How to Become a Daring Leader at Work

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 leadership Level 2? What is the most fundamental characteristic of permission leadership, according to John C. Maxwell?

Reaching Level 2 (permission leadership) marks the true start of your leadership journey. According to Maxwell, reaching this level means that you have gained some influence over your team members and they now do their jobs because they want to, not because they have to.

Keep reading to learn about leadership Level 2 (aka permission leadership).

The Journey Starts With Leadership Level 2

Reaching leadership Level 2 (permission leadership) means that you’ve unlocked a fundamental truth when it comes to leadership: your success depends on your relationships. When you focus on communication and connection, it makes your people feel valued and included. This encourages them to go from compliance to cooperation and collaboration. In short, they give you permission to lead them. 

Pros of Permission leadership

The positives of being a permissional leader are:

  1. It injects the workplace with positive energy. If you’ve ever had to work with a boss or a team you didn’t like, then you know how draining it can be. Conversely, working with people that you like and respect makes the hours go by more quickly. 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. This makes work more pleasant for everyone and gives them more energy and motivation to do their jobs and do them well. 
  2. Communication becomes a two-way street. Positional leaders tend to talk down to their people. Meanwhile, permissional leaders have conversations that go both ways—to them, listening is just as important as talking. This leads to a greater sense of community, where people feel they can communicate openly, not just with their leader but also with their teammates.
  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. Even little acts can go a long way to make people feel appreciated and give them a sense of personal fulfillment.
  • Example: In Leading like Madiba: Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela, author Martin Kalungu-Banda includes an anecdote about a successful businessman named Peter. Driven by a chauffeur named Dumi, Peter went to Mandela’s house for breakfast. As Mandela invited Peter to the breakfast table, he saw that Dumi was nowhere in sight. Mandela went back outside, introduced himself, and invited Dumi to join them for breakfast.   
  1. You develop trust. Once you stop trying to impress people and start trying to develop relationships, you start to gain their trust. Trust opens the doors to collaboration and teamwork—sharing, questioning, creating, and taking risks. People will only give you permission to lead them if they trust you.  

Cons of Leadership Level 2

While building relationships offers many positives, it can still have downsides. That’s because you’re dealing with a wide range of people, who have different temperaments, interests, and quirks. You’ll have a better chance of earning people’s permission to lead them if you’re able to manage these downsides: 

1. You can have a hard time balancing the “soft” side and the “hard” side of leadership. Leaders need to balance the “soft” side of relationship-building with the “hard” side of producing results. If you lean too much towards building relationships, 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.

The key is to maintain a good balance between the two: build relationships to encourage production, but show tough love when necessary—if you are invested in your people, you’ll care about their progress, not just their comfort. Remember: It’s not about making people happy; it’s about making people better so that you can achieve a common purpose.

2. People can take advantage of you. When you build relationships, you’ll find that there are four kinds of people:

  • Takers, who use your influence to improve their position but don’t give anything in return
  • Developers, who make the most of the relationship and improve themselves and you
  • Acquaintances, who are content with any benefit that comes their way but don’t actively try to better themselves
  • Friends, who have a reciprocal, genuine relationship with you

You might encounter a lot of takers along the way, but that is a relational risk you’ll have to take to open you up to the value that other people can bring into your life.

3. It’s not easy if you’re not a people person. Some leaders have a natural rapport with other people, while others struggle to form connections. If you’re one of the latter, think of relationship-building as a skill that you can hone. Choose to care about others, reflect on what you like about yourself and share that with others, and look for something likable in every person and compliment them on it.

4. You need to let other people see the real you, warts and all. If you put up a facade, pretending to know all the answers and presenting an inauthentic version of yourself, you can never develop relationships grounded in trust. 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, warts and all. You can’t build relationships only with those with whom you have a lot in common—you have to make the effort to do it with everyone. You’ll be surprised to find that those who are very different from you can keep things interesting and may have a lot to offer the organization. 

Maximizing Permissional Leadership

Once you’ve gotten out of the positional mindset, you can work towards becoming a relational leader. Here are the best behaviors to help you gain people’s permission:

1. Know thyself. Before you can connect with other people, you need to know and like yourself. When you’re grounded in a strong sense of self, you don’t take other people’s opinions or criticisms too personally, which enables you to communicate more effectively rather than defensively. 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. While it’s good to fine-tune systems and processes, your progress ultimately lies in the people who run them. 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. Treat people as you want to be treated. Make sure you don’t cross the line from motivation to manipulation by keeping the Golden Rule in mind. It’s a core teaching in many cultures and religions for a reason—it makes each person feel respected and valued.

4. Lift people up instead of tearing them down. Positional leaders jealously guard their position by devaluing those whom they view as a threat. In contrast, permissional leaders are generous with their praise. When people bask in the glow of your encouragement, they don’t want to disappoint you and are inspired to work hard.

5. 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. While it’s important to let your people know that you care about them, it’s just as important to let them know that they are still accountable and that you are invested in their growth. 

