted, 'habitually seeking solutions from people in authority is maladaptive. Indeed, it is perhaps the essence of maladaptive behavior; the use of a response appropriate to one situation in another situation where it does not apply.... The flight to authority is particularly dangerous for at least two reasons: first, because [it leads to] the work avoidance [that] often occurs in response to our biggest problems and, second, because it disables some of our most important personal and collective resources for accomplishing adaptive work' (p. 73).

Thus instead of turning to formal leaders to bring about change, great change leaders create a grassroots movement for driving change by identifying strong allies who share their vision and then slowly incorporating others into the movement. They then allow the movement to build until it becomes a force for institutional change. At this point one of two things happens: either upper level leaders see the movement as a threat and fight against it, or they support the movement. Either can be beneficial to the movement if handled well. In many cases, however, the reality is that grassroots movements represent efforts upper-level leaders would like to support but cannot because of internal politics; thus they need grassroots leaders to make the change happen. As Heifetz (1994) explained, 'formal authority brings with it the powers of an office” along with the limitations thereof, “but informal authority brings with it the subtle yet substantial power to extend one's reach way beyond the limits of the job description” (p. 102).

Myth 3: Change is complex and challenging thus only professional change agents are capable of leading it.

The final myth suggests that change is complex and requires high levels of expertise and skill. Those who believe this should consider the following story. At the beginning of the 18th century, many American Quakers were slave holders, by the end of the century no slaveholding Quakers remained in America. Why? Partially because one man, named John Woolman, dedicated his life to traveling from home to home convincing individual slaveholders of the evils of the institution(Greenleaf, 1998).
The reality of organizational change is that it involves little more than the work of interacting with individuals to help them see the need for change.Network analysis reveals that regardless of position, the most influential people in organizations are those who “have good ideas, but... are also good at convincing customers, team members, and their bosses of the merit of their thinking'(Cross & Parker, 2004, p. 50). Furthermore, these powerful influencers structure their work differently. Rather than focus on executing tasks on their own, they seek to integrate other people into their own work [and]....  they systematically take the time to build their own network.... To them, building relationships is not a political act but a critical part of professional development' (p. 82). Thus bringing about change begins by identifying those who already see the need and collaboratively creating a vision and plan for change. It involves identifying those most likely to change and incorporating them into the movement. Beyond these basic recruitment efforts, one needs only remain organized, open to the perspective of others, and persistent. Everything else about leading change effectively can be learned along the way. This is not to diminish the need for wisdom or the value of learning about change strategies. There are numerous exceptional resources for gaining such knowledge(Bridges, 1991; Cooperrider & Whitney, 2001; Gardner, 2004; Kegan & Lahey, 2001; Patterson, 2008; Quinn, 1996; Schein, 1992), but individuals should not allow lack of change knowledge to stop them from leading.

If things are not as we wish them to be on our campuses, if we attend conferences and believe that the good things happening elsewhere are impossible on our own campuses, then we must change. Robert Greenleaf(1977)stated, 'The forces for good and evil in the world are propelled by the thoughts, attitudes, and actions of individual beings. What happens to our values... will be shaped by individuals that are born of inspiration” (p. 29). He then went on to proclaim:

'Who is standing in the way of a larger consensus on the definition of the better society and paths to reach it?' In response, he argues that it is 'not evil people' nor 'stupid people,' who if lessoned in number 'might make the job easier' but would not change matters.' Instead, 'the real enemy is fuzzy thinking on the part of good, intelligent, vital people and their failure to lead, and to follow servants as leaders. Too many settle for being critics and experts. In short, the enemy is strong natural servant leaders who have the potential to lead but do not lead, or choose to follow the non-servant. They suffer. Society suffers. And so it may be in the future'(pp. 58-59).

Thus if there are things that need to change in our institutions, we must be the ones to change them. We cannot look to others to do so.  The time has come for a greater concerted effort among advisors to take ownership and change our organizations.

Authored by: Jeff McClellan
Assistant Professor of Management
Frostburg State University



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McClellan, J. (2010). Bringing about change when you are not in charge: The importance of informal change leadership in academic advising. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources: 

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