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The 5 levels of leadership

John Maxwell

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Sometimes people follow you because they have to; sometimes they follow because they want to. Maxwell explains the difference among the five levels of leadership, which differentiate between leading by position, by relationships and by example, and how production and respect generate more loyalty than obligation.

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For 30 years, I’ve been teaching this topic. I’ve taught this for West Point, Microsoft, Eli Lilly, and Delta. The largest organizations and companies in the world come to me and say, “John, come and teach the Five Levels of Leadership,” because they understand that if you and I, today, in these few minutes, can understand how leadership works (and by the way, leadership is not a noun; it’s a verb; it’s action, and it’s moving), and if we can understand how to go from Level One to Level Two to Level Three to Level Four and up to Level Five in our leadership, we expand our leadership, we expand our influence, and we expand our effectiveness. I’m ready to go, and I know you’re ready to go.

Level One

We are going to start at the bottom level. The position level is where we all start. We all start with a title, a job description, and a position. The key word here is rights. In other words, people at Level One follow you because they have to. You’re the boss, or you have a supervisor title. Anybody under that person will follow him or her. This is the beginning of our leadership journey. We get a leadership position. People come to me all the time and say, “John, I just became a leader last week!” And when they tell me this, I know what they mean. They didn’t really become a leader last week; what they really did was get a leadership position. By the way, the position doesn’t make you a leader. I know a lot of people who have a position of leadership, but they are not good leaders. You have probably worked with them before. The position doesn’t make you a leader, but if you are a good leader, you can really make the position. This is where we all begin.

The upside of Level One is a place where we can shape and define our leadership. We get a leadership job, we become a supervisor, and now we begin to work on ourselves as a leader, and we begin to define who we are. The downside of Level One is that the people who follow you will give you the least amount of their energy and effort. In other words, if they are following you because they have to follow you in order to get their paycheck, and you only have the position over them, they will always give you the least of their time, ability, effort, and mind. People don’t like to have to follow people because they have to follow people. This is a great mistake that people who have positional leadership make. They think, Since I have the title and the position, now everyone will follow me! when they are really only following if you’re not a good leader because they have to, and it is the only way they can get paid. Again, Level One is where you will only get the least of people’s energy, effort, and mind.

I’ve seen it many times when I have worked with companies on leadership. You can always tell what is a Level One leadership company or culture. In Level One leadership position companies, when quitting time is at 5:00 p.m., everyone is clearing their desks at 4:30 p.m. They are moving stuff around because there are 30 minutes until the highlight of their day. They are starting the countdown because they want nothing to impede their progress when they leave the building. At 4:45 p.m., they get away from their desks, go around to other cubicles, and begin saying their goodbyes. They say, “It was great to be with you today. I had a great time. See you tomorrow!” They do this because at 5:00 p.m., they don’t want to be encumbered by doing relationship stuff. They want to do that on company time. At 4:50 p.m., they go to the restrooms. Of course! They want to pee on company time! At 4:55 p.m., they are back at their desks changing their shoes because at 4:57 p.m., they will be in a starting position to take off and at 5:00 p.m., everyone is gone. They are gone so fast, it startles you. When you look out the window, you are shocked because all the cars are gone. You ask yourself, How can people leave a building so fast without a fire drill? Let me explain. In positional companies, when people park in the morning, they are very careful how they park. They back their car in because at quitting time, they want a fast escape because they are on their time.

If you show me positional companies, cultures, and leaders that are positional in their thinking, I will promise you that every time, those people will constantly wonder, Why am I not getting the best out of my people? You are not getting the best out of your people because they are only following you because you have a title. They will give you very little energy. The good news is that you don’t have to stay at Level One.

Level Two

The first level is the positional level, Level Two is the permission level. At this level, the key word is relationships. At this level, people now begin to follow you because they want to. There is a world of a difference between following somebody because you have to and following somebody because you want to. What happened between Level One and Two? You have connected with your people. Not only have you connected with them, but relationally, they like you, and you like them, and you’ve gotten to know each other. In this work environment, they are not just following you because you are a supervisor, but you are a supervisor that people like. I’m always amazed at people who have leadership positions or responsibilities, and they’re not likeable. Do you know what I mean? They’re just not likeable! People don’t care for them. It’s tough being in the “people business” and not having people like you! Sometimes I see them and I just want to sit down with them and say, “My name is John, and I’m your friend. And I just want you to know that people don’t like you.”

