Positional Leadership: You Have to Start Somewhere

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What is positional leadership? What privileges are associated with the positional leadership level?

A position is the starting point of leadership, not the destination. Positional leadership merely gives you a job title but no real power, other than the authority to lead—people only follow you because they have to.

Keep reading to learn about positional leadership, its pros and cons, and how you can move up the leadership ladder towards leadership Level 2.

Pros and Cons of Positional Leadership

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. 

The positives of being a positional leader are: 

  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. 
  2. You have some authority. You’ll have to build up your influence, but your position at least grants you the right to lead. If nothing else, your people will follow you based on your rank.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

The cons of positional leadership are as follows:

  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.
  • Example: At the beginning of Maxwell’s first experience leading a church as a pastor, he realized he was a leader only in name. At their first meeting, everyone ignored him and instead looked to a man named Claude for guidance. Claude was a farmer who had earned their trust through positive acts over many years, and this outweighed all the clout and qualifications that Maxwell brought with him.
  1. 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. 
  2. You might be lonely. Stubbornly guarding your position and being unwilling to make room for anyone else at the top leads to isolation. 
  3. 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.
  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. 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.
  5. You might get stuck. If you keep flashing your badge to get things done instead of trying to grow your relationships and influence, you won’t get very far. Your higher-ups may see that you don’t have any potential for further growth, which means you won’t get more opportunities for advancement.

Applicable Laws of Leadership

In his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Maxwell lists leadership laws covering influence, trust, and serving others. While it’s not necessary to know the laws in order to learn the 5 Levels, they may come in handy as you work your way up.

The following are the relevant Laws of Leadership for those in Level 1:

  1. Leaders Are Capped by Their Leadership Ability. Not all leaders are created equal—some are more gifted than others. Your challenge is to keep growing so that you can go beyond your own limitations. And the biggest limitation you can have is thinking that your position is everything. Once you fall into this mindset, you fail to see your potential and stunt your growth. Let go of the restrictions of your position and you can soar to greater heights.
  2. Leaders Develop Leadership Ability Over Time. Becoming a leader isn’t a one-time event—it’s a process. When you receive a leadership position, switch your thinking from “Today I became a leader” to “Today I begin my leadership journey.” Then strive to develop leadership every day.
  3. Leaders Set the Course. Just because you’re in a leadership position, it doesn’t mean you have all the answers. As a novice leader, you may have the rank but you don’t have the knowledge and experience of a seasoned one, so recognize the work you need to do and the limitations you need to overcome in order to effectively lead. 
  • Example: On a sailing trip, Maxwell took over the wheel of the boat, getting instructions from his friend Bill Hybels, a seasoned sailor. Within a few hours, Maxwell could steer, but he still wasn’t experienced enough to navigate. If you’re a Level 1 leader, recognize that you still have a lot to learn before you can become a captain who can set the course. 

Moving-Up Mantras

The longer you remain a positional leader, the harder it is to break free from a no-growth mindset. To help you overcome the hurdles, keep the following beliefs in mind:  

  1. A title is just a starting point. Having “CEO” or “PhD” attached to your name doesn’t mean much if you don’t add value. True leaders do good work even when they remain unrecognized because the impact of their work on others is its own reward. 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. It takes 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.
  3. Showing weakness is OK. You don’t have to pretend you know everything. 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.
  4. Collaboration is key. 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. 
Positional Leadership: You Have to Start Somewhere

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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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