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The Five Levels of Leadership

I am a great admirer of John Maxwell. In May 2014, Maxwell was named the #1 leadership and management expert in the world by Inc. Magazine. I often assign reading one of his books to clients who are interested in developing their leadership skills (I particularly like The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership). Today I will write about another book of his that is simpler to summarize, The 5 Levels of Leadership. 

Maxwell posits that there are five ascending levels of leadership, each of which he designates with a word beginning with the letter P. The first is leadership based on Position. At this lowest level of leadership people follow you because of your title. They have to if they want to keep their jobs because you're the boss. Leaders who don't advance beyond this level don't get nearly the best out of their people. It's the level that typifies most bureaucracies (including, unfortunately, governments, whether national, state, or local).

The second level is entitled Permission (I'm not sure how that word fits the description that follows, so this label is a little confusing, but bear with me). At this level leadership is based on the relationships the leader is able to construct with his/her subordinates. Likeability is very important here, as people are more likely to follow a leader that they like and with whom they feel connected. That connection is based on the leader LEARNING from them, LISTENING to them, and OBSERVING them carefully. This equips the leader with the ability to deeply understand his/her people and stoke their motivation. It's also a level at which the leader puts particular emphasis on BEING OF SERVICE to the subordinates, which is made possible by the leader's familiarity with what's important to those lower on the totem pole.

The third level is Production of results. People like to follow winners, and the leader at this level consistently wins. The winning creates momentum, which makes problems easier to solve. At the Production level there is a lot of leading by example, modeling behavior that produces those winning results.  People have more reasons to follow because the team gets things done and succeeds – more than just a connection to the leader. Leadership without results ultimately doesn’t keep followers motivated. But if the leader has a vision that has been clearly articulated and modeled, followers will embrace it and continue to be led on the journey .

The fourth level is centered on People Development. There are three important aspects to this level: a) recruiting the right people; b) positioning those people so as to get the best out of them (i.e. putting them in the right slot with the right responsibilities), and c) equipping them with the resources they need to succeed. This will create an environment for ownership where each person wants to be responsible. Of course coaching others to develop their talents, abilities, and skills is an integral part of this level.

Finally, the fifth level is the Pinnacle level, the level at which people follow the leader because of what that leader has achieved. Leadership based on admiration. But Maxwell cautions that in order to sustain that highest level the leader needs to cultivate leadership qualities in those lower on the ladder.

Note that generally you will be at different levels vis-a-vis the others in your organization. A new employee, for example, is most likely to view you through the lens of the Position level, while at the same time a peer of yours might view you at the Production level. It is important for you to figure out where you stand relative to others that you work with in order to maximize your ability to lead them, and to work on moving up the leadership scale in your interactions with them.

It just so happens that this week I am reading a recently published, comprehensive biography of one of the world's greatest leaders, Napoleon Bonaparte (for those who want to learn more about Boney the book is entitled simply Napoleon, by Andrew Roberts). Napoleon generated fanatical loyalty among his troops: even in defeat they shouted "Vive L'Empereur." It was interesting to apply Maxwell's five levels to him, and to see that they fit quite well (although in his case, as is true of most others, the levels were not fully consecutive).

Vive John Maxwell!

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