Leadership: What are the Major Traits of a Good Leader

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The 5 Levels of Leadership" by John C. Maxwell. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is John Maxwell’s The 5 Levels of Leadership about? What are the key characteristics of each level?

 In The 5 Levels of Leadership, John Maxwell gives a shape and form to something seemingly indefinable and provides a roadmap to help you reach your full leadership potential. You’ll learn how to go from being a boss to a real leader, how to get people to follow you, and how to use your leadership to build a legacy that stands the test of time.

Below is a brief overview of John Maxwell’s The 5 Levels of Leadership, summarizing the upsides and downsides as well as the progression points of each level.

Book Overview: The 5 Levels of Leadership by John C. Maxwell

In this book, author John Maxwell describes the 5 Levels of Leadership, a roadmap to help you reach your full leadership potential. As he equates leadership with influence, the five levels show how your influence progresses as you grow. Each level serves as a building block for the next one.

Here is a quick summary of John Maxwell’s The 5 Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximise Your Potential.

Level 1: Position (Title-Based Leadership)

At this level, people follow you because of your role. Position gives you a job title but no real power, other than the authority to lead. The upsides of this level are:

  1. It means you have what it takes. The higher-ups likely gave you the position because they saw your talents and abilities. 
  2. You have some authority. If nothing else, your people will follow you based on your rank.
  3. You have the chance to grow and define your personal brand of leadership. If you take your position as an opportunity for development, you can become a better leader, which then has an impact on your people and your organization.

The downsides of this level are:

  1. You have the title but not the influence. Your people will only start seeing you as a leader when you’ve actually accomplished something.
  2. You might be obsessed with holding on to power. Those who think they’ve “arrived” by virtue of their title often seek to protect their position at any cost, which can lead to office politics and in-fighting. 
  3. You lose good workers. Level 1 leaders tend to undermine those whom they see as a threat to their position, which breeds a hostile environment for top performers. 
  4. You get the bare minimum from your people. Because you let your position do the heavy lifting, people aren’t inspired to give their best.
  5. You might get stuck. If you use your position to get things done, the higher-ups may see that you don’t have any potential for further growth.

To go from being a boss to a leader, you should:

  1. Say “thank you” to those who gave you the opportunity to lead.
  2. Change your mindset and stop pulling rank. Start focusing on people instead of power, and use words of encouragement instead of intimidation. 
  3. Come down from the top of the hill. True growth can only happen when you venture out of your comfort zone and meet your people where they are. Get to know each one and find out what makes them tick.
  4. Keep moving towards a vision. Having a sense of entitlement and becoming too comfortable where you are means you take for granted where you—and your team—could go. The privileges and perks that you get from positional leadership are nothing compared to the positive changes you can effect at higher levels of leadership. 
  5. Commit to growth and decide what kind of leader you want to be. Start thinking about the impact you want to make and the effect you want to have on your team. Define your brand of leadership so that you have something to guide you, especially when you have to make difficult decisions. Ask yourself:
  • Who am I?
  • What values are important to me?
  • What habits and systems do I want to practice?
  1. Take a step back and look at the bigger picture. To help you stop using your position as a crutch, consider the organization’s vision, then re-align your own and your team’s goals with that vision.
  2. Don’t be afraid to show weakness. Admit when you don’t know something and be open to working with other people to find solutions. 
  3. Find a mentor. Ask a leader you admire to coach you. 

Keep the following beliefs in mind as you work your way up to Level 2:

  1. A title is just a starting point. Stop chasing a title and start creating positive change.
  2. People are more important than position. Use your position to improve people, not the other way around. 
  3. Collaboration is key. Leadership isn’t a solo act but a group effort.

Level 2: Permission (Relationship-Based Leadership)

At this level, people follow you because of your influence and their trust in you. They do their jobs because they want to, not because they have to. In short, they give you permission to lead them.

The upsides of this level are:

  1. It injects the workplace with positive energy. Shifting your focus from yourself to your team has an invigorating effect. It makes your people feel cared for and trusted, creating a friendlier work environment and developing team chemistry. 
  2. Communication becomes a two-way street. Instead of talking down to their people, permissional leaders listen as well as talk, which makes people feel they can communicate openly.
  3. Every person feels like a valuable member of the team. When you see and appreciate the uniqueness of every person on your team, they feel valued and respected, which then has a positive impact on their morale. 
  4. You develop trust. People will only give you permission to lead them if they trust you.  

