The 5 Levels of Leadership: What We’ve Learned From Maxwell’s Book

Being a leader is more than just having a title. According to John C. Maxwell in his book, The 5 Levels of Leadership, being appointed to a position only marks the first stage in a leader’s journey. In this guide, we’ll explore his book and discuss the main learning points and how to navigate through the five levels of leadership yourself.

A Quick Summary of the 5 Levels of Leadership

If you’re eager to get the answer and quickly identify the 5 levels of leadership, then here they are:

1. Position. People follow you because they have to (This is the entry-level and requires little work).

2. Permission. People follow you because they want to. They give you permission to lead them. (You’re now developing relationships and leading by examples).

3. Production. People follow you because of what you have done for the organization. (You’re now making a difference in the business and your leadership style is getting results).

4. People Development. People follow you because of what you have done for them personally and how you have built up trust and respect as a leader. (You are now developing future leaders in the business).

5. Pinnacle. People follow you because of who you are and what you represent. You are building your own strengths and have developed leaders who are developing their leaders.

Boiling it down, there are two key areas of focus of the 5 levels roadmap. They are built around development.

  • Personal Growth: Developing your own skills as you progress in your career – Typical skills to develop are your coaching ability, communication, planning, problem-solving, general leadership, emotional intelligence, goal setting, and team-building skills to name some of the core tools;
  • People Development: Continuously developing your team members so they grow in their own careers. As you do, you open up new opportunities for trust and commitment. Your additional focus is to find future leaders and develop them too, so they embark on their own journeys to become level 5 leaders.

In turn, the business develops a greater capacity to lead, drive a positive culture, empower employees and get results.

Level 1: Position

Employees who only reach Level 1 do not officially make it to the definitive level of leadership. They are entry-level leaders. This level consists of being the boss.

In effect, a positional leader leads without any effort.

You’ve been put in a position of power, and therefore are responsible for others.

Level 1 leadership is simply the foundational level for which all other levels are built. There’s nothing wrong with being a positional leader and one of power. When someone is given a position, it’s because they have been recognized for their talent and potential in that organisation.

John Maxwell explains that it’s a good starting point, but every leader should recognise that this level is just that: the starting point of a good leader.

Here are 4 Reasons to celebrate being at level 1 of the 5 levels of leadership:

  1. You’re in a leadership position because you’ve been recognised as having leadership potential;
  2. A leadership position means you have power and authority – and are recognised for it;
  3. It doesn’t mean that you can rest on your laurels, though – A leadership position is an invitation to grow and move up the levels, developing you through the 5 levels of leadership that John Maxwell laid out for us;
  4. This leadership position allows you to maximize your potential by shaping and defining your skills further. Becoming a great leader, one that progresses through the five levels. It involves a mindset of growth and personal development.

The First Step to Improvement: A Blank Page

When you start your leadership career, your page is blank. You get to fill it by being the leader that you want to be.

What kind of leader do you want to be?

  • A tyrant or a team builder?
  • Do you want to be an authoritarian leader and punish mistakes, or inspirational and encourage innovation and risk-taking?
  • Do you want to direct or do you want to coach?

As you think about this, what habits and systems will you create and work to?

  • What routines will you follow?
  • How will you engage with your team members?
  • What will be your work ethic?
  • What example will you set?
  • What values will you live by?

The truth is, the earlier on the journey you are, the greater the potential to shape your own leadership role and gain good habits.

First, start to define the leadership skills you’ll need by writing down what type of leader you want to be and what legacy you want to leave. Then seek to learn the skills needed to make you this type of leader.

Level 2: Permission

The next of John Maxwell’s levels of leadership is Permission. Making the shift from Position to Permission is the first real step to being a leader rather than a boss.

Learning to function from the permission level of leadership, means the landscape changes. In the permission stage, people will not just obey orders- they start to follow you.

These followers do so because they want to. This is because the leader is building relationships and trust by providing a positive influence on their team.

The foundation behind this is the need for humans to feel connected. We are social beings. When we feel cared for, included, valued and trusted, collaboration and shared leadership become possible, because we feel engaged.

Level 2 leadership signifies a significant step forward because this is when team members give their superiors permission to lead them.

People change from being subordinates to followers for the first time. That means there is a breakthrough in your leadership development. Change is happening and you’re starting to see the fruits of your hard work.

Tips to Achieve Level 2

Connect with Yourself Before Trying to Connect with Others:

Building relationships with other people often begins by getting to know who you are, first. In the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey identifies the first habit as understanding who you are and what you want from life.

John Maxwell agrees and extends this to defining who we are based on our relationships. In a concept he wrote about in his book called Winning with People, Maxwell refers to the Mirror Principle.

