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  • Writer's pictureNinam Bantawa

The 5 Levels of Leadership

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

“Leadership is a process, not a position”.

I recently read a book by John C. Maxwell. It is titled ‘The 5 Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximise Your Potential’.

John C. Maxwell is an American pastor and a speaker who has written over 70+ books, selling around 20 million copies. Safe to say it was easily one of the best books I have read so far hence I had to give it 5 stars on Goodreads.

From this post, I will look to summarise this book from my point of view by extrapolating certain aspects of each level of leadership to provide the rationale to my ratings.

In the book, he mentions that there are 5 levels of leadership. Naturally, it starts from the lowest number, 1, leading up to number 5. Furthermore, it states that in order to get to the next level, you cannot negate or leave the previous level(s) out because the new level is not the absence of previous level(s) but the sum of them. Meaning, you have a lot more to do and a lot more to be should you wish to attain the higher levels of leadership.

Also, whatever your perceived current level is, if you change organisations, you will start from Level 1. However, the time it takes for you to reach your current level won’t be that long.

Leadership Levels

Level 1 Leadership - Position

This level is the beginner’s level when someone acquires a job and assumes a position in the organisation. This is a gateway to the upper echelons of leadership. However, one mustn’t look to remain in this level, as true leadership isn’t about position. Position and titles can be misleading and someone can just assume that they are a leader because of the position they are given but not earned; not all the time anyway.

Most positional leaders expect people to serve them; but it should be the other way around. This could result in loneliness because meaningful relationships with the team haven't been formed yet. If you are in a leadership position and you feel like you’ve become lonely since assuming a position, it’s time to look at Level 2 leadership and beyond. The phrase ‘It gets lonely at the top’ is just something crafted by a positional leader. Leadership doesn’t have to be lonely.

Furthermore, if your employee is a Level 3 leader, chances are they are going to leave your team or the organisation. Bear in mind they are not leaving the team or the organisation, they are leaving you because of your positional mindset in regards to leadership.

To leave Level 1, one must not care about the titles and focus more on people who will give their all to a common cause. People on this level may be bosses, but not leaders. They have subordinates, not team members. They don’t get that extra time and effort from the team and if they do, that relationship will not last long.

Unfortunately, most people who assert themselves as leaders fall under this level and finish their career not knowing that there is more to being a leader than assuming a position.

Level 2 Leadership - Permission

“You can’t lead people until you like people”

Leadership is about influencing others to attain a common goal. This means forging meaningful relationships with the people that you work with. It’s a no-brainer. This makes the work environment more enjoyable for everyone and enables them to give their all to the cause. Communication channels are opened up for easier execution of work. Trust is established.

Level 2 is about gaining people’s permission. This is achieved by working on your inner self. Attributes like self-awareness, self-honesty and self-improvement can help you achieve that. Another essential fact is to understand that there is a fine line being a manipulative and a motivating leader. Finding the right balance between care and candour is essential to expand the working relationship.Having difficult conversations with one individual to prevent the overall organisational goals from diverting is what good leaders do.

Level 3 Leadership - Production

The good thing about this level is that no one can fake it. Results are visible. This is about doing. You can motivate people all you want but if you are not putting your best effort, they won’t either. People always believe what we do more than what we say. ‘Lead by example’ shows the credibility of a leader. People naturally follow leaders with credibility. You lead by it. A good leader doesn’t do less. A good leader does more.

The Production level of leadership communicates the vision through action. Action speaks louder than words. Level 3 leaders have results to show and not just limited to intentions. Level 3 leaders guide to commit to the vision and the success of the team. They also have the skills to prioritise time, tasks and resources that yield high return. A simple to-do list never hurt anyone.

Remember, just because you can produce does not make you a leader. You are just a producer. If you can make the team produce, then you are a good leader. Personal accolades don't always equate to team accolades.

Side note: Practice Pareto Principle to maximise productivity

Level 4 Leadership - Reproduction

“The purpose of life is not to win. The purpose of life is to grow and share” - Harold Kushner

This is when you develop people so that they can lead with you. You stop producing and start developing people as they are an organisation’s most valuable asset. Leading others to grow and lead by themselves compounds to a greater extent for the good and benefit of the organisation. In this realm of leadership, 20 percent of focus will be on personal productivity, and 80 percent of effort will be put on developing and leading others.

This sets you apart from most leaders. Ownership for work and responsibility is transferred through effective coaching and empowerment. This can be articulated as giving the gift back; the gift of opportunity that was given to lead in the first place. The compound effect will hopefully produce more leaders, creating a more vibrant leadership culture.

Many leaders try to pursue only personal success, abandoning the omnipresent truth that success for their people leads to more successes. The more people you serve, the more successful you will be.

Level 5 Leadership - The Pinnacle

As the description suggests, this is the ultimate level whereby you develop other leaders to become Level 4 leaders. The level 5 leaders create a legacy within their organisations. Their expertise transcend multiple industries and sectors. Their influence and impact occurs beyond their tenure and lifetime.

There is a lifelong process divided into three phases: learn, earn, return. Typically learn and earn phases will be carried out in other levels. This is not to say that the return phase cannot be undertaken in those phases but Level 5 is predominantly focused on returning the favour; the experiences accumulated through one’s career.

Arrival fallacy could be an issue at this level. Most of us aren’t at this level and perhaps will never be. Leaving a legacy is not easy. However, the idea of returning should be carried out as much as possible, even if the contribution is trivial.


One might argue that leadership is not that simplistic and should not contain levels, as has been put forward by the author. However in my opinion, this book has dissected the leadership process perfectly in a way, whereby you can visualise yourself, or the supposed ‘leaders’ that you’ve known, in the corresponding levels. It is merely a negative judgement but a tool to help us navigate our weaker aspects and work on them throughout our lives. I think working on yourself to become your best version and helping others to lead themselves is what true leaders’ purpose should be.

Some of my favourite quotes from the book:

  • Be the team member you want on your team.

  • “Leadership is much less about what you do, and much more about who you are”. - Frances Hesselbein

  • People buy into the Leader, then the vision.

  • People naturally follow leaders stronger than themselves.

  • If you want to become a better leader, you must not only know yourself and define your values. You must also live them out.

  • When in danger, a good leader takes the front line and during a celebration, will stay in the back room.

  • Leadership isn’t easy!

What level do you think you’re currently on?

Are you working towards the next level?

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