John Maxwell: The Fifth Level of Leadership

UPDATED: March 12, 2012
PUBLISHED: March 12, 2012

At Level 5, the Pinnacle, great leaders help other leaders rise to Level 4, were they are developing other leaders. The people who reach Level 5 lead so well for so long that they create a legacy of leadership in their organizations. Here’s what it’s all about.

The first major upside to Pinnacle leadership is that it creates a Level 5 organization. Great organizations have great leaders who make leadership become part of the organization’s DNA. When one leader steps down, there are many leaders ready to take his or her place because Level 5 organizations have a leadership pipeline.

The second upside is that Pinnacle leaders have an opportunity to make an impact beyond their tenure and possibly beyond their lifetimes. They do that by developing a generation of leaders who will develop the next generation of leaders. Level 5 leaders are judged by the caliber of leaders they develop, not by the caliber of their own leadership.

The third upside is that Pinnacle leadership provides an extended platform for leading. These respected leaders often have a chance to make a broader impact on society. With this extended influence comes a responsibility to steward it with integrity and serve others. It is not a place to receive, but a place to give.

The leadership journey often takes an individual through three phases: learn, earn and return. I encourage you to learn all you can and when you reach the earning phase, don’t stop there. Start giving to others and teaching them to lead so you can enter the returning phase. Do that long enough and well enough, and you give yourself an opportunity to reach the Pinnacle of leadership.  

Level 5 Caveats

Leaders who reach Level 5 would be wise to be aware of the downsides of the Pinnacle. The first is that being on the Pinnacle can make leaders think they’ve arrived. No matter how good they’ve been in the past, leaders who reach the top still need to strategize, weigh decisions, plan and execute at a high level. People who reach the top of their fields are always in danger of thinking they have nothing left to learn. To be effective, leaders must always be learners.

A second downside of the Pinnacle is leaders taking themselves too seriously and believing their own press. When people excel, a mythology can grow up around them. A lot of the time it’s hype. If you become a Level 5 leader, never forget that you started at the bottom as a positional leader. You worked to build relationships and proved you could produce results. Be confident but be humble. If you’ve become successful, it’s only because a lot of other people helped you all along the way.

The third and final downside to the Pinnacle: It can make leaders lose focus. When people reach Level 5, they receive an extraordinary number of opportunities. Everyone wants to hear what such leaders have to say. But these opportunities often are distractions that won’t help the leader’s organization or cause. They must take advantage only of opportunities that fall within their vision and purpose to continue leading at the highest level.  

Best Behaviors on Level 5

Pinnacle leaders have a lot of horsepower and need to make good use of it. First, they should make room for others at the top. If they continually develop good leaders, they create a cycle of positive change that makes room for leaders, because every time you develop good leaders and help find a place for them to lead, they expand the potential of the organization. As a result the organization grows and needs more good leaders.

Ideally, Level 5 leaders should develop people so they can succeed without them, giving away power rather than hoarding it.

Leaders at this level also need to be a good model to everyone in the organization by valuing people, continuing to grow, practicing the golden rule, being authentic, exhibiting good values and living out the right priorities. Level 5 leaders have a platform to lead and persuade. Whenever possible, they should use it to pass on those things that have helped them to succeed.

They must also plan for their succession. The No. 1 problem in organizations led by Level 5 leaders is that they stay too long. So if you’re a Level 5 leader who runs an organization, plan your succession and leave before you feel you have to.

Finally, Level 5 leaders should strive to leave a positive legacy, using their influence to create a better world. What you do daily, over time, becomes your legacy. Decide today what your life will be about, and then take action every day to live your dreams and leave your legacy.

Guide to Being Your Best at Level 5

Remain humble and teachable.

Write a credo for learning that you will follow every day; it should describe the attitude and actions you will embrace to remain teachable. Find one or more people who are ahead of you in leadership that you can meet with periodically to learn from. Dedicate yourself to a hobby, task or physical activity that will challenge and humble you.

Maintain your core focus.

Identify the core strength that got you to the Pinnacle and write a plan for continuing to make the most of it.

Create the right inner circle to keep you grounded.

Members will have many roles, such as loving you unconditionally, watching your back, being honest (telling you what you need to hear rather than what you want to hear), working with you as a team, and enjoying the journey with you. Reward them with loyalty, love, protection, leadership, money, etc.

There are always a handful of things that only the top leaders can do for their organization.

Think these responsibilities through and make them a high priority.

Create a supercharged leadership development environment.

Strategize ways to create that environment and promote leadership development at every level of the organization. Release your best leaders to spend time developing others.

Create room at the top for potential leaders.

Make room by giving existing top leaders new challenges, creating initiatives in your organization or expanding its goals. If you don’t create room, you will eventually lose up-and-coming talent.

Develop top leaders.

Set aside one-on-one time every week to work with the best leaders.

Plan your succession.

Focus on developing the few who have the potential to succeed you.

Plan your legacy.

Start doing whatever you must to fulfill it.

Use your leadership success as a platform for something greater.

As a Pinnacle leader, people outside your organization and industry will seek your advice. Leverage that to benefit others outside your direct sphere of influence.