Level 1 Leadership: Title Is Just the Beginning

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 Maxwell’s level 1 leadership? What powers can you command at this level? And how do you move up the leadership ladder towards level 2?

In Maxwell’s leadership hierarchy, level 1 leadership is called positional or title-based leadership. At this level, you have the title but no real power, other than the authority to lead—people only follow you because they have to.

In this article, we’ll discuss Maxwell’s first level of leadership, its pros and cons, and what you can do to make the most of your title and move up the leadership ladder.

John C. Maxwell: Title Gives no Real Power

Position or title is the starting point of leadership, not the destination. According to Maxwell, having a title gives you no real power,

(Shortform note: Compared to Maxwell’s Level 1 leadership, someone in Jim Collins’s version of Level 1 does not occupy a leadership role. Instead, this person uses her knowledge, skills, and work ethic to be productive and make a contribution. To Collins, this level is purely individualistic and does not take into account a person’s ability to work with other people.) 

Pros of Positional Leadership

Maxwell writes that the positives of level 1 leadership:

1. It means you have what it takes. While hereditary leadership was common in the past, and seniority and politics may still come into play in some scenarios, the best leaders and organizations typically give leadership roles to those who show leadership potential. In short, the higher-ups likely gave you the position because they saw your talents and abilities. 

Is It Really Just About Talent?

Maxwell writes that talents and abilities can lead to positional leadership, but many people who have talent still face challenges when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder. For example, one survey found that only 18% of women versus 36% of men wanted to reach the C-suite. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes that fewer women want senior-level jobs due to their fears of gender stereotypes (assertive girls are called “bossy,” decisive women are deemed less likable) or impostor syndrome (doubting their capabilities).

To overcome these barriers and prime you for positional leadership, Sandberg urges women to take risks and be ambitious. In practical terms, this means you should: 

  • Look for jobs with growth potential.
  • Find a mentor who can give you career guidance.
  • Communicate more effectively by being honest and being open to feedback.
  • Keep from having a one-foot-out-the-door mentality—keep building your career instead of passing up opportunities even if you’re planning to have kids.
  • Look for a true partner who doesn’t buy into gender-normative roles at home and has no qualms about sharing the domestic load.
  • Set limits and accept that sometimes “done is better than perfect,” both at work and at home.

2. You have the chance to grow. Realizing that you have much to learn and that your position isn’t the be-all and end-all of leadership opens you up to personal growth. As the saying goes, you should be the change you wish to see—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.

(Shortform note: This requires you to have a growth mindset, which Drive defines as a belief that your intelligence and abilities aren’t fixed. This means that you use failures to help you improve, regard struggle as an intrinsic part of growth, and focus on learning and progress.) 

3. You can define your personal brand of leadership. Your position doesn’t dictate who you are. You can decide what kind of leader you want to be, but this must be grounded in self-knowledge. Instead of coming up with a leadership persona that doesn’t resonate with you, determine your leadership style by reflecting on the following questions:

  • Who am I? Know your strengths and weaknesses, temperament, work habits, and the kind of people you get along with. This can clue you in on your routines, skill set, and what you need to work on to become an effective leader.
  • What values are important to me? Having a clear understanding of your values—the driving force behind how you act—will enable you to behave and lead consistently. Think about your ethics (acceptable and desirable behaviors beyond just following the rules), relational values (your method of gaining trust and respect), and success values (your most important goals). Once you have a better understanding of what drives you, align your behaviors with these values. When people see that you act consistently, it builds up your integrity and, consequently, your influence over time. 
  • What habits and systems do I want to practice? There’s no one way to lead—one leader can be gentle, another aggressive, and yet both can get things done. The important thing is to stay true to your values as you put habits and systems in place.

Define Your Personal Brand of Leadership

Maxwell emphasizes staying true to yourself, but what if your personality doesn’t translate to an effective leadership style? A Harvard Business Review article states that while personality is who you are on the inside and something you can’t change, leadership style is something you can adjust, by adjusting what you do, how often, and when. The article states that there are two main components of leadership style and each comes with its own set of markers: 

Power—powerful markers include confidence and charisma but also aggressiveness. For example, you exercise power when you don’t let others finish what they’re saying. 

