Book Review: The 5 Levels of Leadership

The 5 Levels of Leadership by Joh C. MaxwellLeadership, what is it? Are there essential characteristics? What distinguishes a good leader from a bad one? Do I have any hope of improving my leadership skills? And if so, what will it do for me and for those I care about? 

John C. Maxwell is a world-renowned expert on leadership. In his book, The 5 Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximize Your Potential, he expounds on all of these questions.

I chose to read this book because leadership has always been an interest of mine. I’ve been in leadership positions several times before, but I always felt I lacked effectiveness. Over the last five years, I’ve been on a deliberate path of self-discovery and growth, and when I saw this title, I thought it was time to revisit this topic.

Maxwell describes leadership as a progression in skill, starting with those leaders that everybody hates to work with, to those who we love and admire, and who are dearly missed when they step down. The good news is that anyone can grow their leadership skills. The bad news is that it takes humility and a deeply personal change in attitude toward other people in order to ascend each level. What are these levels, you ask?

Level 1: Position

This is the lowest level.  A Position leader is only a leader because they have the title. It’s the out-of-touch manager who shows no empathy for his people. It’s the despised boss. It’s the bully and the tyrant. People working under them will often do the very minimum of what’s required, and they watch the clock.

Level 2: Permission

This is leadership based on relationships. A Permission leader has the position, but is also well liked by those she leads. This is because she personally connects with her people and earns their trust. People follow this kind of leader because they want to, not because they have to. This leader has people’s permission to lead them.

Level 3: Production

The Production leader has a reputation for results. Not only do they have the position and the permission of the people they lead, but they can motivate people and drive the work forward. This requires the addition of task-orientedness, understanding of the industry they are in, and the realization that they can’t please everybody. It requires the willingness to confront the difficult issues that are standing in the way of progress, but with the skill to do it in a way that minimizes collateral damage to people and relationships.

Level 4: People Development

The People Development leader invests in their people. They mentor, they coach, they counsel, they befriend. At this stage, they begin to reproduce themselves in the people they lead. The team’s performance surges forward at this step, because teamwork advances to a higher level and other leaders start to emerge. Relationships built at this step are often lifelong.

Level 5: Pinnacle

At the Pinnacle level, the leader hones in not just on people development, but on developing leadership skills in their people. Pinnacle leaders often have a reputation that extends much farther and wider than their own teams or even their organizations. And when they step down, they leave a legacy. They also leave others who are prepared to take the reins and transition gracefully.

About the Book

Maxwell goes into depth on each of these steps, including the upsides and the downsides for each, and the barriers that often keep leaders from advancing to the next level. He repeatedly emphasizes that the rewards are greater and greater for each level. He also provides a leadership assessment quiz, which is very helpful for understanding what level of leadership you or others have attained.

I only have one criticism about this book. Maxwell teaches that a person’s leadership potential has a fixed limit, which they will not be able to surpass regardless of the amount of effort made. He says some people are “natural” leaders, and are fully capable of reaching level 5. Others, not so much. I disagree. I believe in the growth mindset, which says that your potential toward learning is only fixed if you think it is. It maintains that if you personally, intentionally choose a mindset of growth, your potential is limitless. Sure, some things are more of a struggle for some people than for others. But that’s very different from believing that there’s a glass ceiling.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. I want to be a better leader—my family and friends deserve it, my company deserves it, the world around me deserves it. Maxwell provides a succinct guide for understanding leadership and advancing level by level. I will be referring to this book again and again as I proceed in my own leadership journey. I hope you will too.