How Successful People Lead

Taking Your Influence to the Next Level


By John C. Maxwell

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In this perfectly compact read, #1 New York Times bestselling author John C. Maxwell explains how true leadership works.

It is not generated by your title. In fact, being named to a position is the lowest of the five levels every effective leader achieves. To be more than a boss people are required to follow, you must master the ability to inspire and invest in people. You need to build a team that produces not only results, but also future leaders. By combining the advice contained in these pages with skill and dedication, you can reach the pinnacle of leadership-where your influence extends beyond your immediate reach for the benefit of others.

Derived from material previously published in the Wall Street Journal bestseller The 5 Levels of Leadership.


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If your vision of success includes starting an organization, owning a company, or putting together a team, you need to become good at leadership. If you cannot lead well, you will not be successful.

When I discovered this, leadership became one of my passions. I love learning about it. I also enjoy teaching it. I've dedicated more than thirty years of my life to helping others learn what I know about leading. In fact, I spend about eighty days every year teaching leadership. In the last several years, I've taught it on six continents. The subject is inexhaustible. Why? Because everything rises and falls on leadership. If you want to make a positive impact on the world, learning to lead better will help you do it.

In all the years that I've taught leadership, there has been one lecture that I have been asked to give more often than any other—from West Point to Microsoft headquarters and in countries all around the world. Why is it so popular? That lecture explains how successful people lead and provides a game plan for learning how to become a leader. It's titled "The 5 Levels of Leadership," and it has been used to train leaders in companies of every size and configuration, from small businesses to Fortune 100 companies. It has been used to help nonprofit organizations understand how to lead volunteers. And taught in more than 120 countries around the world. The concept is tested and proven. It also instructs people in the use of several tried-and-true techniques that will help them become successful at leadership.

Looking at leadership as a series of levels that can be gained through targeted actions has many benefits. Here are just a few:

It Creates a Clear Picture of Leadership

For those who are not naturally gifted at it, leadership can be a mystery. For them, leading people is like walking down a dark corridor. They have a sense of where they want to go, but they can't see ahead and they don't know where the problems and pitfalls are going to lie. For many people in the academic world, leadership is a theoretical exercise, an equation whose variables are worthy of research, study, and rigorous debate. In contrast, the 5 Levels of Leadership is visually straightforward, so anyone can learn it.

It Defines Leading as a Verb, Not a Noun

Leadership is a process, not a position. There was a time when people used the terms leadership and management interchangeably. I think most people now recognize that there is a significant difference between the two. Management is at its best when things stay the same.

Leadership deals with people and their dynamics, which are continually changing. The challenge of leadership is to create change and facilitate growth. Those conditions require movement, which, as you will soon see, is inherent in moving up from one level of leadership to the next.

It Breaks Down Leading into
Understandable Steps

The subject of leadership can be overwhelming and confusing. Where does leadership start? What should we do first? What processes should we use? How can we gain influence with others? How can we develop a productive team? How do we help followers become leaders in their own right? The 5 Levels of Leadership gives answers to these questions using understandable steps.

It Provides a Clear Game Plan for
Leadership Development

Too often when people think of their journey into leadership, they envision a career path. What they should be thinking about is their own leadership development! Good leadership isn't about advancing yourself. It's about advancing your team. The 5 Levels of Leadership provides clear steps for leadership growth. Lead people well and help members of your team to become effective leaders, and a successful career path is almost guaranteed.

It Aligns Leadership Practices,
Principles, and Values

When I developed the 5 Levels, I conceived of each level as a practice that could be used to lead more effectively. As time went by and I used and taught the levels, I realized they were actually principles. Here's the difference: a practice is an action that may work in one situation but not necessarily in another. A principle is an external truth that is as reliable as a physical law. For example, when Solomon said, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger," he stated a principle that is universal and timeless. Principles are important because they function as a map, allowing us to make wise decisions. If we embrace a principle and internalize it, it becomes a part of our values. The 5 Levels influences my leadership life every day.

