7 Levels of Leadership

Author: Tom Olson

We spend a lot of time talking about and learning about management and managing people, but I would much rather be considered a leader than a manager. A leader is completely different than a manager — although an excellent manager will learn how to lead, and a good leader will also learn how to manage. I’m going to talk to you today about what I think the “Levels of Leadership” are, but before I get into that, I want to make a couple of opening statements. The first statement is, “Leaders go first.” That sounds obvious, right? It sounds like, “Oh, well, duh. If you’re going to be a leader, you’re the one that would be in the front of the line. You would be the first to get somewhere.” If you think about a race, the leader is always the person in the front.

How often, though, do we in business try to manage from the back? I used to have a picture in my office of a leader in front of a crowd, pushing forward and striving, and everybody behind him is almost on his back, and they’re all gung-ho and trying to go as fast as they can, because they’re trying to keep up with the leader. The second picture shows a guy on a horse and he’s cracking the whip in an effort to get people to go. He is the leader who is leading from the back. That picture perfectly represents the difference between the two different mindsets, but understand, leaders go first. Also, another good statement I love about leadership is, “If you’re leading people and they’re not following, you’re not leading anyone. You’re just going for a walk.” If you catch yourself way out in front and nobody’s catching up, go over these stages and try to help build your people.

The next statement is, “Everybody’s a leader.” I don’t care if you are a six-year-old or if you’re a 90-year-old or what position you are in life — if you’re a father, if you’re a mother, if you’re a teacher — you are a leader in some way, shape or form. We should all be learning how to be better leaders.

There are several stages of leadership. You can’t just skip to the final stage of leadership; rather, you have to go through the stages, and if you know what the stages are and if you know that the levels exist, you can navigate through them and become a successful leader.

The last introductory statement is, “Leadership is a verb.” Just as the “leadership” is a verb, “love” is also a verb. You don’t just love somebody. Love is not just a feeling. Love is doing things for people. The same concepts apply to leadership. In order for you to lead, you actually have to do something, and you have to be leading. You don’t just lead and hope that people are going to follow. As a leader, you must do something: you must be out in front and show people how it’s done.

During your career, you’re going to be put in positions of leadership. An acquaintance recently approached me and said, “You know, I became a leader.” I thought to myself, “You became a leader. Wow, how do you all of a sudden become a leader?” He didn’t mean that he became a leader. What he meant was that he got a position of leadership, so he now became a supervisor where he works, and that’s what he thought was a leader. In fact, this situation perfectly illustrates the first stage of leadership.

1. Position

When you think of a leader, you think, “He has a position.” The key to the position level is “rights.” People follow you because they have to, and because you have the rights that come with the position. You say and believe that, “I have rights.” The only reason people follow you is because you have a title. If you’re a salesperson, you’re not necessarily a leader when you’re selling. Jared is one of our sales guys. We have houses that nobody can buy unless they go through him. Are some people going to buy from him because of that? Absolutely. But if Jared wants to become a good leader, he’s going to go through these other stages. The very first level is position. You think of this as rights. People follow you because they have to. People don’t follow you because they want to.

People don’t follow you because they like you. People don’t follow you because you’ve done anything for them to prove that they should follow you. They just follow you because you’re in a position of leadership, and people are supposed to follow you, because now they are accountable to you, and if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, they may get in trouble. If you look at a positional company, you’ll see employees. At a positional company, you’ll find people who, when they arrive at work in the morning will back their cars in. They get just the right parking spot, because they want to make sure at 5:00, as soon as they clock out, they want to get out as fast as they can.

Why? Because now it’s their time. Another good example is, employees, who if quitting time’s at five, at 4:30 they’re going to the bathroom, because they don’t want to pee on their own time. They are going to pee on company time, right? These same people are the ones that at 4:50 are changing their shoes, because they want to be in that starting position, and they want to be able to run out of there as fast as possible, because as soon as 5:00 hits, they’re clocking out, and they’re gone. Those are obviously some funny examples, but these are the people that will give you the least amount of effort and energy. They’ll do just enough to get by. If their quota is two per month, they might get two.

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A positional leader thinks small. He doesn’t think about the next step. He doesn’t think about how to help the people below him. He just thinks, “Well, I’m the leader, so you do what I say.” They don’t even like it when you talk about reaching big goals, because they’re just comfortable with where they’re at. They’ve got their position of leadership, and they haven’t become a real leader. Positional people aren’t going to give you a lot of energy. They’re not going to give you a lot of focus. They’re not really following you. They’re only doing what they have to do because they have to do what they have to do. But the good news is, is that you don’t have to be stuck on level one. You don’t have to just be a positional leader. You can go to level two.