He states that analysing the relationships we have ourselves, allows us to see how we react and what our behavioural patterns are. This in turn gives us the ability to see where we can improve and how to connect with ourselves better, before attempting to connect with others.

American novelist Eleanor Brown once said, “Self-care is not selfish. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.” It’s the first lesson to heed as a level 2 leader. Forbes has a good introductory article to get you started.

Develop a People-orientated Leadership Style.

Leaders who operate within permissional realms of influence, do not need to enforce order through rules or systems. The level 2 permission-based leader never tries to rule with an authoritarian stick.

Instead of letting formalities or egos stand in the way, they listen carefully to what others have to say. They learn from these interactions and then lead by example with an appropriate amount of empathy and consideration for all involved. The bottom line is they get out to their people and connect and build relationships.

Practice the Golden Rule.

Maxwell advises starting permission-based leadership by “Treating others as you want others to treat you.” Show respect and empathy. Show care and compassion. Listen to your team and serve them.

Become the Chief Encourager of Your Team.

Providingcontinuous encouragement is key, here. Look for opportunities to praise and provide positive feedback. Blanchard highlights this concept in his book, The One Minute Manager. One of the factors of this leadership style is for managers to actively seek opportunities to praise others.

Do the same.

Constantly support, praise and encourage your team members. Maxwell highlights that as long as someone is breathing, they should be encouraged!

Strike a Balance Between Care and Candour.

People always have the power to change their attitudes and improve their abilities. In believing this, you’ll be able to talk to your employees about where they need to improve and how to do better.

This is candour, and it’s a must that cannot be avoided. Tough conversations must happen to help personal growth and to help others get to the next level in their careers.

In John Maxwell’s view: care without candour creates a dysfunctional relationship.

But too much candour can upset the balance too.

Care balanced with candour creates great working relationships, where everyone can be positively challenged to improve without taking offence.

Practice these key elements and you’ll be well on your way to being a level 2 permission leader.

Level 3: Production

Here, your leadership moves onto another level and where you and your team produce results. Many leaders at this stage, become powerful contributors to organisational output.

These level 3 leader make things happen.

This ability to get results gives Level 3 leaders confidence, and credibility. They also get increased influence and standing in the business. People tend to want to work with level 3 producers, because of their ability to lead effectively and get actual results doing it.

Leadership at Level 3, attracts other high-performing individuals. Those who are already accomplished will be drawn to those who have shown they can get the job done.

People tend to want to work with level 3 production leaders, because of their ability to lead effectively and get actual results doing it.

The Challange at This Level Of Leadership

Leaders will find themselves at Level 1 for many different reasons: They show promise, have connections, play politics, they’ve been good at a previous roleto name a few.

Those that progress to level 2 leadership are naturally people-centric or are developing their people skills. They are now building empowered and engaged teams.

The truth is that not all leaders progress from level 2 leadership, though. Some are stuck here because level 3 is about producing – or getting results.

To put it bluntly, it’s not enough just to ensure your team are engaged and are developing. You must have one eye on output at all times.

At this level, your leadership skills and focus should extend to processes and performance, as well as people.

How to Get to Level 3 Leadership

Share your vision with others so they know what you plan to accomplish.

Too much ambiguity leads to poor direction and poorly executed tasks. Productive leaders establish a clear connection between the organizational vision and how the day-to-day work is being completed.

A compelling vision is clear and well-defined, expansive and challenging. It is aligned with the shared values of the team.

If you want your employees to be motivated and inspired, then reward and celebrate their small victories every day by agreeing and reviewing tasks in line with what the team are trying to achieve.

Begin the process of putting your team together.

Level 2 leaders create an environment where people enjoy each other’s company. Level 3 leaders create a team, so they enjoy getting things done.

At the heart of this step is the need and ability to build a self-directing and effective team.

  1. Ensure you create an open environment where team members complement each other openly. A way to do this would be to ensure you break down barriers by building an open and honest team ethic, using team-building exercises;
  2. Create regular feedback on team members’ performance. Run regular 1-2-1 sessions with each employee and deploy candour;
  3. Create an environment for growth and inspiration. Allow people to try new things and learn from each other.

Focus on what yields the highest return.

Everyone can get caught up doing so many things that we run out of time. The truth is, some actions need to be done because they yield the highest returns, and other tasks don’t give you much in return.

The same is true with your team.

Focus on planning your team’s time around a system like the Eisenhower Matrix, so you can ensure they are doing the things that will give you a greater chance of hitting your objectives and mission.

