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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 3? What are the key characteristic qualities of a level 3 leader?

In Maxwell’s leadership hierarchy, leadership level 3 is the results-based or production leadership. It is at this level that you truly begin to lead and make an impact. To thrive as a production leader, you need to be self-motivated, disciplined, and organized. When your team members see your work ethic, they are inspired to be productive themselves, creating a winning team that attracts other strong workers. 

In this article, we’ll discuss Maxwell’s leadership level 3, its pros and cons, and what to do to move up to the next level.

What Is Leadership Level 3?

Leadership level 3 separates the movers and shakers from the fakers. Maxwell writes that a title and good relationships can only take you so far; production is what truly begins to separate you from the rest of the pack. You can’t be a good leader if you’re not producing results.

To thrive in Level 3, which he calls Production, you need to be self-motivated, disciplined, and organized. When your team members see your work ethic, they’re inspired to be productive themselves, creating a winning team that attracts other strong workers. 

(Shortform note: For Collins, Level 3 is about being an effective manager, one who marshals people and resources to achieve objectives. His hierarchy clearly delineates between being a manager (Level 3) and a leader (Level 4), but he doesn’t delve into their differences. Similarly, Maxwell merely mentions that management and leadership aren’t interchangeable—that management is about maintaining the status quo, while leadership is about creating change. A Harvard Business Review article goes more in-depth into the differences:

 ManagerLeader
PersonalityPractical, focused on problem-solving and efficiency, persistent, tolerant, conservativeTypically doesn’t like mundane work
Approach to GoalsSets goals out of necessityActively comes up with goals and new ideas instead of reacting to circumstances
Approach to WorkWork means setting limits, aligning people and processes, and balancing opposing views to facilitate decision-makingWork means coming up with fresh ideas and injecting excitement in people
Approach to OthersPrefers working with other people without getting deeply involved; relates to people in terms of their role in a processUses intuition and empathy; attracts strong feelings in an organization, sometimes resulting in a turbulent environment that produces surprising outcomes 

The article also states that organizations need both leaders and managers to succeed.) 

Pros of Productive Leadership

Maxwell writes that the upsides of production are:

1. It makes you more credible. You don’t get noticed just because you have a title or a cooperative team. You only start getting attention and gaining influence outside your team when you produce results—this proves that you can back up your title. 

How to Build Credibility

Hitting targets and having a list of accomplishments aren’t the only ways to earn credibility. In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Maxwell writes that you can also:
Develop good relationships with people. Be genuine and build trust. Be an example. Help others achieve their goals. 

2. It sets the standard for others to follow. You have to serve as a model for your team members. When they see you working hard and getting results, they’ll be inspired to do the same.

How to Increase Productivity
Become a role model for productivity and efficiency. The book High Performance Habits states that you can become more efficient by determining important tasks and avoiding distractions. You can do this by:

Charting your work-life balance. This gives you a clearer picture of what parts of your life give you more happiness and satisfaction, and which areas need more focus and attention. Taking a break. It seems counterintuitive, but taking five- to 10-minute breaks every hour refreshes your mind and body, increasing your productivity. Use these breaks to get away from your screen—including social media and messages—and stand up and move to release any tension from your body. Developing advanced practices. Focus on the tasks that contribute to your most important goals, create a road map for your long-term goals, and master the skills you need in your field.

3. It brings a vision to life. For some people, a vision may seem like nothing more than empty words or a vague concept. They may be ready and willing to help you get there, but they just don’t understand what they’re supposed to be doing. In this case, 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. From there, they’re able to align their own actions to realize the vision.

Systems and Practices Should Reinforce the Vision

In Built to Last, Jim Collins writes that successful companies make sure that elements within the company, from the office layout to long-term goals, reinforce each other and align with the vision. Some examples:

Merck reinforced its vision of scientific innovation by recruiting top scientists, allowing them to publish their work in scientific journals, and keeping marketing out of the research process.
Ford reinforced its vision of putting people and products ahead of profits by creating employee involvement programs, implementing stringent quality control standards even for their suppliers, and having top executives attend focus group discussions about customer satisfaction.
Hewlett-Packard reinforced its vision of becoming a role-model corporation that valued its people by introducing profit-sharing plans and stock options, and passing up lucrative contracts that would result in hire-and-fire practices.

4. It bolsters morale. Which comes first: high morale or high productivity? While high morale can help increase productivity, you can’t maintain high morale without productivity. Even if you have a team of happy workers, failure after failure can demoralize them, reducing not just the positive feelings but also their trust in and loyalty to you.