Have you ever had someone you work for that you just didn’t like? Let me qualify this for you—not in your present job situation. I know that is not happening where you are now because you are happy. But how many of you in another job, in another time, on another planet, have had somebody you had to follow, and that person just wasn’t likeable? Now let me ask the real question: How many of you are seated beside that person right now?

Relationships with people are the foundation of leadership. You build your leadership off of relationships. Why? Because leadership in influence. You cannot influence somebody that you antagonize. Every one of us knows what it’s like to have somebody that’s hard to like. Have you ever been in a grocery store and you saw somebody you didn’t want to see? The bad news is that you saw them, but the good news is that they didn’t see you.

At Level Two, you begin to develop relationship skills. Let me describe the leaders on Level Two. They have to do three things extremely well to be a relational leader. First, they listen well, and they take all of their leadership cues from walking slowly through the crowd and listening. Second, they observe and are conscious of where their people are and what they are doing. They are constantly observing them. Third, they are learning. In the process of listening, observing, and learning, they have an attitude of servanthood. They know how to serve. Not only do they know how to serve, but they do serve and they love to serve. I live in Florida, and one of the things I love about Chick-Fil-A is that they have a servant culture. They have relational stuff of Level Two wired. “It’s my pleasure! How can I serve you?” It’s a mind-set and a culture. If you’re going to grow as a leader, you have to grow beyond your position and title. You may have a position, which is Level One, but the second level is relationships and the ability to get along with people.

Level Three

The third level is the production level. The key word here is results. At this level, you’re starting to help the bottom line of the company. You’re starting to “bring home the bacon.” At this level, you become effective as a leader because you produce. The characteristics of leaders at Level Three are very common: They produce by example, and they are the example for the other people who follow them for how to be effective and productive. The greatest motivational principle in the world is that people do what people see. Too many leaders are like travel agents, sending people where they have never been themselves. You want to be a tour guide and take people with you. You want to say, “This is the area where I’ve been. This is where I live. This is the area I lead. Come along and follow me.” At Level Three, your leadership begins to gain credibility because now you are fleshing out for the people around you. You are modeling for them things that they want to see, and you are starting to produce. Something else happens: While you’re becoming productive in your own life, you begin to attract people to be productive also.

In my book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, one of the laws is the law of magnetism. In the law of magnetism, we attract who we are, not who we want. So when I talk to leaders about what kind of people they want to recruit in their company and departments as a supervisor, they give me lists of characteristics such as self-disciplined, service-oriented, and four to five other qualities. When I read these lists, I ask them if they possess these qualities. On Level Three, who you are as a leader is who you attract on your team. When you start to produce and grow things, you begin to get momentum. Momentum is a leader’s best friend because momentum is the great exaggerator. Once you have momentum, all of a sudden things begin to look in such a better way, and it becomes easier to grow and lead, which is a wonderful thing. Level Three is where a lot of the problem-solving is taken care of. Managers try to solve problems, and leaders try to create momentum because they know if they create momentum, they’ll solve 80 percent of the problems with momentum. Momentum is a problem solver. Lack of momentum is a problem stopper. A train going 55 miles per hour on a track can smash through a five-foot-thick, concrete-and-steel-reinforced wall and keep going because the train has momentum. The same train stopped on the track, not moving on the track has no momentum, and it cannot start moving if one-inch blocks are blocking the wheels on the track. The same train that smashed through the wall cannot get going without momentum.

I tell people many times that when they look at the problems they have in their organizations, the problem isn’t the problem. They think the problem is the problem, so they concentrate on a problem that is not a problem. Now that the problem that isn’t the problem has become a problem, not because it was a problem, but the problem was that they didn’t know it wasn’t the problem, and it has now become a problem. Momentum and Level Three leadership will take care of 80 percent of the problems in an organization. It happens for sports; it happens for business; it happens in government. Momentum is a leader’s best friend. You have to get to Level Three to get momentum going.

Level Four

This is the people development level. This is what I live for and strive for, and this is what excites me. Something magical happens when you begin to understand the most appreciable asset you have in any organization is the people in that organization. You begin to commit yourself to developing the people within that organization because you grow a company by growing people. When you grow them, they increase their own capacity and the capacity of what you can do and accomplish.

