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What Level of Leadership Needs the Most Attention?

What Level of Leadership Needs the Most Attention?

Birkman asks, “If you had to prioritise, then what level of leadership in your organisation do you need to give more attention to this year?”

This is a good question because it forces you to narrow your focus from thinking about leadership generically to one that is specific to you and to consider it granularly.

It’s much easier to think about leadership across an industry or even an organisation that it is to ask specific questions about it. In this article, we’re going to look at a couple of those granular questions.

The first one is, what do we mean by levels of leadership?

The answer is that it depends on who you ask. Broadly, there seems to be two categories. One consists of specific places within your organisation’s hierarchy, and the other of the roles that individual managers fill.


Place in the hierarchy

When you think about your organisation’s hierarchy, whether you’d characterise it as vertical or horizontal, you can’t help but notice its tiers. These may be arranged by function or location, or some combination thereof.

For instance, divisions could consist of subdivisions which are organised by function, but in different locations. Subdivisions could be subdivided into units that consist of groups or teams, remembering of course that not all of the former are also the latter. And at each level, whether it’s at the head of a team or of an entire organisation, there will be a leader - someone who points the way for those who follow them.

When you evaluate weaknesses within your organisation, then it could be that you’ll think about where improvements could be made, or why some entities seem to do so much worse than the others.

You might also think about the people who lead those sections, and that brings us to the second category in answer to the question, what do we mean by leadership levels?



Author, speaker, and leadership expert John Maxwell has described five progressive roles - he calls them levels - that leaders fill. They are Position, Permission, Production, People Development, and Pinnacle. He says that leaders don’t move from one level to another. Instead, they build on one another, but that leaders must do all five.

In this sense, the term level confuses, rather than clarifies.

If you think of a staircase, then each step builds on the previous one, and when you get to the next level, you leave the stairs behind. In Maxwell’s model, it’s as if you have to tread on all of the steps simultaneously as well as walk on the new level, or floor. A better word is role. Roles are multidimensional and can overlap one another, making it possible to do all that was done before as you continue to develop.



The first role (level) is the lowest. It comes from being appointed to a position; not from skill or effort. And you will have seen this kind of thing in the past. Maybe it has happened to you, or you have given others leadership roles in this way. The new job includes leading others.

Some people don’t understand what it means to lead and rely on their position to get people to follow them. This only works if you have some kind of hold over people, that is, that they’re afraid you’ll exercise it if they don’t follow you. That’s not leadership, as you know. Before you think about developing such people further in any leadership position, make sure that they understand what true leadership is.



The second role is what Maxwell calls permission. It’s worth noting that roles two through five could be subsumed under one heading, which is to lead people who want to be led by you. The first one could be seen as leadership by accident. You’re put in that position. The rest are a result of growing into them.

Leadership at the level of permission is based on relationships. People follow you because they want to. They give you permission to lead them. Fundamental to relationships is that they’re based on trust. Those who trust one another also share mutual respect, and that respect makes people want to follow you.



The third role is production. Those who are willing to follow you - that is to work towards the goals that you decide - will produce whatever they need to in order to achieve what you’ve set before them. Leaders who can get people to produce are considered to be influencers. That said, influence is needed in order for people to follow you willingly. And this is why making a distinction between permission and production feels artificial. It’s impossible to have one without the other.


Maxwell says that at this level, leaders act as change agents. Morale gets better, and organisations realise their targets. Everyone pulls in the same direction. Perhaps what he’s really describing is the maturity of the group or team. As they work toward the same ends and for the same person, they feel better about themselves and what they’re doing, which is what morale is at its root.


People development

The fourth role is people development. This is something leaders and managers should be doing from the outset; not at the fourth level of leadership development. According to Maxwell, the goal here is to identify and develop as many leaders as you can through investment, and that the more leaders there are, the greater the ability of the organisation to achieve its mission.

It all sounds wonderful except that if you take it to its logical conclusion, then it means that if everyone was a leader, then that would be optimum. Clearly that’s not the case at all. The phrase ‘too many chiefs and not enough Indians” - PC or not - springs to mind. It’s true that everyone needs to lead themselves, but they can’t all have different agendas. That’s not following the leader; it’s anarchy as each person follows themselves. The term leadership implies that there will be those who follow, and that means that not everyone can be a leader of others.

