John Maxwell: Never Getting Off the Ground Floor

UPDATED: November 7, 2011
PUBLISHED: November 7, 2011

To lead, you must have influence with others. But how do you acquire the kind of influence that inspires loyalty and voluntary cooperation? Over the last 30 years of teaching leadership, I have learned that influence is gained with people in levels—five levels to be exact. Every person who leads others has to start at the bottom level and work his or her way up to higher levels one at a time.

Let’s take a closer look at Level 1: Position, which is discussed in my book The 5 Levels of Leadership.

Leadership traditionally begins with position. Someone joins the Army, and he or she becomes a recruit, working to earn the rank of private. A person gets a job, and along with it usually comes a title or job description: salesperson, waiter, accountant, manager. Position is the foundation for every level of leadership. Real influence must be developed upon that foundation.

There was a time when people relied heavily on position to lead, which is no surprise when you consider that at one time, hereditary leadership positions were handed down from father to son (and sometimes daughter) within families. Princes became kings and their decisions were law—for good or bad. In most industrialized nations, those days are gone.

There’s nothing wrong with having a position of leadership. When a person receives a leadership position, it’s usually because someone in authority saw talent and potential in that person. And with that title and position come some rights and a degree of authority to lead others.

However, true leadership isn’t about position. The invitation to lead people is an invitation to make a difference. Good leadership changes individual lives. It forms teams. It builds organizations. It impacts communities. It has the potential to impact the world. But never forget that position is only the starting point. If you stay stuck in positional leadership, there are eight major downsides:

1. Having a leadership position is often misleading.

Once you have a position or title, people will identify you with it. But a position often promises more than it can deliver. For example, do you really think that the assistant manager of a department can sign off on a big initiative?

2. Leaders who rely on position to lead often devalue people.

These managers almost always place a very high value on holding on to their position—often above everything else they do. Their position is more important to them than the work they do, the value they add to their subordinates or their contribution to the organization. This kind of attitude does nothing to promote good relationships with people. In fact, positional leaders often see subordinates as annoyances, as interchangeable cogs in the organizational machine or even as troublesome obstacles to their goal of getting a promotion to their next position. As a result, departments, teams or organizations that have positional leaders suffer terrible morale.

3. Positional leaders feed on politics.

When leaders value position over the ability to influence others, the environment of the organization usually becomes very political. There is a lot of maneuvering. Positional leaders focus on control instead of contribution. They work to gain titles. Not only does this create a vicious cycle of gamesmanship and posturing, but it also creates departmental rivalries.

4. These managers place rights over responsibilities.

The poet T.S. Eliot asserted, “Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important… they do not mean to do harm… they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” That’s what positional leaders do: They do things to make themselves look and feel important.

Inevitably, leaders who rely too much on their titles develop a sense of aggrandizement. They expect their people to serve them, rather than looking for ways to serve their people. Their job description is more important to them than job development. They value territory over teamwork. As a result, they usually emphasize rules and regulations that are to their advantage and they ignore relationships. This does nothing to promote teamwork or create a positive working environment.

Just because you have the right to do something as a leader doesn’t mean that it is the right thing to do. Changing your focus from rights to responsibilities is often a sign of maturity in a leader.

5. It’s lonely at the top for these people.

Positional leaders can become isolated if they misunderstand the functions and purpose of leadership. Being a good leader doesn’t mean trying to be king of the hill and standing above (and set apart) from others. Good leadership is about walking beside people and helping them to climb up the hill with you.

6. Leaders who remain positional get branded and stranded.

Whenever people use their position to lead others for a long time and fail to develop genuine influence, they become branded as positional leaders, and they rarely get further opportunities for advancement in that organization. They may move laterally, but they rarely move up.

If you have been a positional leader, you can change. However, you need to recognize that the longer you have relied on your position, the more difficult it will be for you to change others’ perception about your leadership style.

7. Turnover is high for these leaders.

In my book Leadership Gold, one of the chapters is titled, “People Quit People, Not Companies.” In it I explain how people often take a job because they want to be part of a particular company, but when they quit it’s almost always because they want to get away from particular people.

Organizations with Level 1 leadership tend to lose their best people and attract average or below-average people.

8. Positional leaders don’t get people’s best efforts.

People who rely on their positions and titles are the weakest of all leaders. They give their least. They expect their position to do the hard work for them. As a result, their people also give their least. Some people who work for a positional leader may start out strong, ambitious, innovative and motivated, but they rarely stay that way.

The greatest downside about Level 1 leadership is that it is neither creative nor innovative. It’s leadership that just gets by. And if a leader stays on the downside of Level 1 long enough, he may find himself on the outside. If a leader fails on Level 1, there’s nowhere to go but U-Haul territory. He’ll be moving out and looking for another job.