The 5 Levels of Leadership: Book Review

October 2, 2013 Business and Management 3 comments

How are peak leaders developed? What differentiates a superstar CEO like Jack Welch from other less extraordinary leaders?

The answer, according to bestselling author John C. Maxwell, lies in The 5 Levels of Leadership.

Focused on growing one’s leadership potential in a tiered manner, the book provides pragmatic steps to scale the leadership ladder while achieving lasting impact on one’s organisation and followers.

Packed with examples from Maxwell’s own leadership journey as well as stories of legendary leaders like superstar coach John Wooden of UCLA and Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher, the book is chock full of quotable quotes and maxims.

Some of the more memorable ones include the following:

“Leading an organisation is as much about soul as it is about systems…” – Herb Kelleher

“Good people are found, not changed.” – Jim Rohn

“No matter where you are in your leadership journey, never forget that what got you to where you are won’t get you to the next level.” – John Maxwell

“Victory is much more meaningful when it comes not just from one person, but from the joint achievements of many. The euphoria is lasting when all participants lead with their hearts, winning not just for themselves but for one another.” – Howard Schultz 

The 5 Ps of Leadership

At its core, The 5 Levels of Leadership revolves around 5 “Ps” stacked in ascending order of significance.

These are Position, Permission, Production, People Development, and Pinnacle.

They are graphically represented by the diagram below:

Courtesy of John Maxwell

Level 1 — Position

The first level of Position is achieved when one gets a job with a leadership responsibility. People often get promoted into leadership based on their potential, and a leadership position allows one to take charge of others by sheer fact of their title.

People have to follow these leaders because they have the authority and right to lead them. Often, tier one leaders depend on their rank and rules to get things done. They tend to be more supervisory and directive, relying on SOPs to get things done by their subordinates.

Level 2 — Permission

As a leader gravitates towards a more collegial style of leadership, Permission comes into play. Here, leaders leverage on their relationships with others, relying on open communication, encouragement, trust, and effective inter-human relations to get things done.

As a permission-focused leader, you work with your team rather than through your team.

A key thing to remember here is the Golden Rule, ie

“Treat others as you want others to treat you.”

Level 3 — Production

Moving up to level 3, leaders start to harness Production as a key trait.

Focusing on results, such leaders demonstrate credibility by their ability to perform.

Leading by example and building powerful teams, they bring clarity to their roles, generate positive momentum, prioritise activities that generate high return, and act as change agents.

This stage is where teams can become highly productive and achieve great outcomes.

Level 4 — People Development

At the 4th level of People Development, leaders concentrate more of their energies on training, mentoring and coaching their followers to be leaders themselves.

Through reproduction, they can multiply their effectiveness. Here, leaders should recruit the best people possible, place them at the right positions, model leadership behaviours, equip others to do their jobs well, develop their life skills, empower them to succeed, and measure their effectiveness.

While training plays an important role in shaping the strengths, skills and competencies of your team, people development also involves mentoring and coaching your colleagues to rise to the occasion.

Level 4 — Pinnacle

Finally, Pinnacle leaders at level 5 epitomise the highest leadership accomplishment, ie the ability to develop other leaders to level 4. These legendary leaders gain a lot of respect by virtue of who they are and what they represent.

Making room for others at the top, level 5 leaders focus on finding successors, work on people’s strengths, give away power, and sees the potential of other leaders.

They create an inner circle to keep themselves grounded, continually develop other level 5 leaders and leave a lasting positive legacy.

22 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

Beyond the 5 levels, Maxwell also cited frequently from his earlier book The 22 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (you can get a good summary of the laws here).

Some of these are somewhat obvious (eg The Law of Respect where people naturally follow leaders stronger than themselves) while others are more enlightening.

Personally, I found the Law of Buy-in – people buying into the leader, then the vision – especially illuminating. From my experience, it isn’t so much HOW the vision and goal is written as to WHO backs it which matters.


While I liked the neat framework provided by the book, I felt that breaking down each level into their upsides, downsides, best behaviours, laws of leadership, beliefs and guides was a little overwrought.

You do get a little lost ploughing through the hefty number of points in each section.

Overall, The 5 Levels of Leadership provides a useful reference to anybody keen to distil the essence of what truly effective leadership is all about. Its timeless lessons are useful in any age, and are embodied by the lives and examples of men and women who exemplify what sterling leadership was, is and will be.

Are you currently in a leadership position in your organisation? Which Level of Leadership do you think you’ll fall under?

By Walter
Founder of Cooler Insights, I am a geek marketer with almost 24 years of senior management experience in marketing, public relations and strategic planning. Since becoming an entrepreneur 5 years ago, my team and I have helped 58 companies and over 2,200 trainees in digital marketing, focusing on content, social media and brand storytelling.


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