2. Permission

When I think of permission, I think the key word here is “ask.” A-S-K. Now, in order to get permission for something, what do you have to do? You have to ask questions. This is the level at which you start creating a relationship with people. You’ve gotten to the point where you’ve asked your employees or your followers what it is that they need from you — not, “What can they do for you?” but, “What can you do for them?” When you start asking people what you can do for them, they start to like you. They start to want to follow you. This is the level where people start to like you. You know, you make jokes about people like Michael Scott, from The Office. He was a positional leader. He didn’t really do anything or know anything. He never asked people anything. People make jokes about those types of people, but you want to get to know the people that are following you, and you want to ask them.

When I do a quarterly conversation with my employees, I don’t tell them, “These are the things I need you to do, and this is what you’re lacking at.” What I try to focus on is, “What do you need from me? What tools do you need for you to do the best at your job you possibly can do?” This is when the relationship starts to happen. This is when you have a friendship and a kinship in life. It shocks me how many people work for people they don’t like. If you get to level two, you have people that like you. That should be something that we strive for, but so many people get stuck on level one and they just have a position. Relationships are the foundation of leadership. You can’t really lead somebody unless the person has some kind of relationship with you. If you’re not willing to create a relationship, people are not going to follow you. A couple things that you must do to get permission is, number one, you need to listen, and number two, you need to observe. Then number three, you need to learn. At the end of the day, those three steps are really needed in order to get to the third level. The key to the second level of permission, again, is the key word is “ask.” When you ask questions, you’ve got to be quiet, listen, observe, and try to figure out what it is that they’re saying. Not just what they’re saying with their words, but what are they saying … you know, what are they saying between the lines? Read between the lines and learn. As you listen and observe, you will learn about your people, and this is what lets you graduate to level number three.

3. Service

Now, level number three is something that, when I think about the greatest leader of all times, I think about the word “service.” I think about serving. I think the greatest leader of all times was Jesus Christ, and He came to earth to serve. Nobody served mankind more than Jesus Christ did. As you can see, after we got off the first level, the next two levels have all been action — asking and serving. You don’t just go one mile with people, because that’s your job as a leader. You go the extra mile with them.

This is a level of getting over yourself. At this level, it’s not really all about you. It’s about how you are not just asking, but you’re actually serving. You’re actually going to do what the person asks you to do. If a follower says to you, “Hey, I need some extra tools in my business. I need an extra computer,” or, “I might need some extra minutes for my phone,” or, “I need some more …” Whatever it is. I just had a meeting last week in which somebody from my construction company needed an extra van. Serving that person would be going out and finding a van and making it happen.

This is so important to get to this level because you’re really of no value to your buyer or to your company until you start offering servitude. I love Chick-fil-A because the company has an attitude of servitude. The employees say things like, “It’s my pleasure. How can I serve you?” They’re very observant about their words. They ask. They listen to you. They observe what you’re looking for. They learn it, and then they try to give it to you. They try to give you what you want. In order to become a servant, you have to have a servant’s mindset, an unselfish mindset, and a culture in your company that it is all about your customer, or it’s about the people that you work for, the people that you serve. Really, at the end of the day, it’s all about loving and serving other people.

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As you start as a leader, you are almost selfish — “I’m a leader. I have a position. I have rights.” Then you realize, “Ooh, I don’t really have rights. Well, how do I fix that? How do I really become a valuable asset to my followers?” And then you have to ask your followers questions. These levels are almost the same in sales as well. Ask your customers what it is that they want; then try to serve them. But serving is not all there is. Being a leader is not all about relationships. Some people think relationships are everything; they’re not. You can be a great relationship person, but if you never actually do anything, then it doesn’t matter. This leads us in to the fourth level.

4. Production

This is the level of obvious results. You become effective as a leader because you produce. This is when you’ve figured out how to be a good leader. You’ve figured out how to make things work in your company. This is when you become valuable to your buyers, valuable to your company that you work for. The characteristic of a person at this level is that he is a producer.

This is a law that you need to live by, and if you don’t believe it, you need to change your mindset, because people do what people see, not what people think or say. Selling an investment property to somebody else is very easy for me because I’m an investor myself. People will be attracted to you if you are what you’re trying to sell. Make sure that you believe in your product.

If you were a salesman at a Chevy dealer, but yet you drove a Ford, you would get a whole lot less sales than if you worked at a Chevy dealer because you are displaying that you don’t really believe in your product. Early in my career, it was very hard for me to sell the fact that I was going out and asking people for money and trying to find private money until I started being a lender myself. Once I started loaning money myself, I realized, “Oh my goodness. This is the easiest thing in the world. Why wouldn’t I just give my money to somebody, let them use it, and let my money have an occupation?” If you think about a sales manager, at this level, they’re the problem solvers. These people don’t have excuses anymore. They’re done with the excuses. They’ve discovered that what they’re good at, and they’re going to do what they’re good at. This is when they start to elevate and delegate, and this is when they start to get other people around them who can do the same. When you believe so much in your product that you want it so badly for the people you are trying to sell it to, people will be attracted to your passion.

