Ascending the levels of leadership

The neighborhood playground where I grew up contained a popular multilevel merry-go-round. Mounted above its rotating platform were two higher levels of successively smaller diameter. The wildest ride was always found on the crowded, lowest level where centrifugal force could fling you out on the grass where your head could continue to spin. Climbing to the second level where it was less crowded, but where you could grasp the rail, offered an easier go-around. On the third level, where there were even fewer riders, it took only one hand to anchor your soul to the earth while turning in a smaller orbit. But the pinnacle of derring-do was in achieving the flat post-top of the merry-go-round, where there was room for only one to stand, unassisted by any device save your own guts, and pivot seven feet in air.

(By today’s safety standards, it was a veritable spinning factory of kid-tested hard knocks—it’s truly a wonder that so many of us survived such childhoods!)

In his excellent book, 5 Levels of Leadership, John Maxwell describes the advantages and challenges of each level, as well as the beliefs and behaviors that enable the ascendant professional to continue the climb to the pinnacle position. But as that old wooden whirler illustrates, those who strive to rise through the various levels of organizational leadership must contend with the particular challenges of each successive level to attain the top spot.

Can you identify the levels at which you are currently operating? (You won’t be at the same level with every person you lead!) What levels do you aspire to?

Level 1. Rights. People follow because they have to. At its lowest level, leadership is a matter of title only, where potential is recognized and some authority is awarded. However, those who rely on their position to force others to follow often wind up devaluing them. Emphasizing rights over responsibilities can strand both the leader and the organization at this lowest level. Because the organization cannot function on a level higher than its leader, the best people bolt for better business elsewhere.

Like the crowded merry-go-round, leadership is difficult at this lowest level, where forces tend to keep both people and priorities unsettled. The astute positional leader, therefore, realizes that rights are not enough, and people, not position, is his or her greatest asset. He must aspire higher!

Level 2. Relationships. People follow because they want to. The leader builds a foundation of relationships that focuses on the value of other people, creating an enjoyable and energetically-charged atmosphere nurturing trust, two-way communication, and possibilities.

Relational leadership eases the wayward pull on the followers, yet the upwardly-mobile leader understands that relationships alone are not enough. He or she must also deliver the goods!

Level 3. Results. People follow because of what you have done for the organization. Productivity brings reality to the vision, momentum to the mission, and credibility to the leader as others clamber aboard for the ride to results. The results-oriented leader helps people define, commit to, and experience the success of the vision.

Although exertion declines as the leader ascends, he or she realizes that productivity is not enough to reach the next level; developing people is where that’s at.

Level 4. Reproduction. People follow because of what you have done for them. Developing people is a distinctly higher level than most leaders reach, but it ensures that organizational growth can be sustained. Because only leaders can develop other leaders, level 4 leaders focus on recruiting, modeling, equipping and empowering their people to succeed as leaders themselves.

Level 5. Respect. People follow because of who you are and what you represent. Pinnacle leaders create a legacy within the organization and extend their vision and influence beyond what they could see on the lowest level. Honing all their skills, they and their followers develop a collective strength equal to the expanded mission.

While it takes considerable time, commitment and growth to rise through each level of leadership, going the other direction can happen very quickly! (As a couple of my old playground pals can attest!) But the time to mount the ascent is now. Assemble your followers, treat them right, teach them well, and together climb!

MasterPoint 82: Aspire higher to lead larger.