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Developing the Leader Within You

Developing the Leader Within You

by John C. Maxwell

Learn More | Meet John C. Maxwell



Everyone talks about it; few understand it. Most people desire to cultivate a high capacity for it; few actually do. I can put my hands on more than fifty definitions and descriptions of it from my personal files. If you google it, you’ll get more than 760 million results for it. What am I talking about? Leadership.

When I wrote the first edition of this book in 1992, people who wanted to succeed in businesses and other organizations focused their attention on management. Every year another management fad seemed to be in fashion. But few people paid any attention to leadership. It wasn’t on most people’s radar.

I have earned three degrees: a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a doctorate. Yet I had not taken a single course in leadership during my studies before the 1993 publication of Developing the Leader Within You. Why? Because none of the universities I attended offered a single course on the subject.

Today, however, leadership is a buzzword. And schools and universities have embraced it. If you wanted to, you could earn an advanced degree in the subject at more than a hundred accredited universities. All three of the universities I attended now offer courses in leadership.

Why has leadership become so important? Because people are recognizing that becoming a better leader changes lives. Everything rises and falls on leadership. The world becomes a better place when people become better leaders. Developing yourself to become the leader you have the potential to be will change everything for you. It will add to your effectiveness, subtract from your weaknesses, divide your workload, and multiply your impact.


More and more people recognize the value of good leadership, yet not very many work to become better leaders. Why is that? Despite the widespread prevalence of leadership books and classes, many people think leadership isn’t for them. Maybe it’s because they make one of these assumptions:

I’m Not a “Born Leader,” so I Can’t Lead

Leaders are not born. Well, okay, they’re born. I’ve never met an unborn leader. (And I wouldn’t want to.) What I really mean is that your ability to lead is not set at birth. While it’s true that some people are born with more natural gifts that will help them lead at a higher level, everyone has the potential to become a leader. And leadership can be developed and improved by anyone willing to put in the effort.

A Title and Seniority Will Automatically Make Me a Leader

I believe this kind of thinking was more common in my generation and that of my parents, but it can still be seen today. People think they need to be appointed to a positon of leadership, when the reality is that becoming a good leader requires desire and some basic tools. You can have a title and seniority and be incapable of leading. And you can have no title or seniority and be a good leader.

Work Experience Will Automatically Make Me a Leader

Leadership is like maturity. It doesn’t automatically come with age. Sometimes age comes alone. Tenure does not create leadership ability. In fact, it’s more likely to engender entitlement than leadership ability.

I’m Waiting Until I Get a Position to Start Developing as a Leader

This last assumption has been the most frustrating to me as a teacher of leadership. When I first started hosting leadership conferences, people would say, “If I ever become a leader”— meaning if they were ever appointed to a leadership position— “then maybe I’ll come to one of your seminars.” What’s the problem? As legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “When opportunity comes, it’s too late to prepare.” If you start learning about leadership now, not only will you increase your opportunities, but you’ll also make the most of them when they arrive.


The bottom line is that if you’ve never done anything to develop yourself as a leader, you can start today. And if you have already begun your leadership journey, you can become a better leader than you already are by intentionally developing the leader within you.

What will that take? That’s the subject of this book. These ten chapters contain what I consider to be the ten essentials for developing yourself as a leader. I’ve also created free bonus materials that you can access at Included is an assessment that will help you gauge your current leadership ability. I encourage you to take it before reading any further.

Let’s start with the most important concept of the ten: influence. After more than five decades of observing leaders around the world and many years of developing my own leadership potential, I have come to this conclusion: Leadership is influence. That’s it— nothing more, nothing less. That’s why my favorite leadership proverb is “He who thinketh he leadeth and hath no one following him is only taking a walk.” For you to be a leader, someone has to be following you. I love what James C. Georges, founder and chairman of the PAR Group, said in an interview I read years ago: “What is leadership? Remove for a moment the moral issues behind it, and there is only one definition: Leadership is the ability to obtain followers.”