Improve Productivity Through Social Support

When you’re tackling a big project, your tendency might be to shut yourself off from the rest of the world, believing that social interaction is just a distraction. But author Shawn Achor writes that social support can relieve stress, increase innovation and creativity, and prolong your ability to focus, among other benefits.
Improve work performance and increase productivity in your workplace by improving social bonds. You can do this by:
Being friendly to coworkers when you pass them in the hall.
Introducing new hires to those working in other departments.
Arranging the workspace in a way that encourages interaction and connection.
Speaking with employees face to face whenever possible.
Talking about topics other than work and encouraging others to do the same.

5. It makes everything easier. Swimming with the tide is always easier than going against it, and the winning combination of high morale and high productivity turns the tide in your favor. This momentum can help carry you to your goals more easily.

In your team, you might find three different types of people: 

  • Those who go with the flow. When others move, they move; when others stop, they stop. You can tap into their productivity by modeling productivity yourself.
  • Those who bog others down. They hurt the team and the organization by being unproductive and keeping others from being productive, too.
  • Those who make things happen. They’re focused on winning and so they keep producing, creating their own momentum.

Leveraging high morale and high productivity and learning how to manage the momentum creators and killers can propel your team faster and farther.

(Shortform note: In his blog, Maxwell writes that momentum can help you easily overcome obstacles. He cites attitudes and behaviors that are momentum killers, and the momentum creators with which to replace them: Instead of being bogged down in the past, focus on the future. Instead of sticking to tradition, rely on creativity. Instead of being indecisive, take action.)  

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. But leadership production attracts all sorts of people, so you’ll need to hone your instincts for the best ones. Once you have good people and build them into a team, you’re better positioned to succeed.

How to Hire the Best People

It’s hard to tell from a resume and a standard job interview if a candidate would be a good fit for your team. In a New York Times article, chief executives give their creative screening tips to help you get the best people on board:
Watch their behavior away from the desk. Invite them to walk with you through the office or to have a meal with you. Observing their behavior can give you a better gauge of their interest and attitude.
Ask unusual questions. Get them to go off-script by asking out-of-the-box questions. Their unrehearsed answers can reveal their real personality and the way they think.
Get other people to weigh in. Have them meet with potential colleagues, then get their opinions.
Overcome your biases. Be mindful of your inherent bias to hire people who are a lot like you. Push for diversity, which opens you up to different perspectives and an increased capacity for innovation and creativity.
Give them an assignment. Ask candidates to write an essay, submit a proposal, or put together a presentation so that you can have a clearer idea of the quality of their work and their work ethic.

Cons of Leadership Production

Here are the downsides of Level 3 leadership, according to Maxwell:

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. 

Maxwell says that many organizations give leadership roles to high producers, thinking that they’ll surely make high-production leaders. But that doesn’t always turn out to be true. High-production workers can only be effective leaders when they’ve established themselves in their position, have gained people’s permission to lead, have hit their personal targets, and are driven to make the rest of the team productive as well.

  • Example: Hockey great Wayne Gretzky is widely regarded as one of the worst players-turned-coaches in sports history. He simply couldn’t translate his fantastic performance as an athlete into coaching skills.  
Why Productive Employees Fail as Managers

When it comes to sports, science suggests that the best players rarely make the best coaches. One psychologist says that great players tend to struggle as coaches because the better they are at what they do, the worse they get at communicating how to do it. This can also be true in the workplace. Companies tend to promote high-production employees to management roles, but sometimes these high performers don’t make great leaders. 

A Harvard Business Review article makes the case that the two roles require different competencies: To be a productive employee, you need to lean on individual skills. But to be a productive manager, you need to focus on skills that are focused on others:
Being open to feedback
Helping others learn by giving good feedbackCommunicating effectively
Having high emotional intelligence that translates to good people skills
Prioritizing the organization

An organization can increase its chances of promoting the right people by investing in leadership development. This enables an organization to identify high performers and train them before they’re promoted.

2. You need to continue to balance the “soft” and “hard” sides of leadership. As in Level 2, you still have to find that sweet spot between relationships and productivity. The difference is that in Level 3, you might be inclined to direct all your energy toward production, 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. The work of maintaining your relationships doesn’t stop even as you dive into production.

(Shortform note: A Forbes article calls this balance “tough love leadership,” and getting it just right sets you up for success. If you lean too much toward “tough,” team members may resent you; if you lean too much toward “love,” your team members may be tempted to slack off. Get the balance right by letting team members know what’s expected of them and getting them to understand why their tasks are important, while continuing to have conversations with them to deepen your relationship.)  

3. You’re always under a lot of pressure. When a team is having a rough season, the first person on the chopping block is the coach. And when a team wins a championship, the coach doesn’t rest. Instead, she has to start planning for the next season, figuring out how the team can do even better and win another championship. 

