How to be a Boss without being Bossy – Part 1

We are all leaders in one respect or another.  In business, we lead firms, divisions, and projects.  In our professional growth and personal branding, we speak at conferences, write white papers and post blogs.  In our personal lives, we are moms and dads, we serve on boards, and we lead community groups.

It was in this spirit, and with the urging of an associate, that I read the remarkable book “The 5 Levels of Leadership” by John C. Maxell.   John is an accomplished author who has sold over 20 million books.  He is the founder of EQUIP and the John Maxwell Company, organizations that have trained over 5 million leaders worldwide.

In “The 5 Levels of Leadership”, John defines Leadership as simply Influence – getting people to follow you.   He breaks down leadership traits along behavioural, rather than functional or hierarchal lines.  However, the reader can appreciate the likely correlation between a person’s rise in an organization and their behavioural tendencies.

In this blog, I will summarize the characteristics of the 5 Levels of Leadership:

  1. Level 1 – Position: People follow you because they have to.  At Position, you are invited to the leadership table, but your only source of leadership influence is your title.  Level 1 leaders rely on rules, regulations, and policies to control people, and subordinates will only do what is required of them.


We’ve all worked with Level 1 leaders before – the controlling, insecure and non-sharing boss who exerts influence by title only.   When I read this chapter, I couldn’t help but make certain connections between level 1 leadership and the psychopathic traits identified by Jon Ronson in his book “The Psychopath Test”.   Bottom line is – avoid dealing with these types of leaders and if you ever find yourself in this position, work hard to get to Level 2 and beyond.


  1. Level 2 -Permission: People follow you because they want to.   Permission is based entirely on relationships.  Influence is based on liking people (and people liking you), getting to know them and building trust.   People are not treated as subordinates but as team members who are valued.


At Level 2, John describes scenarios where you start building your network and relationships.  You become a good leader by including others.   You treat people as value-added team members, and in return, they give you permission to lead them because they like you.


  1. Level 3 – Production: People follow you because of what you have done for the organization.  Production is based on results delivered to the organization.  Influence is based on credibility, as leaders must tackle tough problems and make difficult decisions that make a difference.  As a result, teams are taken to higher levels of effectiveness.


At level 3, having a title and being a nice guy/gal won’t cut it anymore.   Your colleagues and superiors expect results in order for you to attain a Level 3, and with results often come making tough decisions.  However, in the process you build your credibility and in turn, people will follow you because of it.    This is really a fundamental tenet of change management, and as my colleague Kathy Roy states, this is when you start to achieve true team or organizational effectiveness because you start to get everyone “rowing in the same direction”.


  1. Level 4 – People Development: People follow you because of what you have done for them.  People Development is based on empowering others and influence is based on long-term investments in people.   Leaders develop followers to become leaders, and team effectiveness rises again due to an increasing number of like-minded leaders within the organization.


At level 4, your credibility has been firmly established across the organization, and now you can begin investing in your people by empowering and developing them to become leaders.   This is  a tall order for some people as it means delegating authority and responsibility – you have to have great trust in yourself and your people to do it.   But once you do begin to release control, you allow others to grow and become more effective leaders in the process.  When I read these chapters, I was struck by the principle of giving, and how giving can make you a stronger leader – values that are described in excellent detail in the recently released book “Given and Take” by Adam Grant.


  1. Level 5 – Pinnacle: People follow because of who you are and what you represent.  Pinnacle is characterized by developing leaders to become stronger leaders and is based on reputation.  Organizational effectiveness is maximized and level 5 leaders can transcend their organization and even their industry.


John indicates that it is rare that leaders achieve this level, but once you do achieve it, your reputation precedes you.   Think of Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs from Apple, and Jack Welch of General Electric– all great leaders who have brought much more to society than what their companies offer.  What also distinguishes these great leaders is their passion for growth and increasing benevolent values – they didn’t succumb to complacency when they reached the top.

In closing, John leaves us with 10 insights into the 5 Levels of Leadership, but here are 3 that I will leave you with that I think particularly noteworthy, and will serve you well in your leadership development:

  1. Moving up a level is a “build” on preceding levels; previous levels are not left behind
  2. The higher you go, the easier it is to lead people (and you can’t do it alone)
  3. Moving up levels happens slowly, but moving back down can happen quickly if you become complacent or arrogant.

In my next blog, “Being a Boss without being Bossy, Part 2”, I will examine the key traits of leadership and management

John C. Maxwell can be followed at and at

Denis Barbeau is a Systemscope Partner and engineer with more than 15 years of experience helping public sector clients to successfully address significant organizational and business challenges. As the Practice Lead for Strategic Business Consulting, Denis’ experience and specializations include business planning and transformation, organizational redesign, governance and integrated process management. Denis’ broad experience in the public and private sectors, coupled with excellent communication skills, allows him to leverage best practices for a wide variety of organizations and propose achievable solutions for the benefit of his clients. In 2008, Denis was named one of the National Capital Region’s Forty under 40 by the Ottawa Business Journal. The awards recognize business people under the age of 40 for their career accomplishments, professional expertise and community and charitable involvement


Leave us a comment: * Your information is never shared