Anyone— for good or ill— who gets others to follow is a leader. That means Hitler was a leader. (Did you know that Time named Hitler their Man of the Year in 1938 because he had greater influence on the world than anyone else?) Osama bin Laden was a leader. Jesus of Nazareth was a leader. So was Joan of Arc. Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. Kennedy were leaders. While the value systems, abilities, and goals of all these people were vastly different, each of them attracted followers. They all had influence. Influence is the beginning of true leadership. If you mistakenly define leadership as the ability to achieve a position instead of the ability to attract followers, then you will go after position, rank, or title to try to become a leader. But this type of thinking results in two common problems. First, what do you do if you attain the status of a leadership position but experience the frustration of having no one follow you? Second, what if you never achieve the “proper” title? Will you keep waiting to try to make a positive impact on the world?

My goal with this book is to help you understand how influence works, and use it as the starting point for learning how to lead more effectively. Each chapter is designed to help you acquire skills and abilities that further develop you as a leader. With the addition of each skill set, you will become a better leader.


Before we get into the particulars of how influence with others works and how to develop it, let’s nail down a few important insights about influence:

1. Everyone Influences Someone

    My friend Tim Elmore, the founder of Growing Leaders, once told me that sociologists estimate that even the most introverted individual will influence ten thousand other people during his or her lifetime. Isn’t that amazing? Every day you influence others. And you are influenced by others. That means no one is excluded from being both a leader and a follower.

    In any given situation with any group of people, the dynamic of influence is always in play. Let me illustrate. Let’s say a child is getting ready for school. During that process, his mother is usually the dominant influence. She may choose what he will eat and what he will wear. When he arrives at school, he may become the influencer in his group of friends. When class begins, his teacher becomes the dominant influencer. After school, when the boy goes out and plays, the neighborhood bully may have the most influence. And at dinnertime, Mom or Dad has the most influence at the table as they eat.

    If you are observant, you can discover the prominent leader of any group. Titles and positions don’t matter. Just watch the people as they gather. As they work to resolve an issue or make a decision, whose opinion seems most valuable? Who is the person others watch the most when the issue is being discussed? Who is the one with whom people quickly agree? Whom do others defer to and follow? Answers to these questions point you to who the real leader is in a particular group.

    You have influence in this world, but realizing your potential as a leader is your responsibility. If you put effort into developing yourself as a leader, you have the potential to influence more people and to do so in more significant ways.

2. We Don’t Always Know Who or How Much We Influence

    One of the most effective ways to understand the power of influence is to think about the times you have been touched in your life by a person or an event. Significant events leave marks on all our lives and memories. For example, ask people born before 1930 what they were doing on December 7, 1941, when they heard that Pearl Harbor was bombed, and they will describe in detail their feelings and surroundings when they heard the terrible news. Ask someone born before 1955 to describe what he or she was doing on November 22, 1963, when the news that John F. Kennedy had been shot was broadcast. Again, you will hear no loss for words. Each generation remembers events that mark them: the day the space shuttle Challenger blew up. The tragedy of 9/11. The list goes on. What major event stands out to you? How is that event continuing to influence your thinking and actions?

    Now think about the people who influenced you in a powerful way, or the little things that meant a lot to you. I can point to the influence of a camp I attended as a youth and how it helped determine my career choice. My seventh- grade teacher, Glen Leatherwood, began to stir a sense of calling in my life that I continue to live out today in my seventies. When my mother bought bubble lights for our family Christmas tree, there was no way for her to know that they would evoke the feeling of Christmas in me every year. The affirming note I received from a professor in college kept me going at a time when I was doubting myself. My list is endless. So is yours.

    We are influenced every day by so many people. Sometimes small things make big impressions. We have been molded into the people we are by those influences. And we mold others, often when we least expect it. Author and educator J. R. Miller said it well: “There have been meetings of only a moment which have left impressions for life, for eternity. No one of us can understand that mysterious thing we call influence . . . yet out of every one of us continually virtue goes, either to heal, to bless, to leave marks of beauty; or to wound, to hurt, to poison, to stain other lives.”

3. The Best Investment in Tomorrow Is to Develop Your Influence Today

    What’s your greatest investment possibility for the future? The stock market? Real estate holdings? More education? All of these things have value. But I would argue that one of the best investments you can make in yourself is to develop your influence. Why? Because if you have the desire to accomplish something, you will be in a better place to do it if others are willing to help.

