The 5 Levels of Leadership


John Maxwell's 5 Levels of Leadership is foundational to so many aspects of leadership. If a leader can understand these levels, they will be set up for tremendous success within their organization.

This past weekend, we had a MyVictory staff training weekend. Our staff learned a lot, and one of the things I majorly focused on was the 5 Levels of Leadership, as laid out in the book by John Maxwell. Much has been written, revised, and expanded on over the past twenty plus years on the 5 Levels of Leadership, and in my opinion, this is one of the most important things John Maxwell has ever written. He has so many great things to say about leadership, but to me the 5 Levels are foundational to it all. If a leader can understand this principle, it will set them up for tremendous success with their people and within their organization. These are what we will be covering in todays post.

Level 1: Positional

The lowest level of leadership is positional leadership. It’s called such because it is based on the authority granted by a position or title. It is the lowest level of leadership because typically, people only follow a positional leader because they have to. All of us begin at this level when we take over a new position, especially when the position is on a team that we do not have any previous relationships with.

If a leader does not progress quickly through this level, they will have difficulty working with volunteers because they are not dependant on a pay check and can walk away at anytime. The leader will also have difficulty leading young people because young people are typically not impressed with titles and are more reliant upon relationship and respect.

It is important to know that the 5 Levels of Leadership are not steps. Each level is added to the previous. Positional leadership gives a leader the opportunity to grow. Maxwell says that this level does not have the ability and effort to achieve anything. Anyone can achieve this level, but it means someone sees potential in you for leadership.

Level 2: Permission

Some people are unable to move past level 1. One of the most common reasons a leader does not progress is because, quite frankly, they don’t like people or simply do not know how to work with people. I have witnessed it multiple times; someone gets promoted because they are getting great results as a team member so it is assumed that they will do a great job leading the team. But leadership is much more than just getting results as an individual. Leadership is about bringing out the best in the team, and not everyone can do that. You can like people without leading them, but you cannot lead people without liking them. That is the basis of permission leadership.

[bctt tweet="You can like people without leading them, but you cannot lead people without liking them." username="kellystickel"]

If a positional leader does not put in the effort to build relationship with the team, they will not progress past being a positional leader and into being a permission leader. They may get a few results in the beginning because they produce it on their own, but unless they work well with others and get the team working together to produce results, that success will be short-lived.

Level 3: Production

Some ministries have confused Jesus’  leadership passion with His passion for people. Unfortunately, such ministries stay on the Position and Permission Levels. 

Once a leader gets a new position, they must immediately go to work building relationship with their team so that the team gives them permission to lead. But, in order to gain the trust of the team, a leader must move beyond just being liked, they have to get results as well.

Getting a few wins under your belt is one of the greatest motivators for a team and one of the best ways a leader can earn the trust of their followers. Getting results gives credibility to the leader. I love what Peter Drucker said, “There are two types of people in the business community; those who produce results and those who give reasons why they didn’t.”

The credibility of a Level 3 leader can be summed up in one word; example. Level 3 leaders take their people where they want them to go, they don’t send them there. They communicate the vision through action, which helps people understand it in ways they may not have before. When followers see positive results and goals being met, they get a clearer picture of what it means to fulfill the vision.

Level 4: People Development

Level 4 pushes the agenda of leadership beyond “developing followers” to the challenge of “developing leaders”. This is the key to the success of any ministry or business.

This level is definitely my favourite. Most of what an organization possesses goes down in value; equipment becomes out of date, supplies get used up. But, there is an asset that has the greatest potential for actually increasing in value. And that asset is people.

People do not grow automatically or accidentally. Growth only occurs intentionally. As John Maxwell says, “everything rises and falls on leadership.” So, it makes sense then that the more leaders we have, the greater the horsepower. And, the better leaders we have, the greater our potential.

You can never over-invest in people. Every time you increase the ability of a person on your team, you increase your ability to fulfill the vision. Investing in others is what takes the lid off of your potential. You can achieve above an beyond what you thought was possible when you build into your most appreciable asset; your people.

[bctt tweet="Investing in others is what takes the lid off of your potential. #leadership" username="kellystickel"]

A powerful trait of leaders at Level 4 is what Maxwell refers to as “The Law of Intuition” from his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. In the words of Solomon, a wise leader sees trouble coming and avoids it. That is intuition. If you can see upcoming problems or opportunities and direct your team accordingly, you will build huge trust with your team and produce great results for your organization.

