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How to Develop Your Skills at 5 Levels of Leadership

Executive Summary

Shrimp live in parts of the ocean you or I may never see. The darkness eliminates their need for vision, and over the course of 200 million years, their capacity to see has diminished entirely. Leadership is a process of evolution as well, with leaders releasing certain protections as they grow closer to their teams and improve each individual’s potential.

  • Most leaders are provided with the opportunity to influence before they realize their potential and use it to grow members of their organization.
  • The 5 levels of leadership are a road map for developing influence alongside personal connection.
  • It’s highly unlikely that you will reach the Pinnacle, or level 5, however, you will become a better leader simply by striving for it.

I began studying influence more carefully, and I also drew upon my own leadership experience and what I observed in leaders I respected and admired. What I discovered is that influence can be developed in five stages. I turned those stages into a tool that I call the 5 Levels of Leadership.

It provides a model of influence that can help you better understand the dynamics of leadership, and it also creates a road map you can follow to develop influence with others. I’ve been teaching this model of leadership for more than thirty years, and I can’t count the number of people it’s helped. I hope it helps you in the same way it has others.

Level 1: Your position requires people to listen to you.

The most basic entry level of leadership is the Position level. Why is this the lowest level? Because Position represents leadership before a leader has developed any real influence with the people being led. In generations past, people would follow leaders simply because they possessed a title or position of authority. But that is not very common today in American culture. People will follow a positional leader only as far as they have to.

People who have been appointed to a position may have authority, but that authority doesn’t exceed their job description. Positional leaders have certain rights. They have the right to enforce the rules. They have the right to tell people to do their jobs. They have the right to use whatever power they have been granted. But real leadership is more than having granted authority. Real leadership is being a person others will gladly and confidently follow. Real leaders know the difference between position and influence.

Level 2: Your people give you permission to lead them.

Leaders who remain on the Position level and never develop their influence often lead by intimidation…In contrast, Permission is characterized by good relationships. The motto on this level could be written as “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” True influence begins with the heart, not the head. It flourishes through personal connections, not rules and regulations. The agenda on this level is not pecking order; it’s people connection. Leaders who succeed on this level focus their time and energy on the needs and desires of the individuals on their team. And they connect with them.

If you’ve been given a leadership position, then you’ve been given your boss’s permission to lead. If you’ve earned influence on Level 2, then you have acquired your people’s permission to lead. That’s powerful. However, I do have to caution you. Staying too long on this level without adding Level 3 will cause highly motivated people to become restless. So let’s talk about Production.

Level 3: You have tied values to results, and created a team that prioritizes production.

Nearly anyone can succeed on the first two levels of leadership. People can receive a position and develop permission with little or no innate leadership ability. It’s a fact that if you care about people and are willing to learn how to work with them, you can start to gain influence. But that influence will only go so far. To really get things going, you need to win the Production level.

On Level 3, people get things done. And they help the members of their team get things done. Together they produce results. That’s when good things really begin to happen for the organization. Productivity goes up. People reach goals. Profit increases. Morale becomes high. Turnover becomes low. Team loyalty increases. Organizations with leaders who are effective in leading on the first three levels of leadership become highly successful. They start winning. And when they do, they start to benefit from what I call “the Big Mo”— momentum. They grow. They solve problems more easily. Winning becomes normal. Leading becomes easier. Following becomes more fun. The work environment becomes high-energy.

Leaders Lean Towards Levels of Leadership

Be aware that most people naturally gravitate to either the Permission or the Production level of leadership, based on whether they tend to be relationship people or results people. If people naturally build relationships, they may enjoy getting together, but they do it with the sole objective of being together and enjoying one another.

If you’ve ever worked in an environment where meetings are pleasant and everyone gets along—but nothing gets accomplished—then you may have worked with someone who gets Level 2 but not Level 3. (And if you’ve worked where meetings are productive but relationally miserable, you may have worked with someone who gets Level 3 but not Level 2!)

However, as a leader, if you can add results to relationships and develop a team of people who like each other and get things done, you have created a powerful combination.

Level 4: You think about and lead the team in terms of individual people.

If you gain influence with your team on Levels 1, 2, and 3, people will consider you a fantastic leader. You will get a lot done, and you will be considered successful. But there are higher levels of leadership, because the greatest leaders do more than just get things done…

Finding Potential and Curating It Throughout Your Organization

What separates the good from the great? Leaders become great not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others. Success without a successor is ultimately failure. To create anything lasting, to develop a team or organization that can grow and improve, to build anything for the future, a leader’s main responsibility is to develop other people: to help them reach their personal potential, to help them do their jobs more effectively, and to help them learn to become leaders themselves. This kind of people development leads to reproduction.

Level 5: Pinnacle

The final level of leadership is the Pinnacle. If you read the original version of this book, you may recall that I called this level Personhood. But I think Pinnacle is a more descriptive name. This highest level is based on reputation. This is rarified air. Only a few people reach this level. Those who do have led well and proven their leadership over a lifetime, have invested in other leaders and raised them up to Level 4, and have developed influence not only in their own organizations, but beyond them…

Shoot for the Stars, and You Will Reach the Moon

Can everyone reach this level of leadership? No. Should we strive for it? Absolutely. But we shouldn’t focus on it. Why? Because we can’t manufacture respect in others, nor can we demand it. Respect must be freely given to us by others, so it’s not within our control. For that reason, we should focus instead on developing influence on Levels 2, 3, and 4 and work hard to sustain it day after day, year after year, decade after decade. If we do that, we’ve done all we can do.

Excerpted with permission from Developing the Leader Within You 2.0 by John Maxwell, copyright John Maxwell.

Bring It Home

We all remember the best teacher we ever had. Mine was a college professor who taught an audio storytelling class. She was Superwoman in a cardigan and ballet flats. She was one of those teachers who wouldn't give you the answers outright. You had to understand the concepts and demonstrate knowledge of the process. During one of the hardest assignments I've ever received, she coached me to success. By asking probing questions, she helped me define my thesis for a podcast episode. When I envisioned compiling man-on-the-street interviews for the introduction, she reviewed my editing work and made suggestions for improvement.

I wasn't the only student she treated this way either. Her willingness to work one-on-one with each of my classmates was nothing short of remarkable. She could command the attention of a room without intimidation or force. Through sheer passion for the subject matter and care for her students, she created an environment where almost anyone could thrive.

We all strive to create relationships that are mutually beneficial. Through our words and actions, we answer two questions: 1. “What can you do for me?” and 2. “What can I do for you?” The best relationships are the ones where each person complements the other in thought and ability. As an individual in a managerial role, it’s tempting to adopt the “because I said so” approach to leadership. But, if you want to hold real sway within your organization and in every other aspect of your life, you need to become a source of inspiration and advice. How will you make the transition from transactional leadership (where you lead only as much to achieve a desired outcome from an individual) to investment leadership (where you lead to grow people for the long-term and for the benefit of society)? Share your plans in the comments below! - HarperCollins Leadership Essentials

John Maxwell

John C. Maxwell is an internationally recognized leadership expert, speaker, coach, and author who has sold over 19 million books. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP and the John Maxwell Company, organizations that have trained more than 5 million leaders worldwide.

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