In the case of team leadership, it may mean that each member is a leader in their area of expertise, but ultimately, there will be one person who’s responsible for what they’ve been tasked to do.



The last role (level) is the highest and most challenging. Even the name suggests that you’ve left the others behind. You may have used them to get you to this point, but when you’re at the top, you’re at the top. Ask any CEO.

Maxwell says that to get to this level takes time and intention. In other words, you have to be willing to invest your life in the lives of others.

This seems a bit out-of-touch with reality. On average, employees will only stay with you for two or three years, and so longevity is unlikely unless you undertake to mentor them over their working lives. Of course, you could do that if you wanted to, but you would do it with at most a few people, rather than everyone who shows leadership potential. So whatever else Pinnacle leaders do, it’s unlikely that they’ll get to do it at the level that Maxwell suggests.

What Maxwell is talking about here is leaving a legacy, which is a topic for another discussion, but legacies take time and commitment, and few people are able to do it.



Birkman thinks about leadership levels in terms of personnel functions: the C-Suite, cross-functional leaders, managers, those with high potential, and individual contributors. And while this can give you a good start, it’s probably not going to be as granular as you need it to be. It’s still generic enough to avoid asking the hard questions such as, who will we develop, and most importantly, how.


A different hybrid

A different, and perhaps more useful hybrid would be to apply Maxwell’s roles at a granular level; that is, to ask yourself where specific leaders in your organisation are in his progression. Once you have done that, then you’re ready to answer the question that this article posits: “What level of leadership needs the most attention?” In other words, in your organisation, what level of authority needs the most leadership development? And specifically, who in those positions need it the most.

If you accept that the first level that Maxwell talks about is titular and the last one as unattainable as climbing Mount Everest, then you’re left with three things that all leaders should do regardless of where they are in the hierarchy: leading people who want to follow you, influencing them to do what you ask, and developing them such that they can develop others.

How do you do that?


Leading people who want to follow you

If you want to lead people who truly want to follow you, then first and foremost you have to know where you want to go. Leadership isn’t something that you make up as you go along, varying it according to the popular whims of those you think you’re leading. Fifty years ago, it was said that people wanted a “flag to fly, a creed to follow, and a song to sing.” People won’t follow your lead until they know what you’re leading them to.

When you know where you want to go, then there will be a certain core of people that will follow you simply because of it, but in order to get others to come along, you have to build a strong relationship with them. And this is where so many leaders mess it up. Relationships take time to develop, but they also require transparency and a genuine concern for those who follow. Generals, for instance, have discovered that armies march on their stomachs. If the brass feasts on five course meals while the troops eat rations, then the senior commanders will gain a false view of their capabilities. The only way you can build a relationship with anyone is if you get to know them at as close to a personal level as you can.


Influencing people to do what you ask

Influence exists whether you nurture it or not. It could be a positive influence or a negative one.

To exert a positive influence means that once again, you have to have a strong relationship with people.

Someone once said that no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

That’s it.

You may have the greatest vision for what your organisation can do since its inception, but if your employees aren’t convinced that you care about them personally, then not only will your influence be diminished, they probably won’t follow you either.


Developing leaders such that they can develop others

In order for leaders at any level to develop others, they must have a means to identify the needs and the means to do so.

There are a lot of ways to approach this.

A good first step would be to use the services of an occupational psychologist or management consultant with a track record for developing leaders at the level where you need it in your hierarchy. That’s because the needs leaders at the beginning of their careers are different from those who have been Managing Directors for 20 years. The more specific the need, the more granular the training needs to be. You can’t expect the assistance you get to be effective if you lump everyone together. You’ll get a kind of cookbook solution: One or two recipes that each reader likes, but which no one shares.

What level of leadership needs the most attention in your organisation? If you don’t know, then that’s your homework for this week. Find out what it is, and then get some help. You don’t want anyone to be able to say that you’re the weakest link. 


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