In any team, in sports or otherwise, the leader carries the weight of responsibility. She is the one who is accountable for a team’s productivity, profitability, and growth. And once the team hits its targets, the leader still can’t rest. She has to keep setting her sights on higher and higher targets—and this can be too much for some. As a Level 3 leader, you need to decide if you’re willing to bear the weight of continuous production.

How to Respond Thoughtfully in a High-Pressure Environment

A Harvard Business Review article differentiates between human beings’ deliberate self—the part that makes rational decisions—and reactive self—the part that runs on impulse. The following tips can help you tap into your deliberate self in a high-pressure workplace:

Be aware when negative emotions arise. Anger, impatience, and any sort of defensiveness are often reactionary. Offer support and encouragement to employees to help tamp down your frustration. Pause and reflect on your reasoning before drawing conclusions or making a decision.

4. You have to make some tough decisions. In Level 2, you need to make hard decisions when it comes to relationships with your people. In Level 3, you’ll continue to make hard decisions, but this time, many of them are related to yourself. For example, you’ll have to decide to:

  • Be your own toughest critic. 
  • Set and achieve concrete goals.
  • Be accountable and own up to your mistakes.
  • Use results, not intentions, as your metric for success.
  • Bow out of situations if you can’t contribute.

Without making decisions like these, you won’t experience a leadership breakthrough and you’ll remain stagnant.

Have an “Extreme Ownership” Mindset

In Extreme Ownership, former U.S. Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin espouse taking full responsibility for yourself, your decisions, your team, and your team’s actions, without blaming anyone else or making excuses. These are some of their recommended practices:

Make sure that everyone on the team knows his individual role.
Be decisive, even when you don’t have all the information.
If you have a large team, delegate tasks to junior leaders, trust them to make decisions, and let them know that you have their back.
Own up to your mistakes, and be open to feedback.

Maximizing Leadership Production

Maxwell outlines the best behaviors to help you make the most out of being in Level 3 and help move you up to the next level:

1. Align your strengths with the organization’s vision. If you’ve done the work to become more self-aware in Levels 1 and 2, then you already have a clear idea of your strengths. Now, take it a step further. Ask yourself: How can I continuously develop these strengths and use them to help the organization achieve its vision? In this way, you can use your strengths to fuel your production.

(Shortform note: The book Eat That Frog suggests a method to make sure your skills are aligned with the organization’s needs: Write down what’s expected of you, grade yourself on a scale of one to 10 in each area, then develop a plan for improving your areas of weakness.) 

2. Be clear about the vision. Your people might be raring to get to work, but they won’t go very far if they don’t know what they’re working toward. Instead of just giving people the ball and telling them to shoot, point them toward the basket so that they know what they’re aiming for. To help you come up with a clear, well-defined vision:

  • Answer: “What does success mean in this organization?” Answering this question enables you to clearly state the vision. 
    • Example: For General Electric, it was to become No. 1 or No. 2 in every market it served.   
  • Go all in. People will only commit to the success of the vision if they see you putting in your time and effort to achieve it. Set the example for others to follow. 
  • Celebrate success. Include your people in celebrating wins, big and small, and give credit where credit is due.
Define Your Vision

In Traction, Gino Wickman lists the components of a clear vision:

Your defining values—three to seven core values that serve as guiding principles
Your company’s main focus—what your company excels inYour 10-year goal—what you hope to achieve in the long term; in Built to Last, this is what the authors call “big, hairy, audacious goals”
Your marketing strategy—a strong message that includes your target market and prospect list, your differentiators, your process, and your guarantee
Your three-year goal—what you hope to achieve in the medium term
Your one-year goal—a maximum of seven objectives that you hope to achieve in the short term
Your quarterly priorities—your priorities for the next 90 days
Your issues—obstacles
Share this vision with your employees in a kickoff meeting, a quarterly company status meeting, and a quarterly leadership meeting.

3. Develop your team. Your teammates may like each other, but they also have to learn how to work together effectively. You can lay the groundwork for a productive team by:

  • Making sure they complement each other. At this level, you should already know each of your team members’ strengths and weaknesses. Think about how you can use their strengths to compensate for others’ weaknesses. 
  • Communicating the vision clearly and frequently. Never assume that everyone knows what they’re working toward. 
  • Letting them know how they’re doing. Give team members feedback about their performance so that they’ll know if they’re succeeding. Let them know their points for improvement so that they can adjust accordingly.
  • Fostering an environment for growth. It all begins with your attitude: If you’re positive and encouraging, you can create an environment that is conducive for growth.
How to Foster Teamwork

