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Matt Tenney, Contributor

Leadership is a hot topic right now—and one that is often mired in controversy. 

We’ve seen the TikTok horror stories about ineffectual management and toxic bosses, read the articles about egomaniacal CEOs with bad interpersonal skills who set unrealistic, burnout-inducing expectations for their employees, and have seen the effects that bad leadership and toxic cultures have on workers. 

Many have cited poor leadership and toxic workplace cultures during the COVID-19 pandemic as the main contributing factors driving the Great Resignation. There are a lot of ways we can combat this in the future, but one of the most important things we can do to prevent more Great Resignations in the future is to develop great leaders now.

A leader’s goal is to help their teams achieve great things. By developing leaders who can build authentic connections with workers and maintain harmonious environments for them to work in, we ensure we are engaging and retaining talented employees who do great work.

Whether you’re a new leader or a seasoned leader with years of experience under your belt, there’s always room for improvement. Great leaders can become even better leaders when they continuously hone their skills. 

Great leadership abilities aren’t necessarily something a person is born with, though a natural ability to lead can make it easier for a leader to succeed. For those of us who weren’t born leaders, leadership development may be more of a journey, where we grow from one stage to the next. 

There are five distinct stages, or levels, of leadership development according to author and leadership expert John Maxwell. Maxwell first presented his leadership paradigm in Developing the Leader Within You and expanded it in his book The 5 Levels of Leadership.

The five levels of leadership are position, permission, production, people development, and pinnacle. Leaders develop skills, build confidence, grow influence, and achieve mastery at each level before moving to the next. This scale provides a framework for leaders and their teams to reach their full potential. 

In this article, we’ll explore each of these five levels of leadership as outlined by Maxwell and how they help leaders to build confidence and lead their teams to greatness.

The Five Levels of Leadership

The five levels of leadership are position, permission, production, people development, and pinnacle. Each level builds on the previous level. 

Another way to refer to this scale is “the 5 Rs,” with each level being defined by the goals a leader should aim to meet as they grow and move from one level to the next. The 5 Rs are rights, relationships, results, reproduction, and respect. 

  • Level 1: Position

Rights – People follow a leader because they have to. 

  • Level 2: Permission

Relationships – People follow a leader because they want to.

  • Level 3: Production

Results – People follow a leader because of what the leader has done for the organization.

  • Level 4: People Development

Reproduction – People follow a leader because of what they’ve done for them.

  • Level 5: Pinnacle

Respect – People follow a leader because of who they are and what they represent.

Each level focuses on a different aspect of great leadership, but all are defined mainly by how leaders continue to build their influence with their followers at each level as they progress through their careers. 

Now we’ll take a closer look at each of these levels of leadership.

Level 1: Position

Rights – People follow a leader because they have to. 

Position is the lowest level of leadership. At this level, people will only follow a leader because they have to. 

This level of leadership is transactional, with a heavy emphasis on organization, regulations, policies, and rules to motivate followers. It relies on authority as leaders at this level have not built influence outside of authority. 

Anyone who is in a supervisory position can be on this leadership level. At this level, you are a boss, a supervisor, or a manager, but you are not yet a fully-developed leader. You are still building credibility with your followers, who are likely still more employees and subordinates at this point than team members. 

To move yourself and your team beyond this level requires setting clear priorities, clearly articulating expectations, and building trusting relationships with employees. 

Maxwell says Level 1 leaders may find it challenging to set clear priorities, but mastering this skill is what helps you gain the trust of your team as a leader. It not only helps a leader build engagement with employees, it will be conducive to successful future collaborative efforts and an authentic spirit of camaraderie on the team. 

To build rapport with subordinates and move to the next level, Level 1 leaders need to work on their soft skills. Developing emotional intelligence will help you become a self-aware leader who can understand and empathize with your employees. 

Level 2: Permission

Relationships – People follow a leader because they want to.

At Level 2, relationships are forged, and people give leaders the permission to lead them. For leaders to grow at this level, they should work on building connections with their people. 

Leaders who move to this level are able to move beyond compliance and positional authority. This is the first step toward true leadership, and it is characterized by a significant shift in influence. 

This can positively shape the employee experience and create a harmonious work environment where employees are engaged in the work they do and invested in helping to achieve the organization’s success. Under Level 2 leadership, employees will see themselves as instrumental in that success and tie their own success to the organization’s success. 

This level is so important, especially for the servant leader, who seeks to lead through persuasion. Persuading your team to follow you because they want to and believe in your leadership abilities is the key to helping them achieve great things.

Leaders at this level are aware of the potential impacts of their decisions. Treating employees with respect and making them feel valued helps leaders forge trust-based relationships with employees and develop positive influence with them. This lays the foundation for the next level.

Creating supportive, inclusive environments where team members feel valued, fostering accountability and transparency, supporting successful collaborative efforts, and getting cultural buy-in from employees helps leaders level up and paves the way for a high-performance culture that produces real results. 