Attractiveness—attractive markers include approachableness and amiability but also meekness and a lack of confidence—for example, you show attractiveness when you phrase statements as questions.To find your leadership style, experiment with the balance between power and attractiveness, possibly making adjustments based on the situation. The writers recommend using attractive markers (listening attentively, asking more questions instead of making declarative statements, using “we” instead of “I”) when dealing with subordinates. They also recommend using power markers when dealing with peers in U.S.-based companies.

Cons of Positional Leadership

Maxwell states that there are pros and cons at all levels of leadership, but there are more cons the earlier you are in your journey and more pros the higher you go—another incentive for growth. 

Among the five levels, Level 1 has the highest number of downsides, according to Maxwell:

1. You have the title but not the influence. Don’t be misled into thinking that just because you’re in a leadership position, people will automatically see you as the leader. They’ll only start seeing you as a leader when you’ve actually accomplished something. If you get stuck in a positional mindset, your higher-ups may also see that you don’t have any potential for further growth, which means you won’t get more opportunities for advancement.

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. They make others look bad to make themselves look good, get swallowed up by office politics and in-fighting among fellow positional leaders, or use their position to their own advantage instead of thinking about their responsibilities to their team. This results in low morale and a toxic work environment and disregards the very essence of leadership: working with other people. 

3. You might be lonely. Stubbornly guarding your position and being unwilling to make room for anyone else at the top leads to isolation. 

4. You lose good workers. Because Level 1 leaders tend to undermine those whom they see as a threat to their position, it breeds a hostile environment for top performers. If you don’t give your best workers the chance to advance, they’ll eventually leave for an organization where they can shine. You’re then left with average or below-average performers. And what happens when a Level 1 leader is surrounded by Level 1 workers? You get a Level 1 organization.

5. You get the bare minimum from your people. Because you let your position do the heavy lifting by giving orders, people aren’t inspired to give their best. Instead, they do what they can to scrape by—they comply without being committed to their work and are only interested in getting a paycheck or keeping their jobs.

(Shortform note: Maxwell doesn’t delve deep into why people get stuck in a positional mindset. Executive coach Julie Diamond, Ph.D. posits that misusing power comes from a feeling of weakness: When you have a rank and yet still feel incompetent, undeserving, or powerless, you try to make yourself feel less insecure by showing others who’s boss. You take the shortcut and try to manage others and their perception of you, instead of doing the hard work of learning the tools to overcome negative emotions and managing yourself. Diamond says that the healthy way to cope with negative feelings is to tap into your personal, inner power, instead of relying on the outsourced—and temporary—feelings of power that you get from pulling rank.)

Avoid the Downsides of Positional Leadership 

Sometimes having a title can make you feel like you know it all or that you’re better than everyone else, but having this superiority complex can keep you from moving up to the next level. In What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith lists some bad habits that come with being in a position of authority and how you can overcome them:  

Bad habit: Constantly needing to win arguments, even over trivial matters. Better habit: Determining whether winning is ultimately good for you and your company.

Bad habits: Being a know-it-all. You compulsively try to improve or pass judgment on other people’s ideas, making them feel inferior. You arrogantly reply with “I already knew that” or “I’m way ahead of you” when someone tells you something you’ve heard before. 

Better habit: Thanking people for their ideas and input, and moving on.

Bad habit: Always responding with “No,” “But,” and “However” to other people’s ideas.Better habit: Reflecting on whether your criticism is valid. 

Maximizing Positional Leadership

Unless you strive to reach the next level of leadership, you’re merely a boss, not a leader. Maxwell offers advice to help you make the most of positional leadership and help you move on to the next level:

1. Change your mindset and stop pulling rank. A title is just a starting point. Having “CEO” or “Ph.D.” attached to your name doesn’t mean much if you don’t add value. Some signs that you’re flexing your position instead of using your skills to get things done: You make it clear that you’re above everyone else, keep your distance from your people, and believe that they’re there to serve you. It’s easy to fall into the “because I said so” style of leadership, but this can get really old, really fast—no one likes being bossed around. Instead, start focusing on people instead of power, and use words of encouragement instead of intimidation. 

  • Example: Hone this leadership skill by volunteering to spearhead a project where you work with other people of equal or greater rank. Leading without using your clout can challenge you to use a people-oriented approach to foster cooperation and teamwork.
Get Past the Boss-Subordinate Mindset

In Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, Paul Marciano writes that people are more motivated when you treat them as partners instead of subordinates. This means engaging them and sharing information with them like you’re on equal footing. He suggests some concrete ways you can do this:

  • Have regular meetings and publish department blogs to keep them in the loop.
  • Involve them in major decisions that affect them, like equipment purchases.
  • Don’t just stay at your desk. Walk through the factory and ask people for their opinions.
  • Forgo management perks like special parking spots.