    In the book Leaders, Warren G. Bennis and Burt Nanus say, “The truth is that leadership opportunities are plentiful and within reach of most people.”3 That’s true in businesses, volunteer organizations, and social groups. If you’re an entrepreneur, those opportunities are multiplied exponentially. The question is, will you be ready for them when they come? To make the most of them, you must prepare for leadership today and learn how to cultivate influence and use it positively to make a difference.

    Robert Dilenschneider, founder and principal of the Dilenschneider Group and former CEO of the PR firm Hill and Knowlton Strategies, has been one of the nation’s major influence brokers for many years. In his book Power and Influence, he shares the idea of the “power triangle” to help leaders become more effective. The three components of this triangle are communication, recognition, and influence. Dilenschneider says, “If you are communicating effectively, you will get positive recognition for your communication from the audiences you are trying to influence, which means people will think what you are doing is right and that you are doing it in the right way. When you get positive recognition, your influence grows. You are perceived as competent, effective, worthy of respect— powerful. Power comes from remembering and using the linkage of communication, recognition, and influence.”

    As a young leader, I followed that pathway to better leadership because communication is one of my gifts. As I became a better communicator, I did receive recognition. Soon I was being asked to teach on the subject of leadership. But I also sensed that leadership was more complex than just communication, recognition, and influence. I began thinking about how I could develop a model that would help others understand how influence works, and more importantly, how to develop influence in their own lives. I knew that if the people I helped invested in their influence, they would be able to make a positive impact in their world, wherever that happened to be.


I began studying influence more carefully, and I also drew upon my own leadership experience and what I observed in leaders I respected and admired. What I discovered is that influence can be developed in five stages. I turned those stages into a tool that I call the 5 Levels of Leadership. It provides a model of influence that can help you better understand the dynamics of leadership, and it also creates a road map you can follow to develop influence with others. I’ve been teaching this model of leadership for more than thirty years, and I can’t count the number of people it’s helped. I hope it helps you in the same way it has others.

Let’s examine each of the levels. You’ll quickly get a handle on how they work.

Level 1: Position

The most basic entry level of leadership is the Position level. Why is this the lowest level? Because Position represents leadership before a leader has developed any real influence with the people being led. In generations past, people would follow leaders simply because they possessed a title or position of authority. But that is not very common today in American culture. People will follow a positional leader only as far as they have to.

When I took my first job as a leader in 1969, people were respectful of me. They were kind. But I had no real influence. I was twenty- two. They could see how little I knew, even if I couldn’t. I found out how little influence I had when I led my first board meeting. I started the meeting with my agenda in hand. But then Claude started to talk. He was just an old farmer, but everyone in the room looked to him for leadership. Whatever he said held the most weight. Claude wasn’t pushy or disrespectful. He didn’t do a power play. He didn’t have to. He already had all the power. He just wanted to get things done.

It’s very clear to me now that in that first job, I was a leader living on Level 1. All I had going for me at first was my position— along with a good work ethic and a desire to make a difference. I learned more on Level 1 than at any other time in my early years of leading. I figured out pretty quickly that a title and position won’t get a person very far in leadership.

People who have been appointed to a position may have authority, but that authority doesn’t exceed their job description. Positional leaders have certain rights. They have the right to enforce the rules. They have the right to tell people to do their jobs. They have the right to use whatever power they have been granted.

But real leadership is more than having granted authority. Real leadership is being a person others will gladly and confidently follow. Real leaders know the difference between position and influence.

It’s the difference between being a boss and being a leader:

    Bosses drive workers; leaders coach them.

    Bosses depend on authority; leaders depend on goodwill.

    Bosses inspire fear; leaders inspire enthusiasm.

    Bosses say, “I”; leaders say, “We.”

    Bosses fix the blame for any breakdown; leaders fix the breakdown.

    Bosses know how it is done; leaders show how.

    Bosses say, “Go”; leaders say, “Let’s go!”