Level 3: Production

Results – People follow a leader because of what the leader has done for the organization.

By this point, leaders have built a track record with employees, and, because of the influence leaders have established at this level, they will start to see results.

Level 3 leaders have the potential to transform into change agents. These leaders inspire high performance, good morale, and increased profits and have learned to deal with tough issues with tact and diplomacy.

Leaders at this level aren’t just productive, they help others be productive. Producing results is key to mastering this level, and these leaders are pros at setting and meeting goals that grow the organization and contribute to its profitability. 

Level 3 leaders thrive on feedback, encourage employees to be a part of the decision-making process, and help employees identify ways to produce great results. 

Level 4: People Development

Reproduction – People follow a leader because of what they’ve done for them.

Productivity is an important part of Level 4 leadership as well, but these leaders move beyond production to development. Level 4 shifts the emphasis from productive leadership to developing others, with the goal of investing in and growing more leaders. 

Maxwell explains this level: “When there are more leaders, more of the organization’s mission can be accomplished. The people you choose to develop may show great potential for leadership, or they may be diamonds in the rough, but the main idea is the same: When you invest in them, you can reproduce yourself.”

These leaders recognize their team members are the organization’s best asset and make investing in leaders their top priority. Growth for leaders at this level means growing and inspiring new leaders, which reinforces the influence a leader has with their followers. 

To master this level, a leader should provide a high degree of clarity, regularly communicate their expectations to employees, help them course correct when needed, help them achieve their goals, and guide them toward honing their own leadership skills.

Some ways leaders do this is through mentoring, coaching, providing learning and development opportunities, and offering career pathing to help them move into leadership roles. 

Level 5: Pinnacle

Respect – People follow a leader because of who they are and what they represent.

Getting to this level can be a challenge. It requires a true commitment, intentionality, and the long-term investment of time and effort. A Level 5 leader commits their lives to investing in others. 

This level is transformational. It is defined by its potential to shape organizations, teams, and even industries, well into the future. At this level, a leader’s influence extends beyond the organization, even beyond the industry they work in and represent. 

According to Maxwell, Level 5 leaders develop Level 5 organizations and create opportunities that make them stand out from the pack. They also create strong legacies that will live on and continue to shape the lives of others. 

Leaders who reach this level will have a successful track record of building high-performance teams that produce innovative results. They give their teams the tools they need to work autonomously and always lead by example. 

Not all leaders reach this level, but it should be the level leaders always strive to achieve.

Getting to this level isn’t the end for good leaders because good leaders know how essential it is to continually grow as leaders at every level and develop leaders who also develop leaders. 

How Do Leaders Reach Level 5?

Maxwell says, “Leadership is about growth – for yourself, your relationships, your productivity, and your people. To lead well, you must embrace your need for continual improvement… “ 

For leaders to reach their full potential, they shouldn’t just encourage their teams to grow and develop; they should always be developing and growing to better serve their teams.

Wherever you are in your leadership journey, growth is key. Whether you are growing your influence, growing trust-based relationships with those you lead, or growing new leaders, continuous growth is the goal. 

Developing an improvement mindset and establishing a healthy system of feedback can help leaders grow at any level. 

Leaders who coach and mentor their employees toward growth are establishing an improvement mindset that benefits the entire organization. If you are new to leadership, finding a mentor who can guide you through the levels of leadership can help you avoid pitfalls and setbacks. This sort of expertise will be invaluable as you prepare for Level 4 leadership.

Constructive feedback is an important part of the growth and improvement process. Employees need feedback on a regular basis to excel in their jobs. It provides not only job clarity, but also helps employees course correct when needed and build confidence in their work.

But, to be most effective, it needs to be a two-way street, with leadership being open to feedback from employees so that they can also course correct and build confidence. This gives employees a voice and helps them to build trust with leadership, which increases a leader’s influence and ability to inspire their team members to do their best work.

Continually growing your level of emotional intelligence will also help you on your leadership journey.  

A leader who not only knows themselves really well, but is also sensitive to the emotional needs of others and acts on the knowledge gained through self-awareness and social awareness by leading their teams with tact, diplomacy, and poise will find it much easier to build influence, forge strong bonds with team members, and progress to the next level.

What is the secret to reaching the leadership pinnacle? It’s no secret, and it is much easier than you think.

The best leaders care about their employees. They help them to thrive. And the best way to both grow as a leader and help your team to grow is to demonstrate care toward employees and invest in their success. 

Great leaders grow their influence by supporting and serving employees and maintaining a supportive, inclusive work environment that is conducive to great work and inhospitable to toxic culture.

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Matt Tenney is an active CEO who aspires to create the best workplace culture in the world.  Matt is also the author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence.  Matt is frequently invited to present keynote speeches at leadership conferences and meetings.  His TEDx Talk has been viewed over 1,000,000 times since January, 2020.

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