Equally, teach your team to spot non-value adding activities, too. These are tasks and activities that are often wasteful steps, and which should be reduced or eliminated from the processes that your teamwork within.

Each time you do, you’ll free up important time and increase morale, too.

Never lose sight that output is your goal.

Although many critics simply theorise about productivity, good leaders know how to stay focused on the end goal.

Even when faced with obstacles, they know that the result is always important.

Ensure you make your workplace visual, so you can quickly and readily track how your team are performing. Doing this will allow you to reflect and improve as you go.

It will also show your employees that it’s a results business we’re all in together.

When your team is performing well, it gives more credibility to you as a leader. This in turn builds momentum.

Equally, achieving our goals boosts our self-confidence and satisfaction more than any external acknowledgement, no matter how nice it is.

Level 4: People Development

The tactics and methods you used to succeed in level 3 leadership, won’t be enough for the level 4 leader.

Along with the normal obstacles that arise while climbing up the 5 Levels of Leadership, successful leaders are required to make paradigm shifts as they improve.

Level 3 focuses on improving productivity for personal and professional reasons. The ability to create a high-productivity team, department or organization indicates a level 3 level of leadership ability.

However, to reach the top levels of leadership that create elite organizations, leaders must transition from producers to developers. In other words, once the team is performing and creating tangible results, the next focus is on people development and developing other leaders.

The reason for this is simple: People are an organisation’s most important asset. Hence, people development is critical by level 4 leaders who invest time, and energy developing others as leaders.

Likewise, organizations need people who are open to both growth and instruction, regardless of their experience. These are your next potential leaders.

Successful leaders are level 4 people development leaders because they care about other people’s success as much as their own. According to speaker and master salesman Zig Ziglar, “If you will help others get what they want, they will help you get what you want.”

Level 4 people development leaders know this to be true, which forms the foundation to this next level of leadership.

Tips to Make Level 4 Leadership A Reality

Here some tips to get you started:

Focus on Sustainable Growth Through Development.

As a leader, you can help your organization’s future when you:

Delegate Projects and More Important Tasks As People Develop.

Many organisations are held back by leaders who can’t lead. They can’t empower and motivate their team members, so those they oversee don’t go anywhere.

Some leaders limit an organisation because they won’t share responsibility and delegate effectively. These people are normally competent and technical, but hold on to too much.

John Maxwell identifies that when people are encouraged and developed, they share responsibility. This can help invite team members slowly into leadership positions, giving them opportunities to learn how things get done on their own.

To do this, look to empower your team by delegating tasks regularly.

Use a leadership model like the Situational Leadership framework, to help develop people and use the appropriate leadership style to suit each employee’s skillset.

A simple rule of thumb to delegate is this:

If one of your teammates can do one of your tasks at least 80% as well as you, then let them do it. By being a pragmatist rather than a perfectionist, you’re more likely to be an effective leader.

Put the Right People in the Right Positions.

Another leadership skill to master is by putting the right people in the right positions. This helps employees grow and to master certain skillsets, whilst helping them to claim responsibility.

You must model what you expect from others: be authentic, be a servant, continue to grow as a person, and strive for excellence.

This will help you lead others according to the values you set for yourself.

Equip Others with the Knowledge to do Their Job Well.

Your life isn’t just about your career. Teaching people to live a full, healthy and satisfying life should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

Enable people to succeed. Give them faith, trust them, believe in them, and stand steadfast in your support, even when they make mistakes.

Consider how well people can function without your input. Where they need additional training, give it to them. You can follow the 70:20:10 model to help set types of training to support your team.

Continue to give candid feedback, which will help develop and improve your teams openly and safely.

Identify Future Leaders.

Find people that are enthusiastic, eager to learn and demonstrate great levels of engagement. These are your future leaders.

Discuss the future during regular 1-2-1 reviews and create development plans to help them see how they can transition from their current position to a leader. Where you can, give them some form of responsibility on tasks and projects, so they can develop in skills and responsibility.

Where you can, promote them into level 1 positions, so you can start their formal leadership development.

Level 5: The Pinnacle

A leader rarely reaches level 5, but you should always shoot for this pinnacle.

To succeed at this level of leadership, you must have the appropriate skills and experience for leading others on levels one through four. This means a high degree of skill and some amount of natural leadership ability.

Level 5 leaders lead so well that they create a legacy of leadership in the organization they serve. They develop level 4 leaders and leave a lasting legacy.

This high-level leadership position contributes to the success of everyone in and outside the organization. When a Level 5 leader is present, there is an influence that transcends industry, creating an environment where all are successful.

Although they have achieved great success, Pinnacle leaders are humble and grounded. They show gratitude as they develop the next generation leaders.