Position is a good place to start in leadership, but it’s a terrible place to stay. Anyone who never leads beyond Position depends on territorial rights, protocol, tradition, and organizational charts. These things are not inherently negative— unless they become the basis for authority. They are poor substitutes for leadership skills.

If you’ve been in a leadership position for any length of time, how do you know whether you are relying too much on your position to lead? Here are three common characteristics of positional leaders:

Positional Leaders Look for Security Based on Title More Than Talent

There’s a story about a private during World War I who saw a light in his trench on the battlefield and shouted, “Put out that match!” Much to his chagrin, he discovered that the offender was General “Black Jack” Pershing. Fearing severe punishment, the private tried to stammer out an apology, but General Pershing patted him on the back and said, “That’s all right, son. Just be glad I’m not a second lieutenant.”

The higher people’s level of ability and the resulting influence, the more secure and confident they become. A new second lieutenant might be tempted to rely on his rank and use it as a weapon. A general doesn’t need to.

Positional Leaders Rely on Their Leader’s Influence Instead of Their Own

Baseball Hall of Famer Leo Durocher, who managed the Giants from 1948 to 1955, was once coaching at first base in an exhibition game played at the United States Military Academy at West Point. During the game, a noisy cadet kept shouting at Durocher, trying to get under his skin.

“Hey, Durocher,” he hollered. “How did a little squirt like you get into the major leagues?”

Durocher shouted back, “My congressman appointed me!”5

Just because people may be appointed to a position of authority doesn’t automatically mean they can develop influence. Because some positional leaders can’t and possess no influence or authority of their own, they rely on the authority of their boss or the person who appointed them. Anytime they fear that their team members won’t follow them, they’re quick to say, “We need to do this because the boss says so.” That kind of borrowed authority can wear thin after a while.

Positional Leaders Can’t Get People to Follow Them Beyond Their Defined Authority

A common reaction of followers to positional leaders is to do only what’s required and nothing more. If you’ve observed leaders asking people to do something extra, stay late, or go out of their way, only to have the people refuse or say, “That’s not my job,” then you might be seeing the results of positional leadership. People who define their leadership by position will find themselves in a place where people will do only what’s required based on the rights granted by that position. People do not become committed to vision or causes led by positional leaders.

If any of these three characteristics describe you, then you may be relying too much on your position, which means you need to work harder at cultivating influence. Until you do, the team you lead will have low energy and you will feel as if every task is a major ordeal. To change that, you’ll need to start focusing on the next level of leadership.

Level 2: Permission

My friend and mentor Fred Smith says, “Leadership is getting people to work for you when they are not obligated.”6 That is the essence of the second level of leadership, Permission.

Leaders who remain on the Position level and never develop their influence often lead by intimidation. They are like the chickens that Norwegian psychologist Thorleif Schjelderup- Ebbe studied in developing the “pecking order” principle that is commonly used to describe all kinds of groups. Schjelderup- Ebbe found that in any flock, one hen usually dominates all the others. This dominant hen can peck any other without being pecked in return. The second in the order can peck all the others except the top hen. The rest are arranged in a descending hierarchy, finally ending with one hapless hen who can be pecked by all, but who can peck no one else.

In contrast, Permission is characterized by good relationships. The motto on this level could be written as “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” True influence begins with the heart, not the head. It flourishes through personal connections, not rules and regulations. The agenda on this level is not pecking order; it’s people connection. Leaders who succeed on this level focus their time and energy on the needs and desires of the individuals on their team. And they connect with them.

The classic illustration of someone who didn’t do this is Henry Ford in the early days of the Ford Motor Company. He wanted his laborers to work like machines, and he attempted to control their interactions outside of work with rules and regulations. And his focus was totally on his product, the Model T, which he believed was the perfect car, and which he never wanted to change. When people started asking for it in colors other than black, he famously responded, “You can have any color you want as long as it’s black.”

People who are unwilling or unable to build solid, lasting relationships soon discover that they are also unable to sustain lasting, effective leadership. Needless to say, you can care about people without leading them, but you cannot lead people well without caring about them. People won’t go along with you if they cannot get along with you. That’s just the way it is.