The downsides of this level are:

  1. You can have a hard time balancing the “soft” side and the “hard” side of leadership. If you lean too much towards building relationships (the soft side), you might accept subpar work from your people just to keep them happy. You might also end up having frustrated high achievers on your team—workers who value action over affection might become impatient with the slow process of building relationships.
  2. People can take advantage of you. Opening yourself up can leave you vulnerable to “takers,” or those who use your influence to improve their position but don’t give anything in return. But that is a risk you’ll have to take to open up to the value that other people can bring into your life.
  3. It’s not easy if you’re not a people person. If you’re not naturally charismatic and struggle to form connections, think of relationship-building as a skill that you can hone.
  4. You need to let other people see the real you. A relationship based on an inauthentic version of you will likewise be inauthentic. Only by being vulnerable and showing your weaknesses and owning up to your mistakes will you be able to build real relationships.
  5. You also need to accept people for who they are. You have to make the effort to build relationships with everyone, not just those with whom you get along.

To make the most out of being a Level 2 leader, you should:

  1. Know yourself. Be honest with yourself, reflect on your strengths and weaknesses, address points for improvement, and be accountable for your behavior and growth. 
  2. Include people in the equation. Even the best systems in the world won’t be successful if your people don’t buy into them. Once you understand what motivates your people, it will be easier to lead them.
  3. Decide to like people. Start from a place of openness and positivity and make it your intention to genuinely like people.
  4. Accept team members for who they are. You don’t just work with the best parts of a person—you take everything, from their skills to their weaknesses and problems.
  5. Lift people up instead of tearing them down. Positional leaders devalue those whom they view as a threat. In contrast, permissional leaders are generous with their praise. Make it a point to be your team’s biggest cheerleader, regularly saying words of encouragement to boost their confidence. 
  6. Find the balance between caring and being candid. When you care about people, you show that you value them as people. When you’re candid with them, being honest about areas for improvement, you show that you value their potential. Keep in mind that candor goes both ways—you must also be open to receiving feedback.   
  7. Do a relationship check. For each team member, write down three nonwork-related things you know about them, what is important to them, their current concerns, and their biggest dreams. If you come up blank, carve out some quality time with them.
  8. Be present. When you talk to people, really engage with them, making sure you give them your full attention. 
  9. Pencil in fun. If you’re not a people person just yet and are more concerned about hitting goals and targets, include fun (for example, a team karaoke night) in your list of things to do. 

Keep the following beliefs in mind as you work your way up to Level 3:

  1. Leaders don’t live on relationships alone. Find a way to use the influence you have on them to move forward towards a common goal.
  2. Moving forward comes with risks. Keep in mind that the goal is to grow, not to stay comfortable, even if it means risking the relationships you’ve carefully built. Between adjusting the vision to suit your team and adjusting your team to meet the vision, go for the latter. 

Level 3: Production (Results-Based Leadership)

At this level, people follow you because you get things done. To thrive in Level 3, you need to set an example to your team by being self-motivated, disciplined, and organized.

The upsides of this level are:

  1. It makes you more credible. You only start getting attention and gaining influence outside your team when you produce results—this proves that you can back up your title. 
  2. It sets the standard for others to follow. When team members see you working hard and getting results, they’ll be inspired to do the same.
  3. It brings a vision to life. Action really does speak louder than words: Your work shows people the way and gives them a clearer idea of what they’re supposed to do. 
  4. It bolsters morale. While high morale can help increase productivity, you can’t maintain high morale without productivity. 
  5. It can give you a winning team. The more productive you are, the more you win, and the more you win, the more other people will want to work with you. Once you have good people and build them into a team, you’re better positioned to succeed.

The downsides of this level are:

  1. You might think you’re a leader just because you’re a producer. All leaders are producers but not all producers are leaders. Just because you’re hitting your personal targets, it doesn’t mean your team is winning. 
  2. You need to continue to balance the “soft” and “hard” sides of leadership. In this level, you might be inclined to direct all your energy towards production (the hard side), believing that your work in the relationship area is done. But focusing solely on the bottom line might damage your relationships and send you right back to Level 1.
  3. You are always under a lot of pressure. The leader carries the weight of responsibility in any team. She is the one who is accountable for a team’s productivity, profitability, and growth. As a Level 3 leader, you need to decide if you’re willing to bear the weight of continuous production.
  4. You have to make some tough decisions. To keep growing you need to make hard decisions related to yourself, like being your own toughest critic, setting and achieving concrete goals, and being accountable for your mistakes. 