They help as many leaders reach their potential as much as possible and tackle as many challenges as they can so that the business is sustainable and successful.

Level 5 leaders lead so well that they create a legacy of leadership in the organization they serve. They develop level 4 leaders and leave a lasting legacy.

Tips to Get to Level 5 Leadership

Here are some ideas to keep you at level 5 leadership, which John Maxwell identifies:

Stay Humble and Keep Doing What Got You Here.

The greatest potential internal danger of working your way up to Level 5 is feeling like you’ve arrived and that you have all the answers. You may be tempted to think that because you’re finally at a higher level, it’s time for everyone else on the team to start following what YOU say instead of thinking critically about their own opinions.

Ensure you continue to develop leaders and allow the conditions for personal development and growth.

Maintain Your Core Strengths.

If you’ve made it to the Pinnacle level of leadership, your sweet spot or strength zone got you there. Identify that core skill, write it down and ensure you are aware of it and continue to use these leadership skills in the coming years.

Create the Right Inner Circle.

The best leaders know that it takes a team with different personalities to get the job done.

They need people in their inner circle who will work alongside them, help them enjoy life and keep grounded no matter what they go through or accomplish in this world. Build your team to ensure you’re grounded as well as achieve the vision and goals together.

Continue to Develop Leaders.

Ensure the culture and environment is in place for the entire organisation, to continuously develop leaders into future level 5 leaders. This involves ensuring there’s always room for a promotion, so leaders can begin their journey. Also, ensure there’s room at the top too!

 Provide One on One Mentoring.

Leaders that show level 4 capability should be coached and mentored. Your role here is to take them on and provide one on one mentoring to help them move to level 5 leadership themselves.

Plan Your Succession.

It’s important to find your successor, who can take on the business in the future and continue to develop it. If you have been developing high-calibre level 4 leaders, then start there. Look for the candidates with the most potential.

The Benefits of the Five Levels Of Leadership

Naturally, there are some considerable benefits to implementing the five levels of leadership model.

One of the big pluses is that, if you get it right, you’ll build an organisation of proven leaders where they all follow proven steps to maximize leadership development. This in turn helps implement a positive and open culture of growth and development.

Some of the additional benefits that the five levels of leadership can bring are:

You can Learn Practical Leadership Tools

The 5 Levels of leadership has been implemented at companies of all sizes, from startups to Fortune 100 corporations.

It has been used to help nonprofit organizations understand how to lead volunteers and it’s also been taught in more than 100 countries around the world.

This concept is proven and tested. The Five Levels of Leadership offers a clear picture of leadership. Whether you are naturally gifted for it or not, the art of leading others can be mysterious.

Leadership is a complicated thing. The problem is, it often gets stuck in theory and lost to practicality and how to implement in the real world.

John Maxwell’s 5 Levels of Leadership are straightforward and practical levels to aspire to, so leaders of all industries and experience can learn, whether formally trained or not.

The Five Levels of Leadership Defines Leading as a Verb, Not a Noun

Leadership is not a position. Leadership deals with people and their changing dynamics- they are never static.

Leadership is the art of facilitating change and growth. This requires movement, which should be apparent when moving up from one leadership level to the next.

The Levels are Broken into Understandable Steps

Want to know how to get from a positional leader to the next level? Or from a level 3 producer to a level 4 developer? John Maxwell’s five leadership levels allow you to know what to focus on to be a better leader most of the time.

And whilst, the journey is specific to each individual, everyone can work to becoming a level 5 leader, knowing what it entails.

The Five Levels Aligns Leadership Practices, Principles and Values

Maxwell defined these 5 levels of leadership as principles.

Keep in mind that practice is only usable in one specific situation, whereas a principle is an external truth that will work just about anywhere.

Principles serve as the basis for making wise decisions. If they are embraced and internalized, they become a part of our genuine values. Principles create a roadmap of how to achieve something or get somewhere. These leadership levels form a roadmap of how to be better, operating within a proven framework.

John Maxwell states that These 5 Levels can influence your leadership life every day.

To Summarise

If you want to become more than a boss, whereby people just follow you because they have to, you’re going to need to master the skill of inspiration, whilst investing your time and attention into being the best version of you, you can be.

To be a stronger leader, you must produce results and build a team that is engaged and high performing.

To get to the next levels of leadership, invest your time in developing others, so they can be the best leaders they can be. If you are dedicated, skilled, and determined enough, then you can become a leader of the highest calibre.

By following the 5 levels of leadership, John C. Maxwell shares insight into how to pragmatically become a successful leader, and how to teach others to do the same – to reach the 5 levels of leadership.