On Level 2, as you connect with people, build relationships with them, and earn their trust, you begin to develop real influence with them. That makes you want to work together more. It makes you more cooperative with one another. It makes the environment more positive. It boosts everyone’s energy. And in work settings, people stay longer and work harder.

If you’ve been given a leadership position, then you’ve been given your boss’s permission to lead. If you’ve earned influence on Level 2, then you have acquired your people’s permission to lead. That’s powerful. However, I do have to caution you. Staying too long on this level without adding Level 3 will cause highly motivated people to become restless. So let’s talk about Production.

Level 3: Production

Nearly anyone can succeed on the first two levels of leadership. People can receive a position and develop permission with little or no innate leadership ability. It’s a fact that if you care about people and are willing to learn how to work with them, you can start to gain influence. But that influence will only go so far. To really get things going, you need to win the Production level.

On Level 3, people get things done. And they help the members of their team get things done. Together they produce results. That’s when good things really begin to happen for the organization. Productivity goes up. People reach goals. Profit increases. Morale becomes high. Turnover becomes low. Team loyalty increases.

Organizations with leaders who are effective in leading on the first three levels of leadership become highly successful. They start winning. And when they do, they start to benefit from what I call “the Big Mo”— momentum. They grow. They solve problems more easily. Winning becomes normal. Leading becomes easier. Following becomes more fun. The work environment becomes high- energy.

Be aware that most people naturally gravitate to either the Permission or the Production level of leadership, based on whether they tend to be relationship people or results people. If people naturally build relationships, they may enjoy getting together, but they do it with the sole objective of being together and enjoying one another. If you’ve ever worked in an environment where meetings are pleasant and everyone gets along— but nothing gets accomplished— then you may have worked with someone who gets Level 2 but not Level 3. (And if you’ve worked where meetings are productive but relationally miserable, you may have worked with someone who gets Level 3 but not Level 2!) However, as a leader, if you can add results to relationships and develop a team of people who like each other and get things done, you have created a powerful combination.

Organizations all over the world are searching for people who can produce results, because they understand the impact they can make. One of my all- time favorite stories is about a newly hired traveling salesman named Gooch and the reaction he got from his company’s leaders when he sent his first sales report to the home office. It stunned the head of the sales department. Gooch wrote, “I seen this outfit which they ain’t never bot a dim’s worth of nothin from us and I sole them some goods. I’m now goin to Chicawgo.”

Before the man could be given the heave- ho by the sales manager, along came this message from Chicago: “I cume hear and sole them haff a million.”

Fearful if he did— and afraid if he didn’t— fire the ignorant salesman, the sales manager dumped the problem in the president’s lap.

The following morning, the ivory- towered sales department members were amazed to see posted on the bulletin board above the two letters written by the ignorant salesman this memo from the president:

    We ben spendin two much time trying to spel instead of trying to sel. Let’s watch those sails. I want everybody should read these letters from Gooch who is on the rode doin a grate job for us and you should go out and do like he done.

I love that story so much I’ve had it laminated, and I carry it along with a few other “essentials” when I speak. Okay, so if we lead salespeople, we would obviously prefer ones who can both sell and spell. But you get the point. Results speak loudly— to those we work for and to those we lead.

When you lead a productive team of people who like working together, you give others a reason to want to work with you, to follow you. For example, if you and a friend were picking players for a basketball game, and you could choose between me and LeBron James, it’s clear who you’d pick: the guy who wins championships, not the guy who played basketball in high school more than fifty years ago! You want the guy who can produce and inspire his teammates to produce right along with him.

Level 4: People Development

If you gain influence with your team on Levels 1, 2, and 3, people will consider you a fantastic leader. You will get a lot done, and you will be considered successful. But there are higher levels of leadership, because the greatest leaders do more than just get things done.

There are so many different kinds of leaders, both male and female. They come in all shapes and sizes, ages and degrees of experience, races and nationalities, from genius to average intelligence. What separates the good from the great?

Leaders become great not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others. Success without a successor is ultimately failure. To create anything lasting, to develop a team or organization that can grow and improve, to build anything for the future, a leader’s main responsibility is to develop other people: to help them reach their personal potential, to help them do their jobs more effectively, and to help them learn to become leaders themselves. This kind of people development leads to reproduction.

