Like many, when I first became a manager, I was taught the cardinal rule of leadership: How to hold my team accountable. My success or failure as a leader hinged on making sure my team was performing at the level dictated by my leaders.
If someone did not hit their sales quota, I had to point it out and let them know the consequences. If someone was late to the office, I had to address it. If someone was struggling, I had to review their daily activity.
Although these management processes of ensuring accountability have their place, the truth is that these are not the primary responsibilities of a leader. Leadership is about influencing others to be the best version of themselves that they can be. When leaders have the right focus, the management of activities and processes becomes secondary.
Remember, as leaders we can assign accountability and responsibility, however we cannot assign ownership. True ownership must be accepted and taken by the individual – it cannot be bestowed.
Instead of telling you how to lead, let me share with you my experiences of climbing up the leadership ladder in hopes that it impacts your approach in a positive way. I am not referring to the corporate ladder, I am referring to the ladder of effective leadership. Even though I achieved the coveted CEO title at the ripe age of 29, I was still on the bottom rung of the leadership ladder.
What is the Leadership Ladder?
Simply stated, the leadership ladder defines why people follow you. Understanding why people follow you indicates the type and level of influence you have on them and their careers. Let’s look a little deeper into each of the five levels.
Level 1 – Positional Based Leadership
Think back to your first management role. You received that coveted title and it was clear you were the boss. Your team stood in line to serve your needs and your career success – right? Wrong. Although everyone starts as a positional leader, it important to understand why you’ll never reach your full leadership potential at this level.
Why do people follow a positional leader? Because they have to! You sign their paycheck (literally or figuratively). You can fire them or re-assign them, but you cannot inspire someone by reminding them that they’re obligated to listen to you.
Level 2 – Permission Based Leadership
Why do people follow a permission-based leader? Because they want to!
As a young leader I was taught to keep a line of separation with my team. Not to get too close in the event I had to reprimand or fire someone. Unfortunately, I was investing in the potential negative outcomes related to team performance. What if I invested in the potential positives that support team performance?
Developing relationships with each of my team members quickly created an environment where they wanted to follow me. They knew I cared about them, and they wanted to support the success of the business. They wanted to sacrifice when needed to guarantee the outcome of the organization through some of the roughest times, like COVID-19.
Level 3 – Production Based Leadership
Why do people follow a production-based leader? Because of what you and the team have accomplished.
It is human nature to want to play for the winning team. It’s hard to get excited about a team that constantly makes the wrong plays and never reaches the pinnacle of success. Although I am a lifelong Detroit Lions fan, I’ll admit it’s hard to get excited about them given their dismal track record.
As a Level 2 leader I realized that cultivating real relationships with my team created an environment where each member of the team wanted to perform. As a level 3 leader, I realized it was easier to recruit new members and influence existing members when we were achieving success.
Level 4 – People Development Based Leaders
Why does anyone follow a people development-based leader? Because of what you have done for them.
When climbing the corporate ladder, it is easy to get focused on the perks of leadership. The big corner office, the fancy car or that next promotion. The reality is that real leadership comes at a price. That price includes pouring time and effort into helping others develop themselves and achieve their goals.
It took me almost two decades to truly understand the value of developing others. Learning what drives each of my team members was only possible after developing a relationship with each and showing them that we were creating a winning team. Only then could I focus on developing the individual and helping them achieve their goals.
Level 5 – Purpose-Based Leaders
Why do people follow a purpose-based leader? Because of who you are and what you stand for.
Purpose-based leaders are consistent. They’re not in it for the money or the corner office or other leadership perks. All those perks are great, but a purpose-based leader has a bigger goal that drives everything they do. It could be something ambitious like developing new medical devices to save lives, or it could be simply trying to deliver the best possible value to clients in your space.
Whatever the case, purpose-based leaders have a set of values and an unwavering mission that they stick to even though it’s not always the easiest path. As a result, they are consistently developing relationships with others. They consistently create winning teams. And they are consistently investing in the development of others.
The true measure of a purpose-based leader is one who develops other Level 4 and Level 5 leaders – consistently.
Wrapping It Up
Having an awareness of your leadership level is the first step in your personal leadership journey. If you don’t know where are you are starting from or where you are heading, it’s hard to reach your destination! Once we recognize the strengths and limitations of our current leadership approach, we can identify where we need to improve and how to productively move forward.
Steve Lowisz is the Chief Executive Officer of Qualigence International, a recruitment research and professional search firm that he founded in 1999.