To work your way up to the next level, you should:

  1. Align your strengths with the organization’s vision. Go from being a productive worker to being a high-production leader. Ask yourself: How can I continuously develop my strengths and use them to help the organization achieve its vision?
  2. Be clear about the vision. Instead of just giving people the ball and telling them to shoot, point them towards the basket so that they know what they’re aiming for. Answer: What does success mean in this organization? Communicate this vision clearly, frequently, and creatively.
  3. Be a shining example. List down the qualities you want your team members to have. Then reflect if you possess those qualities. If not, write down a concrete way to help turn you into the person you want your team members to be. 
  4. Build a winning team. Make your team more productive by making sure they complement each other’s strengths, communicating the vision clearly and frequently, giving them feedback, and fostering an environment for growth by being positive and encouraging.
  5. Learn to prioritize. Use the Pareto Principle (a.k.a. The 80/20 rule): Focus on the top 20 percent of your to-do list that yields an 80-percent return.
  6. Stay focused. Tap into team members to build momentum, leveraging those who create their own and minimizing the negative influence of those who bog the team down. But don’t just rely on momentum. Keep pushing forward and producing while never disregarding the relationships you’ve built.  
  7. Initiate change. List down five changes you want to make, get your team on board, and be accountable if things don’t go as planned.
  8. Continue to nurture relationships. You’re building the higher levels of leadership on the lower levels, so make sure that the lower levels remain solid. 

Keep the following beliefs in mind as you work your way up to Level 4:

  1. There’s more to leadership than production. You need to develop your people so that they can become leaders themselves.
  2. People are your greatest asset. When people thrive, so does the company. Once you recognize your role in their development, you can start moving up to Level 4.
  3. Developing people is the best part of the job. While developing leaders ultimately helps the company, it is also the most fulfilling part of the job. 

Level 4: People Development (Empowerment-Based Leadership)

At this level, people follow you because of what you’ve done for them. You shift gears from being a producer to a developer of people—an organization’s greatest asset.

The upsides of this level are:

  1. It puts you ahead of the pack. If you invest in developing skilled, dedicated employees, your organization will come out ahead of the competition.
  2. It makes growth sustainable. When you don’t train others to become leaders, you limit the organization’s potential. Your productivity may bring your organization success, but it’s your development of other leaders that will sustain it. 
  3. It gives you time for more important work. When you’re caught up in the daily grind, you don’t have time to think about ways to make an organization better. But when you develop leaders and cede some responsibilities over to them, you free up some quality thinking time, which you can then use to refine the vision, improve your strategies, and find more ways to grow your organization. 
  4. It makes you feel fulfilled. You’ll get a great amount of joy, satisfaction, and a sense of community from helping others.

The downsides of this level are:

  1. You have to think beyond yourself. Level 4 leadership requires you to give up self-centeredness as you think about how to help others get ahead.
  2. You need to let go of insecurity. You need to keep your ego in check, cede some control, and trust in your people—all of which are difficult to do if you have insecurity issues.
  3. You need to choose the harder route and think long-term. You’ll have to buckle down and put in the work of developing others, instead of taking the easier route of doing everything yourself.
  4. You need to be committed. You have to perform consistently and excellently, build and train a team, empower other potential leaders, and be invested in their development.

To make the most out of Level 4, you should:

  1. Stay open to growth. Just as you’re taking emerging leaders on a journey, you’re also going through your own journey, so keep learning. 
  2. Overcome your insecurities. If you find that your ego, desire for control, or distrust are getting in the way of developing people, then work through them by talking to a friend or a counselor.
  3. Recruit the best people (and know where to put them). You can’t create a winning organization if you don’t have strong players who are willing to grow and who are a good fit for the organization. Once you have them, position them strategically.
  4. Give your people the tools to do their jobs well. Don’t just tell them what to do—show your people how to do the job, let them do the job while you’re there to coach them, then empower them to do the job themselves. 
  5. Don’t just focus on their work life. Recognize the importance of helping your people develop life skills so that they’ll achieve success in all areas of their life. Evaluate any weaknesses and help your people overcome them.
  6. Gauge where they are on their leadership journey. Your goal is to be able to trust them to take action without your involvement.
  7. Prioritize people with potential. Make the decision to commit to people development, then focus at least 50 percent of your time on the top 20 percent of your team—they are the key to growth.
  8. Make mentorship a clear-cut process. Mentorship should be tailored to each person’s skills and personalities, but you should also have clear guidelines applicable to everyone. 
  9. Make the process emotionally engaging. Show people how much you love what you do. Bringing that positive energy encourages and inspires others to do their best.
  10. Be open, humble, and transparent. When your people feel like they can approach you, they’ll be more open to learning and taking risks.

