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[Review] The 5 Levels Of Leadership


How are peak leaders developed? What differentiates a superstar CEO like Jack Welch from other less extraordinary leaders?

The answer, according to bestselling author John C. Maxwell, lies in “The 5 Levels of Leadership“. Focused on growing one’s leadership potential in a tiered manner, the book provides pragmatic steps to scale the leadership ladder while achieving lasting impact on one’s organisation and followers.

Packed with examples from Maxwell’s own leadership journey as well as stories of legendary leaders like superstar coach John Wooden of UCLA and Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher, the book is chock full of quotable quotes and maxims. Some of the more memorable ones include the following:

“Leading an organisation is as much about soul as it is about systems…” – Herb Kelleher

“Good people are found, not changed.” – Jim Rohn

“No matter where you are in your leadership journey, never forget that what got you to where you are won’t get you to the next level.” – John Maxwell

“Victory is much more meaningful when it comes not just from one person, but from the joint achievements of many. The euphoria is lasting when all participants lead with their hearts, winning not just for themselves but for one another.” – Howard Schultz 

At its core, The 5 Levels of Leadership revolves around 5 “Ps” stacked in ascending order of significance. These are PositionPermissionProductionPeople Development, and Pinnacle. They are graphically represented by the diagram below:

Courtesy of John Maxwell

The first level of Position is achieved when one gets a job with a leadership responsibility. People often get promoted into leadership based on their potential, and a leadership position allows one to take charge of others by sheer fact of their title. People have to follow these leaders because they have the authority and right to lead them. Often, tier one leaders depend on their rank and rules to get things done.

As a leader gravitates towards a more collegial style of leadership, Permission comes into play. Here, leaders leverage on their relationships with others, relying on open communication, encouragement, trust, and effective inter-human relations to get things done.

A key thing to remember here is the Golden Rule, ie “Treat others as you want others to treat you.”

Moving up to level 3, leaders start to harness Production as a key trait. Focusing on results, such leaders demonstrate credibility by their ability to perform. Leading by example and building powerful teams, they bring clarity to their roles, generate positive momentum, prioritize activities that generate high return, and act as change agents.

At the 4th level of People Development, leaders concentrate more of their energies on training, mentoring and coaching their followers to be leaders themselves. Through reproduction, they can multiply their effectiveness. Here, leaders should recruit the best people possible, place them at the right positions, model leadership behaviours, equip others to do their jobs well, develop their life skills, empower them to succeed, and measure their effectiveness.

Finally, Pinnacle leaders at level 5 epitomise the highest leadership accomplishment, ie the ability to develop other leaders to level 4. These legendary leaders gain a lot of respect by virtue of who they are and what they represent.

Making room for others at the top, level 5 leaders focus on finding successors, work on people’s strengths, give away power, and sees the potential of other leaders. They create an inner circle to keep themselves grounded, continually develop other level 5 leaders and leave a lasting positive legacy.

Beyond the 5 levels, Maxwell also cited frequently from his earlier book “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” (you can get a good summary of the laws here). Some of these are somewhat obvious (eg The Law of Respect where people naturally follow leaders stronger than themselves) while others are more enlightening.

Personally, I found the Law of Buy-in – people buying into the leader, then the vision – especially illuminating. From my experience, it isn’t so much HOW the vision and goal is written as to WHO backs it which matters.

While I liked the neat framework provided by the book, I felt that breaking down each level into their upsides, downsides, best behaviours, laws of leadership, beliefs and guides was a little overwrought. You do get a little lost ploughing through the hefty number of points in each section.

Overall, “The 5 Levels of Leadership” provides a useful reference to anybody keen to distil the essence of what truly effective leadership is all about. Its timeless lessons are useful in any age, and are embodied by the lives and examples of men and women who exemplify what sterling leadership was, is and will be.

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