I have three thoughts on developing people. The first is that the key to developing new people is in recruitment. The better person you bring in the door, the higher the odds that you can do well with them. I had lunch with Lou Holtz, who told me, “I’ve had bad players on my football team, and I’ve had good players. I’m a better coach with good players.” Of course he is. Eighty percent of your success in equipping people with success is in whom you bring in through the front door. Unless you and I have a clear picture of what we’re looking for, we don’t know when we see it. People come to me who are looking for great leaders for their company and I always ask them, “What do leaders looks like? Give me the characteristics, and paint a picture of what they look like.”

The second thing is positioning—the ability not only to bring the right person in the front door, but also to put that person in the right place. Successful people have always positioned well. When you see successful people, they are successful because they found their strengths and their niche, and they stayed in their “sweet spot” doing what they are good at. No one will ever say the secret to their success is that they never discovered what they are good at or that they only worked on their weaknesses. Successful leaders discover what other people are good at. Successful people position themselves well, and successful leaders position others well. Leaders are always looking at others, observing and watching.

Every year, I go back to the university in Ohio, where I first went to school, to speak. Because I grew up in that town, I told one of my friends that I was going to be in town, and let’s have dinner afterward. We laughed, had a great time, and told stories for two hours, and our old basketball coach came up. Every year, he would take the first team out of their positions and would leave all the second team players in their positions. He taught us that it is key to be positionally correct. You recruit well; you position well; and you equip well. You understand what their strengths and gifts are, and then decide how to develop, train, and equip them.

The third thing to developing new people is equipping.

Five-Step Equipping Process

  1. I do it. You can’t teach somebody what you can do yourself. We may teach what we do, but we can only reproduce what we are.
  2. I do it, and you’re with me. Spend time together. I’ll be a mentor/coach; you will watch and observe me. You’ll see me in situations and ask me questions along the way.
  3. You do it, and I’m with you. I’m watching and tweaking you, helping you get better, fine-tuning you.
  4. You do it. You don’t need me anymore, because you are equipped.
  5. You do it, and somebody is with you. You haven’t trained or equipped people until they can multiply themselves. That’s the compounding of time, money, influence, etc. Fourteen years ago, I started a nonprofit organization called Equip that is now the largest leadership organization in the world. We’ve trained and equipped more than 3 million people in 154 countries. The key is that we don’t train anybody unless he or she makes a commitment to train somebody else.

Level Five

This is the pinnacle level. The key word here is respect. You’ve done so well with so many for so long that people just absolutely follow you because of who you are, the qualities you have, and what you have done. There’s a great amount of respect, and it takes a long time to get there. All of us would probably like to be there, but it’s a lifetime journey. Leadership is always a learning and growing process.

Since you have the five levels, and can see how they all lead into each other, you can ask yourself what level you think you are on. If you asked yourself that question, you may get frustrated trying to figure this out because you may discover you’re not on the same level with everybody. With one person, you may be on Level Two; with somebody else you may be on Level Four. If somebody new comes to the company, you’re back on Level One with that person. What you’re going to discover is that you’re on different levels with different people.

This is what I want you to understand: Take the people that you lead, put their names down, and ask yourself, What level am I on with this person? Do your best to put a number there because after you know what level you’re on with each one of your people, then you will know specifically how to lead them. Whenever you try to cast vision with people in your organization or in your department, they don’t see you based on who you are as a person or as a leader. They see you through the “five levels” grid, and a person on Level One sees you entirely different than a person on Level Four. The commitment is much higher the higher you go with your people. When you cast a vision for your people and tell them where you want to go, just understand the reactions from these people are going to be different because they are on different levels with you.

So take the notes, study them, and apply them to your life. Begin to be a student of the Five Levels of Leadership, and I wish you well because leadership is influence—always has been and always will be. You have the power within you to increase that influence.


John Maxwell is a New York Times bestselling author, coach and speaker who was identified as a top business leader by the American Management Association and one of the world’s most influential leadership experts by Business Insider and Inc. magazine. In 2014, Maxwell received the Mother Teresa Prize for Global Peace and Leadership from the Luminary Leadership Network. His organizations — the John Maxwell Company, the John Maxwell Team, and Equip — have trained more than 6 million leaders across the world.


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