What’s the difference between a good leader and a great leader? According to John Maxwell, leadership expert, best-selling author, and founder of the world-famous John Maxwell Group, the answer depends on what level of leadership ability a person reaches. In 5 Levels of Leadership, Maxwell outlines the various stages of leadership from least evolved to most evolved. Throughout the chapters, he describes leadership as a journey that has a pinnacle: Level 5 leadership.
Level 5 leaders spend their lives mastering various leadership styles, leadership qualities, and leadership skills. In doing so, they create highly successful, profitable companies where team members feel as though their work is engaging, fulfilling, and impactful. Organizations with Level 5 leaders also have thriving team cultures. This type of executive creates the conditions for a safe, trusting workplace environment where other leaders are developed. By multiplying leaders at every level throughout the organization, those who reach Level 5 produce an infinite cycle of strong leaders who contribute to their legacy.
In this article, learn more about what the five levels of leadership are, why you should strive to become a Level 5 leader, what the characteristics of each level are, tips for navigating this journey, and how to reach the true pinnacle of leadership.
What Are the 5 Levels of Leadership?
John Maxwell’s 5 Levels of Leadership are Position, Permission, Production, People Development, and Pinnacle. Each level corresponds with a particular action that results in followers. The best-selling author developed these various stages of leadership using the knowledge and information he’s gathered during the course of 40 years as a successful leader. Get a brief overview of the 5 levels of leadership below.
Leadership Level 1 – Position
A leader grants a particular person the right to lead. As a result, people follow them because they are directed to, not because they are influential.
Leadership Level 2 – Permission
The leader focuses on building and growing relationships with their employees. As a result, their team members give them free permission to lead.
Leadership Level 3 – Production
When a leader reaches Level Three, they focus on the increase of results. In turn, people follow them because they trust the person knows what they’re doing and will lead them in the right direction.
Leadership Level 4 – People Development
Those who reach Level Four are servant leaders who teach, mentor, build, and multiply other leaders. They obtain and maintain followers because people know they positively influence the lives of everyone around them.
Leadership Level 5 – Pinnacle
Level Five leaders—the rarest type of leader—are well-known for their accomplishments, how they’ve enriched the lives of others, and led their organizations to change the world for the better. These leaders have followers because of who they are, what they’ve done, and what they represent to people.
Why Becoming a Level 5 Leader Matters
In Maxwell’s own words, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” Yet, those who don’t develop their leadership abilities aren’t fully equipped to guide their teams or businesses in the right direction now or in the future. It’s like attempting to lead a group of people up Mount Everest because you’re good at hiking. People who only rely on their natural talents simply don’t have the supplies or tools they need to reach the peak of the mountain. However, those who increase their growth mindset do. They understand they don’t know it all, but want to learn as much as they can. This insatiable hunger for growth and development prepares them for success as a leader.
A person also can’t mentor employees on how to be leaders if they aren’t working through the 5 levels of leadership themselves. This is because they don’t fully understand what skills and qualities leaders need. This knowledge doesn’t just suddenly appear—people must seek it out and dedicated themselves to learning and implementing it. When those in a leadership position show they are actively growing their leadership abilities, it’s a sign they are positioning themselves to grow into Level 5 leaders.
Navigating Each of John Maxwell’s 5 Levels of Leadership
Those in leadership positions must identify which leadership level they’re currently at. This helps them figure out how to master their current stage, which allows them to begin practicing the skills necessary for the next level. Find out more on overcoming leadership level roadblocks, learn about the characteristics of the 5 levels of leadership, and get tips for moving closer to the pinnacle.
1. Level One Leader: The Person Assigned to Lead
Level One is where people show leadership ability. Usually, a person receives a performance-based promotion that makes them a part of team leadership. Yet, without the development of their leadership skills, a person is only a leader by name. As Maxwell writes, “When people follow a leader because they have to, they will do only what they have to . . . They give reluctant compliance, not commitment. They may give their hands but certainly not their heads or hearts.”
People who stay in Level One lean on their title to make people follow them. Because of this, they lack the influence needed to motivate, inspire, and direct their team. However, this does not mean Level One leaders cannot grow into great leaders. As they begin to foster strong, trusting relationships with employees, they will quickly find themselves growing into Level Two leaders.
To transform into a Level Two leader:
- Focus on developing emotional intelligence.
- Learn how to practice Situational Leadership® and adapt to individual employees’ needs.
- Have weekly one-on-one meetings with team members.
- Regularly communicate employee recognition and appreciation.
- Practice being a coach who gives constructive feedback. Additionally, ask for feedback about your leadership style, as well.
2. Level Two Leader: The Leader with Employee Approval
Unlike Level One leaders, Level Two leaders have employee buy-in. This is because they’ve worked to develop strong relationships with those they’re responsible for throughout their career. Maxwell explains, “When you like people and treat them like individuals who have value, you begin to develop influence with them. You develop trust.” Leaders who do this are accepted by their direct reports. They respect them, and as a result, give them free permission to guide them.
Shifting from Level One to Level Two is an important milestone because it demonstrates a person has the drive and capacity to become a Level Five leader. Yet, it isn’t enough to remain a well-liked Level Two leader. Positive results and outcomes are also necessary, which is what makes a person increase to a Level Three leader.
To move into the third level of the five levels of leadership:
- Focus on creating and communicating a clear vision and mission.
- Discuss key performance indicators (KPIs) with employees so they feel included in developing their goals.
- Set realistic deadlines and track progress on individual and collective objectives with project management apps.
