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Five for a Friday #15

5 levels of leadership

Maxwell’s 5 Levels of Leadership

I feel like I’m a relatively new student of leadership.  Although I did study leadership a bit in my doctoral program, the books and discussions were always in the context of educational leadership.  I felt I never got a solid grounding in the foundational principles of leadership until I began reading books recommended to me from colleagues and friends.

I remember one day, back in 2006 or 2007, I was searching the internet for something (I can’t recall what exactly), and I accidentally came across a presentation that was based on John Maxwell’s work (then called The Five Levels of Influential Leadership).  I typed up some notes and I’ve been carrying those notes around in my planner ever since.  Then recently, just this past October, I was in an airport bookstore on my way to a conference in Washington DC.  I came across Maxwell’s latest book The 5 Levels of Leadership.  I flipped through it, purchased it, and read the entire book on the journey from southern California to Washington DC.

For several years, renowned author and leadership expert John C. Maxwell changed lives and careers at seminars and conferences around the world on the topic of the leadership’s five levels.  However, he did not write on the levels until 2011 when he published his book The 5 Levels of Leadership.

So without any delay…here’s today’s Five for a Friday…Maxwell’s 5 Levels of Leadership

Level 1: The “POSITION” Level

At this level, people follow you because they have to.  Your influence will not extend beyond the lines of your job description and your title within the organization.  One of the upsides is that the positional leader has the right to be a leader because he has been hired for that role.  Another upside to being a positional leader is that the leader is placed on the leadership journey (being a level 1 leader is better than not being a leader at all).  This means that someone saw leadership potential in the leader to offer him the position.
To be successful at this level:
  • Know your job description thoroughly.
  • Relate your job description to the people of your organization.
  • Do your job duties with consistent excellence.
  • Accept responsibility (both positive and negative).
  • Do more than is expected.

The downsides to remaining a level 1 leader are that followers will begin to lose morale, the leader will become more of a manager, and people will feel very little loyalty to the positional leader.  Keep in mind that people rarely quit jobs…people quit people.


Level 2: The “PERMISSION” Level
At this level, people follow you because they want to.  This is the relationship-building level where we allow work to be fun, where we get to know the people we work with, and where silos are broken across department lines.  A gentleman by the name of Fred Smith once said that “leadership is getting people to work for you when they are not obligated.” Maxwell calls this the permission level because when a team begins to trust and get along with its leader, “the followers give their supervisors permission to lead them.”
To be successful at this level:
  • Learn how to be positive.
  • Develop a genuine love of people.
  • Learn how to see situations through other people’s eyes.
  • Make those who work around you more successful.
  • Think win-win or nothing at all.
  • Include others in your journey.

Keep in mind, however, that the motivated people on a team will slowly become restless if the leader becomes stuck at this level. Even a team that gets along well with each other will begin to distrust a leader who cannot help them reach the team’s goal.


Level 3: The “PRODUCTION” Level

At this level, people follow you for what you have done for the organization.  Leaders at this level have their reputations enter a room before them because of the results they produce.  Henry Ford once said “you can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.”  The work and accomplishments that a level 3 leader completes serve as tangible examples of his potential.  Most people sense success at this level because results are measurable.  The momentum generated from producing results tends to fix all types of organizational problems.
To be successful at this level:
  • Develop a statement of purpose that calls for growth.
  • Place the organization’s resources under that statement of purpose.
  • Develop actual accountability for results…begin with yourself.
  • Know and do the things which give a high return.
  • Develop a keen sense of timing.
  • Become a change-agent in your organization.
It is possible to be very effective and have a long successful career at this level.  This is where most leaders remain because they have the relationships built from level 2 and they know how to get their team to produce at level 3.  However, leaders who get stuck at this level may find themselves having to constantly perform to someone else’s standards…people will eventually begin to follow the results instead of the leader.

Level 4: The “PEOPLE” Level

At this level, team members follow you because of what you do for them. Long-range growth of the organization occurs at this level because leaders have a commitment to develop future leaders.  That is the heart of this level.  This level is all about empowering others to lead.  People are loyal…leaders follow leaders…leaders produce leaders.  This level is more than production…it is about reproduction.  A level 4 leader focuses on the reproduction of skills, abilities, and leadership qualities.  Do whatever you can to achieve and remain on this level.
To be successful at this level:
  • Place top priority on developing people. (People are the most valuable asset you have.)
  • Be a model for others to follow.
  • Pour your leadership efforts into the top 20% of your team.
  • Expose your leaders to growth opportunities.
  • Surround yourself with those who compliment your own leadership.
  • Equip leaders to equip others.

There are five steps to equipping others:

  1. I do it.
  2. I do it and they are with me.
  3. They do it and I am with them.
  4. They do it.
  5. They do it and someone is with them.
Level 4 is rarely achieved, but those who are level 4 leaders can remain here and enjoy a prosperous and meaningful career built on empowering others to lead.  That is a good and noble task.  So why is there another level?

Level 5: The “PINNACLE” Level

In earlier incarnations of Maxwell’s work, this was also called the personhood level.  At this level, people follow you because of who you are and what you represent.  This is the respect level.  This level is reserved for leaders who have spent years growing leaders. Now, the level 5 leader learns how to grow teams of leaders.  A level 4 leader who needs help and continued lessons on growth will call on a level 5 leader for mentorship. This is a premier level.  Few people make it to this level, and those who do seem larger than life.  As examples of level 5 leaders, think of Steve Jobs or John Wooden (who Maxwell profiles as a final chapter to his book).  John Maxwell himself is a level 5 leader.
Leaders at this level have:
  • followers that are sacrificial and loyal.
  • long track records of mentoring countless others who follow their steps.
  • become statesmen/consultants to their followers.
  • the power to grant authority to other leaders.
  • lives that other new leaders use to gauge their own successes.
  • reputations and respect that transcend their organizations.

In reading Maxwell’s book, I naturally did two things: first, I assessed my own leadership potential to determine the type of leader I am (a good exercise that I’m glad I did), and second, I mentally labeled all of the leaders in my organization and put them in these little “level” boxes (which I probably should not have done).  I need to remember that the book is a tool to help me develop my own leadership skills and also the leadership potential of those few who follow me.
By the way…I’m a strong level 2 leader who spends a lot of time at level 4 without really doing what I have to do at level 3 first.  In order to develop my leader 3 skills, I gave myself a challenge this year of producing something new each month of 2013, culminating in the production of a book (and a couple other surprises) by Christmas.  Check in with me occasionally to hold me accountable and ask me about my progress as the months move along.
Here’s a look at a graphical representation of Maxwell’s levels.
5-Levels-Final
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