People development has a multiplying effect. Teams and organizations go to a whole new level when leaders begin developing others. One team develops enough leaders to create additional teams. One division, operation, or location develops enough leaders to create additional ones. Because everything rises and falls on leadership, having more and better leaders always leads to having a better organization.

The People Development level has another positive side effect: loyalty to the leader. People tend to be loyal to the mentor who helps improve their lives. If you watch a leader develop influence through the levels, you can see how the relationship progresses. On Level 1, the team member has to follow the leader. On Level 2, the team member wants to follow the leader. On Level 3, the team member appreciates and admires the leader because of what he or she has done for the team. On Level 4, the team member becomes loyal to the leader because of what the leader has done for him or her personally. You win people’s hearts and minds by helping them grow personally.

Not every good leader works to develop influence on Level 4. In fact, most leaders aren’t even aware that Level 4 exists. They are so focused on their own productivity and that of their team that they don’t realize they should be developing people. If that describes you, I want to help you. I’ve created some questions you should ask yourself about developing people that can help position you for success on Level 4:

1. Am I Passionate About My Personal Growth?

Only growing people are effective at growing others. If you still have that fire within you, people will feel it around you. I’m seventy years old, and I’m still fixated on growth.

2. Does My Growth Journey Have Credibility?

The first thing people ask themselves when you offer to help them grow is whether you have anything to offer that can help them. The key to that answer is your credibility. In their book The Leadership Challenge, James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner expound on what they call the Kouzes- Posner First Law of Leadership: If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message. They go on to say of credibility, “Loyalty, commitment, energy, and productivity depend on it.”

3. Are People Attracted to Me Because of My Growth?

People want to learn from leaders they see growing and learning. One year at the Leadership Open, which my nonprofit organization EQUIP hosted at Pebble Beach, many people remarked about the incredible growth they were seeing in Mark Cole, my CEO. That kind of dramatic yet humble growth is very attractive to people.

4. Am I Successful in the Areas Where I Want to Develop Others?

You cannot give what you do not have. When I develop people, I try to help them primarily in areas where I’m successful: speaking, writing, and leadership. Do you know the areas where I never give advice? Singing. Technology. Golf. Nobody wants to hear what I have to say about these subjects. I’d be wasting their time and mine.

5. Have I Crossed Over the Spend Time / Invest Time Line?

Most people spend time with others. Few invest time in them. If you want to succeed at Level 4, you need to become an investor in people. This means adding value but also expecting to see a return on your investment— not in personal gain, but in impact. The return you’re looking for is in people’s personal growth, the betterment of their leadership, the impact of their work, the value they add to the team and organization. I learned this lesson at age forty when I realized my time was limited and I could not work any harder or longer than I already was. (I’ll tell you more about this in chapter 2.) The only solution was to reproduce myself by investing in others. As they got better, the team got better. And so did I.

6. Do I Have a Teachable Way of Life?

Teachable people are the best teachers. To develop people, I need to remain teachable. That means wanting to learn, paying attention to what I learn, desiring to share what I learn, and knowing with whom to share it.

7. Am I Willing to Be a Vulnerable Role Model and Coach?

Developing people by investing in them doesn’t mean pretending you have all the answers. It means being authentic, admitting what you don’t know as much as what you do, and learning as much as you can from the people you’re developing. Learning is a two- way street. Continuing to develop myself as I develop others brings me great joy.

8. Do the People I Develop Succeed?

The ultimate goal in developing people is to help them transform their lives. Teaching may help someone’s life improve. True development helps an individual’s life change. How can you tell if that’s happened? The person you’ve invested in succeeds. Not only is that the greatest sign of transformation, it’s the greatest reward to a leader who develops people.

How did you do? The more yeses you can honestly answer to the eight questions, the better you’re positioned to develop people. If your noes outnumbered your yeses, don’t lose heart. Make growth your goal to set you up for future success on Level 4. You won’t regret it because this is where long- term success occurs. Your commitment to developing leaders will ensure ongoing growth in the organization, in the people you lead, and in your leadership impact. Do whatever you can to achieve and stay on this level.