It’s not just about hiring well. A New York Times article outlines what you need to do to manage a successful team:
Come up with a clear plan with measurable goals. Determine your priorities, communicate them, and keep track of your progress.
Stick to your values. Your team should know and adhere to a set of behaviors and guidelines to enable them to work harmoniously.
Be a role model for respect. There should be no room for credit-grabbing, finger-pointing, and gossiping.
Be accountable. Do what you say you’re going to do and expect the same from your team.
Don’t be afraid of having tough conversations. It’s sometimes necessary to call attention to undesirable behaviors or to clear up misunderstandings. Make sure to approach these conversations with your observations (“I noticed that you don’t read my emails, and it makes me feel like you’re not committed to the project”) rather than your assumptions (“I noticed that you don’t read my emails, and it seems like you’re not committed to the project”).    

4. Be a shining example. Write down the qualities you want your team members to have. Then reflect on whether you possess those qualities. If not, write down a concrete way to become the person you want your team members to be. 

  • Example: If you want your people to be more persevering, stick with a task until it’s done.

(Shortform note: While there are many things you can do to become a good role model—like being respectful to your team members and following company policies—the overarching principle is to align your words with your actions.) 

5. Learn to prioritize. Your to-do list might seem endless, but you need to learn how to whittle it down to the tasks and projects that will yield high returns. Use the Pareto Principle (a.k.a. The 80/20 rule) to trim your list and channel your energies toward the areas where your team can be successful. Focus on the top 20% of your to-do list that yields an 80% return.

This is also another instance wherein knowing your people’s strengths and weaknesses can come in handy. Structure your team in such a way that members work in their strength zone 80% of the time, in their learning zone 15% of the time, outside their areas of strength 5% of the time, and in their weakness zone 0% of the time.

Put the Pareto Principle to Good Use

The Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, originated from 19th-century economist Vilfredo Pareto, who determined that 80% of the land in Italy belonged to 20% of the people. This idea led to the generalization that 80% of results come from 20% of the effort. In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss writes that you can use the 80/20 rule to gain more time and decrease your problems:

List the top 20% of the things in your life that deliver results or make you happy. List the top 20% of the things that waste your time or give you 80% of your stress.
From there, you’ll be able to gauge which areas of your life need more of your attention and which need less.  

6. Tap into your team members to build momentum. Nothing solves problems quite like momentum, and nothing creates momentum quite like a win. Start off with easier challenges both for individual team members and for the entire team, then keep building from there. In time, they’ll win harder and harder challenges, gaining more and more momentum.

Remember that your team members fall into three categories when it comes to momentum: those who go with the flow, bog others down, or make things happen. Figure out which team members fall into each category. You can put those who make things happen into roles that allow them to maximize their impact and influence those who just go with the flow. Then you can help the momentum-breakers change their mindset and give them a chance to improve. If they don’t, then you’ll have to isolate or, if possible, remove them from the team to keep them from holding others back.

How to Let Go of Underperformers

If you feel you’ve done everything in your power to bring a momentum-breaker up to speed with no success, then it’s time to consider letting him go. Firing someone is by no means easy, but Radical Candor lists three ways to make it a straightforward yet caring process:

Don’t put it off. Delaying the inevitable will only make things harder for you and your team.
Get a second opinion. Ask a neutral third party to weigh in on your decision. If they think you’re doing the right thing, get your boss or HR involved to make it a clear-cut process.
Show them you care. Just because you’re letting this person go, it doesn’t mean you should forget about the relationship you’ve built. Find ways to make it easier for them—discuss whether they’d want you to inform the team that they’re leaving or if they want to do it themselves, help them figure out what jobs might be best suited to their skills, and offer to reach out to your network. Then, check in with them a month later.

7. Stay focused. Don’t let the momentum do the work for you—be a momentum maker instead of a taker, and keep your attention on getting results. Keep pushing forward and producing while never disregarding the relationships you’ve built. 

Stay Focused Through “Deep Work”

In Deep Work, Cal Newman writes that uninterrupted, undistracted work leads to increased productivity. The key is to train yourself to focus and resist distractions for longer periods. Some of his suggested strategies for deep work are:
Schedule regular blocks of time for deep work every day.
Assign a space, like a meeting room or your home office, that you can associate with deep work.
Don’t perform shallow work, like answering email, during your deep work blocks.
Resist the urge to check your phone.
Each time you don’t give in to temptation, you strengthen your concentration muscle. 

8. Initiate change. Look for changes you can make to improve the team. Start by listing five changes, get your team on board, and be accountable if things don’t go as planned.

  • Example: You can put up a shared scoreboard to make sure everyone is on track with their targets.
Leadership Level 3: Results-Based 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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