How Leadership Works

How do people learn leadership? For most, it's through trial and error. While some things come only through experience, I believe the framework for how leadership works can be learned by looking at the 5 Levels. So let's start with an overview and a few insights about the Levels and how they work. Then we can look at each level individually in the subsequent sections of this book. As you look at each level, you will learn the upside, downside, and best behaviors for that level. You will also become acquainted with the beliefs that help a leader move up to the next level.

Level 1—Position

People follow you because they have to.

Position is the lowest level of leadership—the entry level. The only influence a positional leader has is that which comes with the job title. Positional leadership is based on the rights granted by the position and title. Nothing is wrong with having a leadership position. Everything is wrong with using position to get people to follow you. Position is a poor substitute for influence.

Overview of the 5 Levels of Leadership

People who make it only to Level 1 may be bosses, but they are never leaders. They have subordinates, not team members. They rely on rules, regulations, policies, and organization charts to control their people. Their people will only follow them within the stated boundaries of their authority. And their people will usually do only what is required of them. When positional leaders ask for extra effort or time, they rarely get it.

Positional leaders usually have difficulty working with volunteers, younger people, and the highly educated. Why? Because positional leaders have no influence, and these types of people tend to be more independent.

Position is the only level that does not require ability and effort to achieve. Anyone can be appointed to a position.

Level 2—Permission

People follow you because they want to.

Level 2 is based entirely on relationships. On the Permission level, people follow because they want to. When you like people and treat them as individuals who have value, you begin to develop influence with them. You develop trust. The environment becomes much more positive—whether at home, on the job, at play, or while volunteering.

The agenda for leaders on Level 2 isn't preserving their position. It's getting to know their people and figuring out how to get along with them. Leaders find out who their people are. Followers find out who their leaders are. People build solid, lasting relationships.

You can like people without leading them, but you cannot lead people well without liking them. That's what Level 2 is about.

Level 3—Production

People follow you because of what you have
done for the organization.

One of the dangers of getting to the Permission level is that a leader may be tempted to stop there. But good leaders don't just create a pleasant working environment. They get things done! That's why they must move up to Level 3, which is based on results. On the Production level, leaders gain influence and credibility, and people begin to follow them because of what they have done for the organization.

Many positive things begin happening when leaders get to Level 3. Work gets done, morale improves, profits go up, turnover goes down, and goals are achieved. It is also on Level 3 that momentum kicks in.

Leading and influencing others becomes fun on this level. Success and productivity have been known to solve a lot of problems.

On Level 3, leaders can become change agents. They can tackle tough problems and face thorny issues. They can make the difficult decisions that will make a difference. They can take their people to another level of effectiveness.

Level 4—People Development

People follow you because of what you have done for them.

Leaders become great not because of their power but because of their ability to empower others. That is what leaders do on Level 4. They use their position, relationships, and productivity to invest in their followers and develop them until those followers become leaders in their own right. The result is reproduction; Level 4 leaders reproduce themselves.

Production may win games, but People Development wins championships. Two things always happen on Level 4. First, teamwork goes to a very high level because the high investment in people deepens relationships, helps people to know one another better, and strengthens loyalty. Second, performance increases because there are more leaders on the team, and they help to improve everybody's performance.

Level 4 leaders change the lives of the people they lead, and the people follow them because of that. Their relationships are often lifelong.

Level 5—Pinnacle

People follow you because of who you are
and what you represent.

The highest and most difficult level of leadership is the Pinnacle. While most people can learn to climb to Levels 1 through 4, Level 5 requires not only effort, skill, and intentionality but also a high level of talent. Only naturally gifted leaders ever make it to this highest level. Level 5 leaders develop people to become Level 4 leaders.

