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Maxwell’s 5 Levels of Leadership

Is leadership an inherent ability or can it be acquired with the right intent and practice? This debate has puzzled pundits since they have been studying leadership as a discipline. The fact that it has never been settled continues to add fuel to the fire.

Most experts agree that leadership ability has a bell curve distribution in the general population. There are few who inherently possess traits required to become successful leaders such as empathy, influence, communication, etc. Similarly, there are some who will struggle to become leaders despite their best efforts. However, the majority of us are in the middle. With enough time, the right coaching, and intent, we can become good leaders. The third group is the favorite of leadership gurus and serves as the target of most of their philosophies.


It’s hard not to mention John Maxwell when talking about leadership gurus. A former pastor, Maxwell is one of the most popular leadership authors of the last century. Three of his books have sold over a million copies each. In 2014, the Inc magazine named him the no. 1 leadership and management expert in the world. Kevin Turner, COO of Microsoft said about him:

“John has been a mentor and teacher for me for many years and what I love most about him is that he has pushed and helped me personally go through the 5 Levels of Leadership!”

Maxwell’s 5 Levels of Leadership is arguably the most popular phenomenon from his career spanning over 5 decades. In this post, we’ll explore each one of them.

What are the 5 levels of leadership?

Maxwell first revealed the 5 levels of leadership in a similarly titled book from 2013. He laid down 5 levels that everyone progresses through to reach the pinnacle of leadership.


Level 1 – Position – People follow because they have to

Interestingly, Maxwell’s first level is what many consider to be the goal of leadership – Position. This is when you are a manager and people follow you because they are required by the structure of the organization. You gain authority through the rules and regulations of the organization.

Level 1 doesn’t require any effort because anyone can be placed in a leadership role. For example, as a marketing manager if you ask your team to create a report. They will do so because they have no other choice. You are their boss. For them, not listening to you is equivalent to not doing their jobs.

Because many consider this level to be the ultimate goal of leadership, they don’t go beyond it and remain stuck at Level 1 for most of their careers.

So if you just got promoted to become a manager for the first time. Congratulations! You’re just getting started.

Level 2 – Permission – People follow because they want to

At Level 2, people give you permission to lead them. Why? Because they like you as their leader and value the relationship you share with them. You realize that leadership is more than just authority and instead rely on personal relationships to develop influence. Most tips for first-time managers focus on transitioning from Level 1 to 2 by focusing on interpersonal skills.

When the team feels trusted, valued, and respected they’re more likely to do more than just follow orders. This level also lays the foundation for creating a healthy team culture.

A critical ingredient required to move to Level 2 is empathy. By mastering the ability to put themselves in the shoes of their team, leaders can make decisions that will develop strong bonds within the team. For example, if are not just giving orders but also explaining the underlying reasons to the team, there’s a high likelihood that you have already transitioned to this level.

Level 3 – Production – People follow because of what you have done for the organization.

There is a difference between respect and admiration. When people follow you because they like you or respect you, it is because of your personality. However true admiration requires something more – results.

At the Production level, you have spent enough time with your team to deliver specific, measurable results. And the team admires you for your leadership. You have not only mastered the interpersonal skills of the previous level but have also acquired deeper expertise in your role. You can read data better to make more informed decisions and provide the right guidance to the team.

When I first discovered Maxwell’s 5 Level Model, I didn’t know what to expect after this. If a leader is not just liked but admired for their work, what more is there to aim for?

And it’s a fairly common question because many people fall into the golden trap of level 3. The leap to the next level is perhaps the biggest.

Level 4 – People Development – People follow because of what you have done for them personally.

If a Level 3 leader leaves the team it will not be able to recover swiftly. All the good things that such a leader brings, leaves with them. The team is left with a gaping hole.

At Level 4, you understand this and look beyond the immediate desires and motivations. Your legacy is visible in the team even in your absence. That legacy is reflected in people whom you mentor, the talent that you train, and the future breed of leaders that you prepare.

People follow you because their own careers have progressed as a result of your leadership. You gain access to wider responsibilities and assume higher leadership roles.

According to Maxwell, a Level 4 leader spends almost 80% of their time coaching and only 20% on their personal productivity. The mentoring relationships that you nurture in the team will last beyond the immediate scope of work.

Level 5 – Pinnacle – People follow because of who you are and what you represent.

How is this different from the previous level? Isn’t leaving a lasting legacy in your team the pinnacle of leadership?

Unlike all the previous levels, the pinnacle of leadership can only be achieved if you have trained leaders that can achieve such a level themselves. In other words, the pinnacle of leadership is creating a new generation of leaders who are better than you. This is fuelled not by personal ambition but by a selfless desire to mentor others

At this level, you spread the gospel of leadership and coach managers who will not just achieve success themselves but also train the next generation. You propel the cycle and become the living embodiment of the values that you preach.

Do the 5 levels always follow the right order?

Yes. Only when you are liked by the team, you can gain their admiration. Similarly, you can’t coach others unless you have delivered results yourself. You can’t be a Level 4 manager without being a Level 3 manager first.

We hope you enjoyed our distilled version of Maxwell’s 5 Levels of Leadership. All the best in your quest for leveling up 🙂