Level 5: Pinnacle

The final level of leadership is the Pinnacle. If you read the original version of this book, you may recall that I called this level Personhood. But I think Pinnacle is a more descriptive name. This highest level is based on reputation. This is rarified air. Only a few people reach this level. Those who do have led well and proven their leadership over a lifetime, have invested in other leaders and raised them up to Level 4, and have developed influence not only in their own organizations, but beyond them.

People at the Pinnacle level are known not only outside of their own organizations, but outside of their fields, their countries, and even their lifetimes. For example, Jack Welch is a Level 5 leader in business. Nelson Mandela was a Level 5 leader in government. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Level 5 leader among social activists. Leonardo da Vinci was a Level 5 leader in the arts and engineering. Aristotle was a Level 5 leader in education and philosophy.

Can everyone reach this level of leadership? No. Should we strive for it? Absolutely. But we shouldn’t focus on it. Why? Because we can’t manufacture respect in others, nor can we demand it. Respect must be freely given to us by others, so it’s not within our control. For that reason, we should focus instead on developing influence on Levels 2, 3, and 4 and work hard to sustain it day after day, year after year, decade after decade. If we do that, we’ve done all we can do.


I hope you can use the 5 Levels of Leadership as a clear visual reminder of how influence works. It’s a paradigm for leadership and a pathway to leadership. Now that you can see the model, I want to give you a few insights that will help you not only to embrace it but to navigate using it as a leader:

    • The 5 Levels of Leadership can be applied to every area of your life, both personal and professional.

    • You are on a different level with each individual person in your life.

    • Each time you add a level in your relationship with another person, your level of influence goes up.

    • You never leave behind a previous level once you achieve a new one. The levels build and add to one another. They are not replaced.

    • If you skip a level to try to speed up the process, you will have to circle back and earn that level anyway for the longevity of the relationship.

    • The higher you go up the levels, the longer it takes.

    • Each time you change jobs or join a new circle of people, you start on the lowest level and have to work your way up again.

    • Once a level is earned, it must be maintained. No one ever “arrives” as a leader. Nothing is permanent in leadership.

    • Just as you can add influence at a level, you can also lose influence at a level.

    • It takes less time to lose a level than it does to earn it.

At this point in my life and career, the 5 Levels of Leadership have become second nature to me. As soon as I meet people, I begin working on the relationship. As soon as we’ve developed a connection, I try to add Production and achieve something together. And I begin looking for ways to add value to people and invest in them. I believe you can develop your influence in the same way I have. All it takes is will and intentionality.

I once read a poem called “My Influence.” I don’t know who the author is, but its message left an impact on me:

    My life shall touch a dozen lives

    Before this day is done,

    Leave countless marks for good or ill,

    Ere sets the evening sun;

    This is the wish I always wish,

    The prayer I always pray:

    Lord, may my life help other lives

    It touches by the way.

If you’re like me, you have goals. You want not only to achieve success, but also experience significance. You want your leadership to make a difference. The level you achieve is more dependent on your influence than on any other single factor. That’s why influence is so important. You just don’t know how many lives you’ll touch. All you can do is develop your influence so that when opportunities come, you can make the best of them. Never doubt the power of one person of influence. Think of Aristotle. He mentored Alexander the Great, and Alexander conquered the world.


One of the great challenges of applying the 5 Levels of Leadership is that you must earn each level of influence with every person in your life. While it’s true that your level of influence with others is either increasing or decreasing every day, you will find it beneficial to focus your attention on intentionally increasing your influence with only a limited number of people at first.

For that reason, I suggest you pick two people in your life right now with whom to intentionally build your influence. Choose one important person from your professional life, maybe your boss, a key team member, a colleague, or a client. And choose one important person from your personal life, perhaps your spouse, your child, a parent, or a neighbor. (Yes, it is possible to be on only the Position level with your spouse or child, and yes, you have to earn— or re- earn— influence at the higher levels.) If you are a high- capacity person with lots of ambition and energy, you may choose three people.

First, determine which level of leadership you are currently on with each person. Then use the following guidelines to begin earning the level above your current one and to strengthen your influence at the lower levels.

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