John Maxwell: Connecting With Your Staff

UPDATED: December 5, 2011
PUBLISHED: December 5, 2011

Last month I talked about the first level of leadership, Position, where you are able to direct people’s work simply because your title says you can. To become an effective leader, though, you must advance to the next level, as I explain in my book The Five Levels of Leadership. Let’s take a closer look at Level 2, Permission.

When a leader learns to function on the Permission level, everything changes. People do more than merely comply with orders. They actually start to follow, because they really want to. Why? Because the leader begins to influence people with relationship, not just position. When people feel liked, cared for, included, valued, and trusted, they begin to work together with their leader and each other. And that can change the entire working environment.

Moving up to Level 2 is an important development in leadership because that is where followers give their supervisors permission to lead them. People change from being subordinates to followers for the first time. Here are some of the upsides of Permission leadership:

Leadership Permission Makes Work More Enjoyable

Leaders who move up to Level 2 develop relationships and win people over with interaction instead of using the power of their position. That shift in attitude makes the workplace become friendlier. People begin to like each other. Chemistry starts to develop on the team. The workplace becomes more enjoyable for everyone—leaders and followers alike.

Leadership Permission Increases the Energy Level

What happens when you spend time with people you don’t especially like or who don’t like you? Doesn’t it drain your energy? Conversely, what happens when you spend time with people you know and like? Doesn’t it give you energy? I know it does me. Spending time with the people I love—whether at work, at home or while playing—is my greatest joy, and it always energizes me.

Leadership Permission Focuses on the Value of Each Person

Nothing lifts a person like being respected and valued by others. As a leader on Level 2, your goals should be to become aware of the uniqueness of people and learn to appreciate their differences. You need to let them know that they matter, that you see them as individual human beings, not just workers. There is a common thread in all great businesses, governments, educational centers and religious institutions. That thread is everyone’s valuing and respecting people. As a leader who moves up to Level 2, you can help to set an example of that for your organization.

Leadership Permission Nurtures Trust

Leaders who move up from Level 1 to Level 2 stop trying to impress others to maintain their position and start developing trust to maintain their relationships. Trust is the foundation of Permission. If you have integrity with people, you develop trust. It’s a building process that takes time, energy and intentionality.

Now let’s look at a few downsides of Level 2 so you can nip problems in the bud and hopefully move on to Level 3 (which we’ll discuss in next month’s column).

Permission leadership appears too soft for some people. It’s been my observation that most people start their leadership focused on either the “hard” aspects of leadership, meaning the productivity side, or on the “soft” aspects, meaning the relational side. Those who start on the hard side and refuse to learn softer skills often get stuck on Level 1. They desire to go to Level 3 Production, but they can’t achieve it without learning and earning Level 2 first.

In contrast, those who start on the soft side easily work their way up to Level 2 Permission, but if they don’t do more than just win relationships, they get stuck and never move up to Level 3, either. It takes both Permission and Production to become a good leader.

Leading by Permission can be frustrating for achievers. High achievers want to get things done and get them done now! Leading by Permission requires them to achieve, of course, but building relationships takes time. It can be very slow work.

Permission leaders can be taken advantage of. People whose leadership style is nonrelational are usually seen as no-nonsense leaders. Positional leaders often use their positions to distance themselves from subordinates. High achievers sometimes intimidate their followers. But when leaders are relational, their followers naturally get closer to them. That sometimes means they get taken advantage of.

Being relational is a risk, just as it is when you open yourself up to falling in love. Sure, you can stay guarded and never get hurt. But you will also never have the chance to have deep, rewarding relationships that will enrich your life and the lives of others.

To develop authentic relationships on the Permission level, leaders need to be authentic. They must admit their mistakes. They must own up to their faults. In other words, they must be the real deal. That is a vulnerable place to be for a leader. And truthfully, it is one of the main reasons many leaders never progress from Level 1 to Level 2 in leadership.

And finally, Permission leadership forces you to deal with the whole person. As a leader, you may be tempted to build relationships only with the people you like or with whom you are highly compatible, and to ignore the others. However, by doing that, you have the potential to lose a lot of people. It’s important to remember that while the things we have in common may make relationships enjoyable, the differences are what really make them interesting. Good leaders on Level 2 deal successfully with these differences and leverage them for the benefit of the team and organization.

Good leaders are able to look at hard truths, see people’s flaws, face reality; and do it in a spirit of grace and truth. They don’t avoid problems; they solve them.

Every person needs to improve and needs someone to come alongside them to help them improve. As a leader, it is your responsibility and your privilege to be the person who helps them get better. That often begins with a candid conversation.

I believe that people can change their attitudes and can improve their abilities. And because I do, I talk to them about where they’re coming up short. If you’re a leader and you want to help people, you need to be willing to have those tough conversations. So how does a leader handle being relational while still trying to move people forward? By balancing care and candor. Care without candor creates dysfunctional relationships. Candor without care creates distant relationships. But care balanced with candor creates developing relationships.

Caring for people, making good decisions for everyone involved, and building solid relationships is what Level 2 is all about. This is Permission at its best.