2. Decide what kind of leader you want to be. You’ll build integrity and credibility by behaving consistently. It pays to define your brand of leadership so that you have something to guide you, especially when you have to make difficult decisions. Reflect on the three questions mentioned under the pros of positional leadership:

  • Who am I?
  • What values are important to me?
  • What habits and systems do I want to practice?

Once you’ve answered these questions, rethink your goals. Instead of thinking in terms of positions you can strive for, shift your focus and start thinking about the impact you want to make and the effect you want to have on your team. Then, make a contract with yourself, writing down how you intend to improve. Go back to it in the future to track your progress. 

Become a Better Leader By Writing Down Your Goals

Once you’ve decided what kind of leader you want to be, it’s not enough to just have the idea in your head. According to motivational speaker and author Brian Tracy, writing down your goals makes them real and concrete. He offers step-by-step instructions for achieving your goals:

Make a list. Write down individual tasks to provide you with a road map toward your goals.

Make a plan. Once you’ve written down all the tasks, re-organize them by priority. You may need to come up with a chart or a similar visual that can show you which tasks are connected.

Include deadlines. Write down deadlines for each major goal and task to help you stay on track.Get to work. Include your tasks in your schedule, making sure that you do something each day to help you reach your goals.

3. Come down from the top of the hill. While positional leaders smugly enjoy their king- or queen-of-the-hill status, you’ll need to leave your lofty spot if you wish to reach Level 2. True growth can only happen when you venture out of your comfort zone and meet your people where they are. 

It may take time to polish people skills, but one thing you can start doing immediately is show interest in and appreciation for the people you work with. Leadership isn’t a solo act but a group effort. Communicate, collaborate, and send a strong message that your people are working with you, not for you. 

(Shortform note: One way you can do this is by practicing what management consultant Tom Peters calls “management by walking around” or “management by wandering around” (MBWA). It involves managers leaving their desks and walking around the office or factory floor to get to know employees, talk about their concerns, and give feedback. The central idea is for managers to consistently listen to people at every level and to translate insights into actions. Some argue that, in the age of social media, it’s more efficient to take MBWA to a virtual space. But Peters’s team counters this by saying that efficiency isn’t the point—connection is. Seeing and talking to someone face-to-face creates a much stronger bond than an online interaction.)

4. Show your weaknesses. You don’t have to pretend you know everything. Maxwell stresses that your job isn’t to have all the answers; your job is to harness the power of the people around you so you can find the answers together.

(Shortform note: If you’re concerned about appearing weak, CEO Peter Bregman says that it’s important to note the difference between being weak and having weaknesses. He stresses that showing weakness—instead of only showing the parts of you that will impress other people—can help people feel more connected to you.)

5. Find a mentor. It can be hard to feel your way around a new role so it helps to seek guidance from someone who’s been through what you’re going through. Ask a leader you admire to coach you. Set up regular meetings and make sure to come with questions or issues that you’re dealing with—never come unprepared.  

How to Find a Mentor

While friends and family may be able to give you emotional support, they might not be the best people to turn to for career advice. This is why it’s important to find a mentor in a similar career who understands what you’re going through. In The Success Principles, Jack Canfield outlines the steps for finding and retaining a mentor:

Do your research. Read up and ask around for someone whose expertise and skills are aligned with your goals. Come up with a list.

Arrange a meeting. Ask to have a conversation, whether in person or virtually.

Come prepared. Have a list of questions ready, and ask them if they’re willing to be your mentor, which means regularly allotting a few minutes of their time for you. 

Keep looking. Go through your list until you find someone who agrees to be your mentor.

Bring something to the table. Make your mentor benefit from the setup, too. For example, you can introduce them to other people in your network.

6. Keep moving toward a vision. You might think you’ve made it once you’re given a leadership position, but don’t get caught up in the trappings of a title. 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.

Why Having a Vision Is Important

The objective of leadership isn’t to give you a sense of accomplishment or entitlement but to help an organization move forward. To this end, you need to have a clear picture of where you’re going. In The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz lists the reasons why it’s important to have a vision: It attracts and retains talented people.It gets everyone on the same page.It keeps everyone motivated.
Level 1 Leadership: Title Is Just the Beginning

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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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