- Practice strong time management skills and focus on doing the work that only you can do. Delegate out all tasks, duties, and responsibilities other people are better suited to handle.
- Establish planning days and strategy days. This gives leaders time to work through organizational problems and outline the direction the business and its employees will move in.
3. Level Three Leader: The Results Generator
Maxwell writes, “There are two types of people in the business community: those who produce results and those who give you reasons why they didn’t.” Level Three leaders produce results. They’re heavily focused on mapping out and achieving positive outcomes using their accepted leadership title. To do this, they study and practice the characteristics of the transformational leadership, charismatic leadership, and democratic leadership styles. As a result, these leaders inspire, encourage, and motivate people to pursue and achieve challenging goals. In addition to this, Level Three leaders are excellent communicators. They share a clear vision with their employees, outline action plans, recognize greatness in others, and make team members feel valued and heard. Yet, at this stage, they aren’t focused on developing other leaders, which is what will take them to the next phase of leadership.
To begin developing Level Four leadership skills:
- Study servant leadership and start incorporating it into your leadership style.
- Develop a free mentorship program where employees learn how to lead before being put into leadership roles.
- Invest in the lives of team members. Outline plans for promotions, discuss employees’ dreams and goals, help them achieve these objectives, and act as a support system.
- Make instigating career growth and development in others a personal goal.
- Practice delegation. Assign “busy work” and managerial duties to upcoming leaders so you can spend more time being a coach, developing people, and multiplying leaders.
4. Level 4 Leader: The Creator of Leaders
In 5 Levels of Leadership, Maxwell states: “Leaders are measured by the caliber of leaders they develop, not the caliber of their own leadership.” Yet, not all people are meant to be grown into leaders. This is why Level 4 leaders consider the qualities and values they’re looking for in employees before they start the hiring process. Before bringing someone on, they ask themselves: “Do I want to spend the time, energy, and money developing this person into a leader?” and “Does this candidate show a natural knack for leading others?” If the answer is “no,” they avoid making hires that negatively impact the business and existing team members.
After extending a job offer, they begin leadership training as soon as the person starts work. For example, this might look like meeting with employees once a week to discuss how to add different leadership skills to their arsenal, giving them a challenge that builds leadership qualities, or delegating out more responsibility to them as they get more comfortable with their role. Staying consistent with this type of work takes a lot of time and can often seem inconvenient to busy entrepreneurs and executives. Because of this, most people slip up and occupy themselves with other pressing company matters. In doing so, they never reach their full potential as a Level 5 leader.
How to work toward becoming a Level 5 leader:
- Make the development of other leaders a daily action. To do this, use time management skills to plan out time blocks for mentoring team members.
- Understand the commitment you’re making. Answer the question, “What does it mean to be a leader?” Becoming a Level 5 leader is a long process that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes decades of building others up to develop a legacy as a great leader.
- Develop a reason that fuels your pursuit of Level 5 leadership. For example, what drives you to multiply leaders? What effect does it have on your business, your life, your customers’ lives, and the world? Why does developing other leaders matter?
- Keep track of the changes you see in employees. Conducting regular assessments shows the difference regular leadership development makes. This encourages leaders to push forward when it comes to investing in others.
5. Level 5 Leader: The Leader with a Lasting Legacy
Level 5 leaders are rare. In truth, a person needs to dedicate their lives to growing themselves, serving others, and guiding a new generation of leaders in order to reach what Maxwell calls the Pinnacle. He writes in the 5 Laws of Leadership, “What you do daily, over time, becomes your legacy.” Leaders must be intentional about reaching this peak which takes years to climb. While this is an arduous journey, every second is worth it. Once a person finally reaches the peak of leadership, they’re able to see what’s on the other side of the mountain. From this elevated position, a leader is able to see their legacy—the visible positive impact they’ve made on the world through their leadership.
There are several signs a person has reached the Pinnacle. For instance, companies with this type of CEO and founder are highly productive, profitable, and rank at the top of their industries. In addition to this, the leader is well-known, admired, and respected inside and outside of their market. They also have a great reputation for being a guiding force, servant leader, and mentor to many. At this point in their careers, their mission is now spreading an infinite amount of positive influence and developing as many strong leaders as possible. This next generation will carry their mission forward, ensuring their legacy lives on long after they’re gone.
How to Maintain the Status of a Level 5 Leader
- View reaching Level 5 leadership not as an achievement, but a lifestyle and way of living.
- Keep your vision and focus facing forward. This means not getting comfortable with your past accomplishments—don’t stop striving to innovate, improve, and excel.
- Expand your audience. Teaching others how to lead is not industry-specific. Begin speaking at events and conferences. Other options include starting a YouTube channel, releasing educational content on social media, writing a book, or being interviewed for various podcast series.
- Guide your leaders on how to train and grow other leaders, too.
Take the 5 Levels of Leadership Assessment
After reading this article, leaders can determine which leadership level they’re currently at. From here, they can outline a step-by-step plan for becoming a Level 5 leader. However, it should be noted that achieving a certain stage does not mean it’s been conquered. As Maxwell explains, “At any level, a leader doesn’t automatically stay at that level. You must earn your level of leadership with each person, and that level can go up or down at any time.” This means a person is never “finished” with any of the leadership levels. Additionally, it might surprise seasoned leaders to see the different leadership qualities and leadership traits that need to be revisited. For more information on this, take John Maxwell’s 5 Levels of Leadership Assessment, which he provides in the book.
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