Developing leaders to the point where they are able and willing to develop other leaders is the most difficult leadership task of all. But here are the payoffs: Level 5 leaders develop Level 5 organizations. They create opportunities that other leaders don't. Their leadership gains a positive reputation. They create legacy in what they do. As a result, Level 5 leaders often transcend their position, their organization, and sometimes their industry.

Insights on Leading from the Levels

If you want to become an effective leader and lead the way successful people do, then you must master the 5 Levels of Leadership. You must learn to recognize where you stand with each person in regard to the Levels, work to establish your credibility and gain influence where you are, and earn your way up to higher levels. If you learn this and live it day after day, you will be able to lead the way successful people do.

Now that you are acquainted with the Levels and how influence is gained on each, I want to share some insights that will help you to understand how the Levels relate to one another.

1. You Can Move Up a Level but You Never
Leave the Previous One Behind

You may assume that a leader climbs the Levels, leaving one to arrive at the next, the way a person moves up a staircase. But the truth is that you never leave a level behind after you've achieved it. Instead, you simply build upon it. If you think about it for a moment, you'll agree that it makes sense. If you start out with a leadership position and you build relationships with the people you oversee, do you resign your position to do so? No. You don't leave your position to advance, but if you win Level 2 correctly, you never need to rely on your position again.

Once you've built relationships with people and move to a higher level of productivity, do you abandon or neglect those relationships? You had better not! If you do, you'll find yourself back down at Level 1 again.

Leaders don't trade one level for another. They add a new level to the previous one. It is a building process.

2. You Are Not on the Same Level
with Every Person

Leadership is dynamic, and it changes from relationship to relationship. The same is true for the 5 Levels of Leadership. I may be on a different one of the 5 Levels with each of five different people at my job. A person on his or her first day at work will acknowledge only my position, while someone in whom I've invested and whom I've raised up to lead will likely put me on Level 4. If I've been a good father at home, I may be on Level 4 with my children. If I've been an absentee dad, I may be on Level 1. With my next-door neighbor, perhaps I'm on Level 2. People will respond to you based on the level of leadership you've established with them. And that is subject to change.

Good leaders do not lead everyone the same way, because every person is different and you're not on the same level of leadership with every person. Effective leaders interact with followers based on:

  • Where they are with each specific follower,
  • Where the followers perceive the leader to be, and
  • Where the followers are in their own leadership development.

Each of these factors comes into play as you evaluate your leadership and work to develop it.

Achieving a level of leadership is not like earning a degree. Nor is it like setting a performance record as an athlete. You don't achieve it and leave it. It's more like having to run a race every day to prove your ability. The lone exception is the Pinnacle. Leaders who rise to Level 5 are sometimes given credit for being on that level by virtue of their reputation, not just their personal interactions with followers. But it's important to note that at any level, a leader doesn't always automatically stay at that level. You must earn your level of leadership with each person, and that level can go up or down at any time.

3. The Higher You Go, the Easier
It Is to Lead Others

Here's some good news. As you work to climb up the levels of leadership, you'll find that it gets easier to lead people. Each advance allows you to be more effective in leading others because your influence increases as you go to a higher level. As your influence increases, more people follow you more readily. Limited influence, limited leadership. Greater influence, greater effectiveness. That's common sense. However, there's also some bad news: it's not easy to climb the levels of leadership! If it were easy, everyone would be a Level 5 leader.

4. The Higher You Go, the More Time and
Commitment Is Required to Win a Level


On Sale
May 21, 2013
Page Count
160 pages
Center Street

John C. Maxwell

About the Author

John C. Maxwell is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, coach, and speaker who has sold more than 24 million books in fifty languages. Often called America’s #1 leadership authority, Maxwell was identified as the most popular leadership expert in the world by Inc. magazine in 2014, and he has been voted the top leadership professional six years in a row on He is the founder of The John Maxwell Company, The John Maxwell Team, and EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 180 countries. Each year Maxwell speaks to Fortune 500 companies, presidents of nations, and many of the world’s top business leaders.

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