Let these beliefs guide you as you work your way up to Level 5:

  1. Leadership has a compounding effect. Your goal as a leader is to develop more leaders.
  2. Leaders thrive in a leadership culture. Fostering a leadership culture begins with you: You must model it and teach it consistently, and you must encourage others to step up to the plate.
  3. Developing leaders is a way of life, not a 9-to-5 job. Developing leaders goes beyond your organization—it’s something you should do even outside of your job to truly have an impact on the world.

Level 5: Pinnacle (Legacy-Based Leadership)

At this level, people follow you because you have a reputation for developing strong leaders and strong organizations. Pinnacle leadership is about legacy—developing Level 4 leaders so that your organization continues to thrive even after you’re gone.

The upsides of this level are:

  1. It puts your organization ahead of the pack. Organizations that have found lasting success don’t falter when a superstar leader moves on or retires because there are other worthy leaders who’ve been trained to take over.
  2. It creates a lasting impact. Pinnacle leadership allows you to develop the next generation of leaders, who will then develop the next generation of leaders, and so on. 
  3. It amplifies your influence. Level 5 leaders are so highly respected that their influence extends beyond their organization and sometimes even beyond their industry. 

The downsides of this level are:

  1. You might think you’ve reached the end of your journey. If you think that you can rest because you’ve finally achieved success and have nothing left to learn, it can cause your organization to lose steam. You must keep trying to improve yourself and your organization.
  2. You might become too full of yourself. Because so many people look up to you, you might become overconfident, which can lead to bad decisions. Be confident but stay grounded—success is never a one-man show, and there were surely a lot of people who helped you get to where you are.
  3. You might lose sight of what’s important. Don’t lose your focus on the vision and the work you’re supposed to be doing, and continue to lead at the highest level, even when many other distracting opportunities open up to you.

To make the most of this level, you should:

  1. Stay teachable. Every day, remind yourself to remain teachable and look for other leaders from whom you can learn.
  2. Stay focused on your strengths and the organization’s vision. Reflect on your strengths and think about how you can use them to the organization’s greatest advantage. Think about products, services, values, and other improvements you can introduce.
  3. Give others the opportunity to lead. As a Level 5 leader, you want to develop leaders, not just gain followers. That means that you should genuinely want other people to succeed, help them work on their strengths, empower them to lead, see their potential and help them get there, and set aside enough time to mentor them. Make room at the top for them.
  4. Never stop mentoring. Your next Level 5 leader might be a dark horse, so it’s important to identify a pool of potential leaders and give your best to each one when you mentor them.
  5. Have an inner circle to keep you in check. Surround yourself with a trusted group of fellow leaders. Work with them, help each other, and keep each other grounded.
  6. Answer: “Who is going to replace me?” Start thinking about your succession plan. Go through your list of strong leaders and make sure to set aside time for them each week. 
  7. Make a positive impact that lasts. What do you want your legacy to be? What can you start doing now so that you can leave this legacy behind?
  8. Use the pinnacle as a platform for good. Given the extent of your influence, think about how you can use it to benefit others beyond your organization.

Help others move up to Level 4 or even Level 5 by using “crucible moments,” personal experiences that taught you important leadership lessons, as well as situations you create for emerging leaders to help them reach their potential. Answer the following questions to help you determine the best crucible moments for your emerging leaders:

  1. What leadership lessons do you want them to learn? Come up with a list of characteristics that any good leader should have. Examples are integrity, vision, servanthood, problem-solving ability, and passion. From there, create situations where your leaders-in-training can gain experience in those areas.
  2. What are the crucible moments in their lives? Turn your emerging leaders’ own experiences into teachable moments by helping them discern what these experiences taught them.  
  3. What are your own crucible moments? Go through your own formative experiences and identify what they taught you. Share these crucible moments with potential leaders—they’re behind you on the journey, so use your years of experience to help move them forward.
  4. Are there resources you can tap to help them grow? Use your resources, such as speakers and other organizations, for the benefit of your emerging leaders.
John Maxwell: The 5 Levels of Leadership (Overview)

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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