This is when you are become of value. Too many leaders are like travel agents. They’re trying to send people to somewhere that they themselves have never been; so again, be the example. People don’t want to be managed, but people are always looking for leadership, and people do what they see. People will do what they see you do because they see you modeling leadership and passion, and then they say, “Oh, well it’s working for him. It’ll work for me.” This is when you’ve found your strengths; you’ve found what you’re good at; you’ve put yourself in the right seat. This is the level of obvious production, and you’re adding to your organization.

5. Momentum

The key word for momentum is “automation.” It’s Automation is when things happen automatically. Momentum is a businessman’s best friend. Managers try to solve problems, but leaders try to create momentum. Leaders know that they can create momentum. If you could just create momentum, 80% of your problems will be solved automatically. If you think about a locomotive traveling at 60 miles an hour down the tracks, and it comes into contact with a six-foot, steel reinforced brick wall, it’ll go right through it with no problem. Now, sure, it’ll feel the jolt, but it’ll go right through it. Why? Because the train has momentum. However, if you take the exact same train and this time it is just resting on the tracks with a simple bar several feet ahead, the train can’t break through it. Why? Because it doesn’t have momentum. So often, we let little problems stop us, and the reason why the little problems are stopping us is because we haven’t created momentum.

Momentum in business is when your customers keep coming back to you. It’s almost like you can’t stop them from coming back to you because you have performed for them, and the first deal worked for them; then the second deal worked for them; then the third deal worked for them. Now you have so many repeat customers that you sometimes don’t even know what to do with them!

Many people stop at the momentum level, but there are two more steps. I see this process of levels as a journey. It’s going to take some time. You need to understand that you are never going to “arrive.” You should always be learning something.

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6. Reproduction

If you think about a mother and a father, what do they reproduce? They reproduce who they are, right? In the momentum stage you had other people that you’ve worked for, like your customers, for instance, and that momentum’s coming back and forth, but reproduction is when you’re internally developing and reproducing yourself in your organization. This level excites me, because I love building people. I’m a people person. I focus first on people, and then everything else.

The quote “Love people, not things” comes to mind. This is one of the most important levels you can get to as a leader. This is when become an actual leader in whatever area in which you are striving to succeed. Teaching others is a key factor in development and reproduction. What do they always say about a teacher? The teacher always learns the most, right? We teach what we do.

We reproduce what we are. Another factor of reproduction and development is recruiting well. Lou Holt used to say, “I’ve won a lot of football games, but it was a lot easier for me to win when I had good players.” You want to make sure that you have a good solid system to find good people. Have a clear picture of what that perfect leader looks like when you’re hiring.

In addition to that, successful people always position themselves well, but really successful leaders always position other people well, and they’re more focused on making sure they position other people well, and they know what other people would be good at. The successful leader doesn’t to mold his employees and doesn’t try to get them to do things they don’t want to do. The leader will focus on his follower’s core strengths and his inner genius. It’s so easy to talk about helping follower’s or employee’s reach their potential, but rarely do I actually see in practice positioning employees well and focusing on the core geniuses of what they’re really good at.

8. Influence

This is the pinnacle level. Leadership is all about influence. The highest level of influence a person can have is when is influencing people who are influencing other people. The key word for this level is “respect.” People follow you or buy from you just because you have done what you do for so long, and you’ve been so good at it, and you’ve helped so many people, that people follow you because they want to. They like you, and they want to be around you. You have created a name for yourself. You’ve referred other people to other people who have referred people back to you, and all their friends and family are coming to you now.

You’re not just adding to your organization. You’re not just adding value to your buyers, but you’re adding value to the world, and you’re adding value to your communities. In fact, you’re not just adding, but you’re multiplying. This is when you have trained others to train others to train others, and you’re getting that compound interest. This is when your chickens have had eggs, and then those eggs have created chickens who have created eggs who have created chickens who have created eggs. You’re bigger than life, because people that you sell to just completely, ultimately, utterly trust you, and this is when influence is at its easiest.

We talk a lot about existing, surviving, thriving, and matter. I would say “existing” in a leadership level would be the position level. “Surviving” would be that permission level, that serving level, and maybe a little bit into the production level. “Thriving” is that production and momentum level, and if you really want to “matter” in life, you’ve got to get to that development stage and ultimately the pinnacle stage.

In Conclusion

When I first heard this the levels of leadership taught, I thought to myself, “Where am I at? What kind of leader am I?” Then I started thinking, “You know what? I’m at a different level with every person that I lead,” and I think that’s so true.

I challenge you to take inventory on that. Go back to the people that follow you and ask yourself, “Where am I at? Am I at level one with this person? Am I at level two with this person? Am I at level three with this person? Where am I at?” Don’t skip levels. You can’t skip levels. Level one is a foundation. Level two to level three, don’t skip. You can’t skip them.

Leadership is influence, and it always will be, and it always has been. Remember, if you help enough people get what they want, eventually you will get what you want. These are not my laws. These are God’s laws. You reap what you sow.

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