The 5 levels of leadership explained: position, permission, results, people development and respect

They say one of the biggest challenges of leadership is to create change and facilitate growth, while knowing how to make the right choices: saying no to the good in order to say yes to the best, displaying emotions when it’s the time and delaying them when they might be in the way of progress. From this challenge only we understand that being a true leader is, firstly, not as easy as one may think, and secondly but equally important, that leaders can and should be trained, developed, regardless of their natural instincts, talents and charisma. You may be what they call „a natural born leader” but even then you have the responsibility of thriving to become a better you. There are these few words by J.K. Roling, from the famous and fabulous universe of Harry Potter, that brilliantly explain how, sometimes, we find our leadership powers when faced with the challenge of leading, without planning or even practice in advance:

“It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.” 

When we are meant, in our proffesional or even personal activities, to lead groups and teams towards achieving their goals, learning about leadership and reaching leadership maturity comes in hand. One of the most sound & useful and books i have read on this subject is The five levels of Leadership, in which John Maxwell describes 5 levels of leadership maturity. From leadership based on position (level 1) to being a leader by developing other leaders (level 5), Maxwell explains why every organization, group, company needs more level 5 leaders and how every one of us can work towards getting there.

Briefly put, the five levels of leadership include:

  • Position – People follow because they have to.
  • Permission – People follow because they want to.
  • Production – People follow because of what you have done for the organization.
  • Person Development – People follow because of what you have done for them personally.
  • Pinnacle – People follow because of who you are and what you represent.


And each leadership level, the book describes how to recognize this type of leader and what you can do to grow to the next level of leadership. Interesting to note beforehand is, that the levels on which you act can differ per person you work with. You can be a level 3 leaders with one colleague, and a level 4 with another.

The five leveles of leadership explained and Maxwell’s compelling words about them 

LEVEL 1: Position 

„A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way. A successful person finds the right place for himself. But a successful leader finds the right place for others.”  John C. Maxwell

The first level of leadership describes LEADERSHIP BASED ON POSITION and it is probably the clearest way to make the difference between a manager and a leader: managers work with processes whereas leaders work with the people. Once you’ve got this figured out, your ascension begins from the position your are in, towards becoming a true leader and making your way to people’s minds and hearts, using your skills, passions and charms. Leaders who act as this first level need and have their title to get things done and spend most of their time protecting their turf by playing political games. This type of leadership is the only one in which the leaders do not have any actual influence on their team members and should therefore not even be allowed to be called leadership. But from here, the leadership journey can start its challenging development.

The one-liner “it is lonely at the top” can according to Maxwell only be created by a level 1 leader, because people rather avoid working with them or even change their job rather than working with them. People who are working for a level 1 leader are usually not motivated to put in that little extra effort at work. They are simply not engaged. Surveys in 2006 show, that in the USA, 15% of people did not feel engaged with their manager or organization. In Germany, this was 50%!
The good news is, that you as a leader can grow out of level 1. Getting a title means the organization believes in you and that you have a chance to grow up to be a true leader. Getting your title is an invitation for personal growth and your first challenge will be to grow to a level 2 leader.

Leve 2: Permission 

„Leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another.” John C. Maxwell

Level 2 leadership is about LEADERSHIP BASED ON PERMISSION. On this level, you find leaders that have learned that relationships are important to be able to get that little extra effort form your team members. People believe in the leader as a person, and because of that they follow your vision. The best is, that you don’t even need a title to be(come) a level 2 leader.
Good personal relationships within the organization create energy, trust, and it doesn’t hurt that people like you.
The easiest step to grow into this level of leadership is to show interest in your colleagues on a personal level. Every person is not only an employee at the firm, they also have a home, a family, their health struggles and personal traits.
Another tip Maxwell describes is to compliment your colleagues for their personal strengths. Get to know your colleagues in such a way, that you know what their strengths are so you can positively reinforce them whenever you see them using them.
The downside of level 2, is that having a great place to work not necessarily means you can lead to achieve results. This is why every leaders should grow to level 3.

Level 3: Results 

„A great leader’s courage to fulfill his vision comes from passion, not position. If you want to be the best leader you can possibly be, no matter how much or how little natural leadership talent you possess, you need to become a serving leader.” John C. Maxwell

The third level of leadership is LEADERSHIP BASED ON RESULTS. On this level, the leader achieves measurable results. An important reason why this is level 3 and not level 2, is because people cannot achieve positive results in the long run, when their personal needs are not taken care of. The people who achieve results, but are not looked after on personal level, are the ones who get burned-out.
Level 3 leaders are the ones who use their relationships (and therefore influence) to realize their vision. It is important that you as a leader define your vision and can explain why it is important for the organization.
To be able to achieve results, the leader has to be able to set priorities and help team members select the most important tasks. To help people grow, the kind of tasks that time should be spend on according to Maxwell is as follows:

  • 80% of the time on tasks within your strengths zone
  • 15% of your time on tasks within your learning zone
  • 5% on work outside your strengths zone
  • And 0% within your weakness zone

The level 3 leader is loved within the team and leads the team to measureable results. The downside of this level is however, that the results diminish after the leader leaves the team because they are dependent on the leader for achieving these results. Fortunately, every level 3 leader can grow into a level 4 leader, who’s task it is to develop his team members to be able to achieve results on their own.

Level 4: People development 

„Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.” John C. Maxwell

The fourth level of leadership is called LEADERSHIP BASED ON PEOPLE DEVELOPMENT. If you want a fun place to work, grow to level 2. If you would like to perform as an organization, grow to level 3. If you want to grow as an organization, make sure you have a lot of level 4 leaders.
Developing others means that you as a leader should always work on delegating your tasks to others.
Maxwell suggest to delegate your task when somebody else can do the same task in 80% or more of your efficiency.
A level 4 leader should spend about 80% of his time coaching colleagues, and 20% with productive work. This is a very difficult step for level 3 leaders who are used to achieving most of the results themselves.
It is however impossible to coach everybody in becoming the next generation of leaders. Level 4 leaders therefore focus on developing people with the highest potential, usually the top 20% of the population.
The biggest challenge of the level 4 leader is to put other people´s personal growth before your own.

Level 5: Respect 

„A leader who produces other leaders multiplies their influences. The higher you want to climb, the more you need leadership. The greater the impact you want to make, the greater your influence needs to be.” John C. Maxwell

The fifth and final level of leadership is called LEADERSHIP BASED ON RESPECT. These are the leaders who are still mentioned long after they have left the organization. They are the ones who left a legacy. These are actually also the leaders who have spent their time creating leaders that create more leaders.
The most important long term goal for an organization is to continuously work on building the next generation of leaders who can succeed the current generation, which means, a level 5 leader should built more level 4 leaders.

Accompanied by lots of practical examples, one liners and insights from the author’s personal experience, The five levels of leadership describes a path of personal growth every leader experiences, from learning how to improve your personal relationships with your team members so that they believe in your vision, up to coaching more people to the level in which they also coach more people. And it explains, in a highly serviceable way, that this leadership pipeline is probably the most sustainable way to grow and nurture an organization in the long term, as much as it is a professionally and personally good wayof growing yourself as a leader. May this reading be useful to you as well!

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