I think there are three ways to develop this skill:

  1. Become a historian. Study the past trends in your field and see how others have done. Learn from their mistakes and from their victories. When you identify past trends, you will more effectively be able to forecast future trends.
  2. Become an analyst. This means you must study the current trends. You cannot manage what you do not measure. If you do not measure anything or count everything, you won’t be able to quickly see potential problems or opportunities.
  3. Become a prophet. What does that mean? For me, that means asking the Holy Spirit to help me see things I might not naturally see. In other words, I ask God for help regularly and rely on Him to help me plan for the future.

In Maxwell’s book The 21 Most Powerful Minutes in a Leader's Day, he goes into more detail about how intuition works in a natural leader versus a leader who is not a natural. He references Moses and his father-in-law Jethro as a a comparison. Everyone is intuitive in their area of natural giftedness. For example, if your gift is mercy, we see everything through a mercy bias; we sense when someone needs mercy. The same is true of a leader who has a serving gift; helping people comes naturally.

Jethro was a natural leader, however, Moses was not. Jethro saw Moses drained everyday by listening to millions of disgruntled, displaced people. Jethro knew intuitively what to do; he said to Moses “This thing you do is not good!”.

Jethro had no experience with leading 3 million people. But, as a natural leader, he not only saw the problem but he intuitively knew exactly what Moses needed to do. He was intuitive in the area of action. Intuitive leaders are readers of situations that need a solution. Natural leaders size up a situation quickly, they see trends in leadership that will cause future problems, and they know how leader’s giftedness can be best utilized. Jethro’s advice empowered Moses’ leadership. Moses became a greater leader, and Jethro’s visit was critical for Moses’s growth.

Level 5: Pinnacle

Pinnacle leadership happens when people follow you because of who you are and what you represent. This is legacy leadership. Few people ever reach this level of leadership. It happens after producing a lifetime of results that transcend your local organization.

Pinnacle leaders are people like Billy Graham, John Maxwell, or my mentor, Dr. George Hill. These are people who have lived a lifetime of mastering the previous four levels and having incredible success in whatever they have touched. But, most importantly, they have an vast amount of successful leaders they have poured into that have also produced amazing results as well. It is not just about individual success, it’s about leaving a legacy of successes.

[bctt tweet="It is not just about individual success, it’s about leaving a legacy of successes." username="kellystickel"]

Moving Levels

It can be difficult to move from Level 2 Permission to Level 3 Production. I think a Level 2 leader needs to start their team off with small challenges in order that they might experience a win. They then look for obtainable challenges that they can win together as a team. The greater the number of wins there are both individually and corporately, the more you can increase the difficulty of the challenges and the more momentum you can gain. Following that, I would recommend creating a growth and performance environment. This happens by planning to meet with your team at least weekly to give feedback on performance. You cannot just be their friend. Accountability is vital in order to have continued success. Accountability is achieved when winning is rewarded, losing is penalized, and mediocrity is challenged. However, do not penalize risk-taking. Praise people’s efforts, help them learn from their failures, and reward successes.

When moving from Level 3 Production to Level 4 People-Development, you need to make people development a priority and be intentional about it. One of the things we have implemented here in Lethbridge are weekly staff meetings in which we teach leadership principles to our team. We do not have a meeting without bringing some sort of teaching that will grow our people. We also resource them with books and podcasts and we invest in taking them to conferences that will grow their skills. People development is a vital priority for us and we have seen incredible fruit because of that focus.

It is important to understand that you may be on a different level with different individuals at the same time. Also, when making a career move, we start over again at the Positional Level. There are great words of truth in Maxwell’s 5 Levels, but there is also resistance to any teaching that challenges us.

A lot of leaders assume they are further along than they think, and this is when mistakes are made. When I first arrived in Lethbridge six and a half years ago, I knew I wasn’t the leader, I was just the pastor. So, I intentionally sought out the biggest influencers in the church and regularly met wit them so that I could lead them and through them. It took me about three and a half years to become the leader with permission and another year after that to move to Level 3. The levels are basically levels of trust and, just like trust, it takes time to earn each one and no time at all to lose them. So, it is important to value trust. The more you have, the easier it is to lead. Go to work on growing yourself and progressing up the levels. It is so worth it!

According to John Maxwell, leadership is influence. If we grow in our leadership, we are growing in our influence. If we grow in our influence, we are more likely to fulfill the great commission in our own cities. The truth is the 5 levels of leadership are a practical blueprint to make disciples. It is exactly how Jesus turned 12 men into some of the most influential leaders in history. And, it is how the church has progressed from the first century to where we are today. So, we can’t neglect these principles and we need to learn these skills to increase our effectiveness in being the hope of the world, on a mission to reach every available person, at every available time, by every available means, with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by creating churches unchurched people love to attend.


Episode Resources:

If you have questions you would like answered in an upcoming podcast, please email