Showing them that you care lays the groundwork for candor later on. Once you’ve built a relationship with them, you should be able to freely give them feedback about their performance. Criticism is sometimes hard to swallow, but they’ll be more open to it if you did the caring part right—they’ll know that the reason behind your candor is that you only have their best interests at heart.  

Keep in mind that candor goes both ways. You must also be open to receiving feedback.   

Applicable Laws of Leadership

The following are the relevant Laws of Leadership for those in leadership Level 2:

  1. Leaders Influence and Connect with Others. Leadership equals influence, and nowhere is this more obvious than when you make the jump from a Positional leadership to a Permissional one. This is when people start doing things because they want to, not because they have to—and it’s all because of the influence you wield, not the title. You can increase your influence by emotionally engaging and forming connections with your people. 
  2. Leaders Serve Others. Those who are only interested in their position are me-centric instead of we-centric and thus get stuck in Level 1. Level 2 leaders recognize the importance of focusing on others instead of their own interests.   
  3. Leaders Are Trustworthy and Have Good Character. To have any sort of influence, you need to build up trust. If people don’t trust you, they won’t want to follow you, and you’ll remain a Positional leader.  
  4. Leaders Attract People Similar to Themselves. You tend to attract the people who are like you, not necessarily the people that you want. Your team is a reflection of you, whether it’s full of good workers with positive attitudes or unmotivated employees who are slacking off. Take a look at your team and then take a look at yourself to see if there’s anything you need to change.      
  5. Leaders Are Followed, Visions Aren’t. Rather than jumping the gun and getting people to buy into your vision, you first need to earn their trust. Once they trust you and give you permission to lead them, it’ll be easier to achieve your vision.

Moving-Up Mantras

Your growth as a leader doesn’t stop when your people start to like you. Once you’ve earned their trust, it’s time to start moving forward together. Here are some beliefs to help you reach Level 3:

  1. Leaders don’t live on relationships alone. Building relationships isn’t an end in itself. Just because you’ve built a good rapport with your team, it doesn’t mean the work is done. You have to find a way to use the influence you have on them to move forward. In this way, movement is twofold: First, you move towards each other as you build a relationship; then, you move together in the same direction towards a common goal.
  2. Moving forward comes with risks. Sometimes moving forward might require your team to push themselves beyond their limits, and this might cause tension in your relationships—team members might not be able to take the pressure and burn out, lash out, or quit. As a leader, you’ll have to keep in mind that the goal is to grow, not to stay comfortable, even if it means risking the relationships you’ve carefully built. It’s a difficult decision to make, but between adjusting the vision to suit your team and adjusting your team to meet the vision, go for the latter. 

Your Level 2 To-Do List

Here are some practical tips to help you gain your people’s permission to lead them:

1. Make the decision to like people. It’s not easy, especially if you can sense that they don’t like you. But if you start from a place of openness and positivity and make it your intention to genuinely like people, it can open the doors to them liking you back.

2. Use words of encouragement. Think of at least one positive thing about each team member and then let each person know it. Also make it a point to be your team’s biggest cheerleader—regularly say something encouraging to team members to boost their confidence.

3. 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.

4. Build self-awareness. Ask yourself the following questions and take appropriate action:

  • What are my strengths and weaknesses? Aside from evaluating yourself, you can ask trusted people to weigh in.
  • What are the things I can improve on? Your development is your responsibility and no one else’s. There are things you can change, but you also have to be realistic about the things that you can’t change—acceptance is a part of growth.
  • In what ways have I contributed to my current situation? While outside factors may have led you to where you are, you also need to acknowledge your part, whether it’s a situation you’re happy with or not. 

5. Do a relationship check. Play a round of “How well do I know my team?” 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, then it’s a sign that you need to carve out some quality time with them.

6. Pencil in fun. If you’re not a people person just yet and are more concerned about hitting goals and targets, include fun in your list of things to do. This will make work more enjoyable for everyone. 

  • Example: Schedule a regular team bonding activity on the last Friday of every month—say, board game night or karaoke night.

7. Be present. When you talk to people, really engage with them, making sure you give them your full attention. This will go a long way in making people feel like you care.

8. Use the caring candor checklist. Practice balancing caring and being candid. See someone underperforming? Refer to this checklist before you call them out on it. For each item, answer “true” or “false”:

  • I’ve given enough time and energy to the relationship to be open and honest.
  • I value him as a person.
  • It’s something he can address, not something I need to get used to.
  • I want to speak to him for his own good, not mine.
  • The issue outweighs the relationship.
  • I am willing to help in any way I can.
  • I can be clear about my expectations.

If you’ve answered “true” to each statement, then you’re ready to have a candid conversation. The sooner you can nip the issue in the bud, the better. Make sure that you have this conversation in private and speak in a calm, reassuring—rather than intimidating—manner.

Leadership Level 2: Permission Leadership

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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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