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Only about 1 per cent of leaders reach the top level, where they are focused on developing leaders, not gaining followers or doing work. (frankpeters/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Only about 1 per cent of leaders reach the top level, where they are focused on developing leaders, not gaining followers or doing work. (frankpeters/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

MONDAY MORNING MANAGER

Climbing the five steps to leadership Add to ...

If you’re looking for a clear picture of leadership, consultant John C. Maxwell believes he has one. It’s the one he has been asked to present most frequently, in arenas from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, to Microsoft’s headquarters, and in countries on six continents. He portrays leadership in terms of five levels that we can progress through as we develop.

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It’s straightforward, so anyone can learn it. It defines leadership as a process, not a position. It breaks leading into understandable steps. And it provides a clear game plan for leadership development.

Here are the five levels, as shared in his recent book How Successful People Lead:

1. Position

People follow you because they have to.

This is the entry level, where your influence comes from the job title. The title grants certain rights, which is fine, but it’s wrong for you to use that position to get people to follow you.

“People who make it only to level one may be bosses, but they are never leaders. They have subordinates, not team members. They rely on rules, regulations, policies, and organizational charts to control their people. Their people will only follow them within the stated boundaries of their authority. And their people will usually only do what is required by them. When positional leaders ask for extra time or effort, they rarely get it,” he writes.

A leadership position is an invitation to grow as a leader. Stop relying on position to push people, and start including others in your initiatives and decision-making.

2. Permission

People follow you because they want to.

This is where you should be headed from level one, building leadership based on relationships, with people following you because they want to. To do that, you won’t be focused on preserving your position but on getting to know your people and figuring out how to get along with them.

In today’s hard-charging economy, leading by permission may seem soft, with all that caring for people and relationship-building viewed as weak. But he argues that’s a mistake and it could handicap your leadership potential. Seeking permission might also be frustrating for achievers, who just want to get things done, immediately, rather than slowing down to build relationships.

He urges you to treat others as you would like to be treated, in the Golden Rule style. Become the chief encourager of your team, since people value affirmation from their leader. And while you must be caring, remember that candour is also vital for relationships that will achieve results.

3. Production

People follow you because of what you have done for the organization.

Good leaders don’t stop at the second level and simply create a pleasant working environment. To be a good leader, you must get things done. When that happens, morale improves, targets are hit, profits go up, and turnover goes down. Momentum kicks in, working in your favour.

“Leading and influencing people becomes fun on this level. Success and productivity have been known to solve a lot of problems,” he notes.

As you become a change agent, you can tackle thorny problems, and take your people to another level of effectiveness. A key to being effective at this level is understanding how your abilities can be used productively to further the vision of the organization – and also connecting others to that vision, through your communication. Begin to develop your people into a team, and focus them on the things that yield high returns.

4. People development

People follow you because of what you have done for them.

“Leaders become great not because of their power but because of their ability to empower others,” Mr. Maxwell advises.

You now use your position, relationships, and productivity to invest in your followers and develop them until they become leaders in their own right. At this level, leaders reproduce themselves. The upside of your leadership for the organization escalates dramatically. With most leaders concentrating their effort on production – the level below this one – you gain an advantage, and your abilities can make a competitive difference for your organization as well as your own career.

To succeed at this level you must recruit the best people possible, and place everyone in the right positions, helping them to build on their strengths and equipping them with the resources to do their job well. You must also model good leadership, or otherwise your people will behave in ways that you don’t want.

5. Pinnacle

People follow you because of who you are and what you represent.

The highest and most difficult level of leadership is not available to all. While most people can climb as high as level four, he notes that to hit the top requires not only effort, skill and intention but also a high level of talent. Only about 1 per cent of leaders reach this level, where they are focused on developing leaders, not gaining followers or doing work.

To accomplish this, you must develop a leadership culture, training and coaching others. “Level five leaders consistently develop leaders over a lifetime, and the leaders they raise up also develop leaders. It becomes a lifestyle they practise everywhere and at all times, not a program they implement or a task they occasionally practise,” he writes.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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