John Maxwell: The Third Level of Leadership

UPDATED: January 9, 2012
PUBLISHED: January 9, 2012

Last month I wrote about the second level of leadership, Permission. Level 3, Production, is where leadership really shifts into another gear. If you have the opportunity, here is what you need to do to make the most of it.

1. Understand how your personal gifts contribute to the team’s vision.

There is a strong relationship between giftedness and effectiveness as a leader on the Production level. If I ever wanted to reach my potential, I had to know what my personal contribution could be to the organization. The same is true for you. As an example, I’ll tell you the four areas where I personally contribute the most to the productivity of an organization:

Influencing People (Leadership)

Connecting with People (Relationships)

Communicating with People (Speaking)

Creating Resources to Help People (Writing)

These constitute my strength zone. These are the keys to production for me and where the best results will be realized. Knowing this doesn’t let me off the hook as far as growth is concerned. I am as committed to learning and growing today as I was back in the early 1970s, when I first started my personal growth plan. The difference is that after discovering what I was born to do, I began to focus my efforts on growing in those four areas.

2. Cast a vision for what needs to be accomplished.

Fuzzy communication leads to unclear direction, which produces sloppy execution. Productive leaders create a clear link between the vision of the organization and everyday production of the team. A compelling vision is clear and well-defined, expansive and challenging. It is aligned with the shared values of the team. It is focused primarily on the end, not the means. And when it is communicated and understood, it fills the room with energy!

Few things inspire people like victory. The job of a leader is to help the team succeed. As individuals on the team get to experience small successes, it motivates them to keep going and reach for larger successes. If you want your people to be inspired to win, then reward and celebrate their small daily victories. Not only does this motivate people, it helps them to enjoy the journey.

3. Begin to develop your people into a team.

When you get to Level 2 with people in your organization, they begin to like being together. But when you get to Level 3, they begin to work together. Production makes team building possible. That can be accomplished only by a leader who is willing to push forward and lead the way.

Team building is one of my favorite aspects of leading people. Why? Because a good team is always greater than the sum of its parts and is able to accomplish more than individuals working alone. Working as a team is also just plain fun! But I want to give you some critical things to think about related to team building as you strive to become good at leading on Level 3.

Team members should complement one another—team leaders should make that happen.On an ideal team, each member brings their strengths to make the team better and compensate for each other’s weaknesses. How does that happen? First, you must know the strengths and weaknesses of each player.

John Wooden, the great UCLA basketball coach, once told me, “Most of my college players shot for a higher percentage at UCLA than they did in high school.” I played basketball, so I knew it was unusual for a player to move in that direction when going to a higher level. “How did you accomplish that?” I asked. “The first few days of basketball practice,” he explained, “I would observe the players shooting the ball from various places on the court. When I determined the place they made the best percentage of shots, ‘their spot,’ I would take them to that place and say, ‘This is where I want you to shoot the ball. I will design plays to make sure that happens.’ ” Coach Wooden would also point out places on the floor where they needed to pass the ball instead of shoot it. In this way, he made the most of a strength (by having them shoot) and turned a potential weakness into a strength (by having them pass to someone in their place of strength). That practice really sheds light on one of Wooden’s most famous quotes: “The one who scores a basket has 10 hands.” In other words, it takes all the players to help one player make a basket. And it takes a leader to help them figure out how to do it and lead them through the process.

Team members should understand their mission—team leaders should make that happen.Good leaders never assume that their team members understand the mission. They don’t take anything for granted. Don’t assume your team members understand how their talents and efforts are supposed to contribute to the mission of the team. Communicate it often.

Team members should receive feedback about their performance—team leaders should make that happen. I sometimes speak about a basketball coach who had a regular practice during halftime to help the team prepare for the second half. On a whiteboard in the locker room, the coach would write atop three columns: Did Right—Did Wrong—Will Change. A friend of mine who runs a business heard the story and decided to do that with her company at the midpoint of the year, calling it the organization’s halftime. She went into the meeting prepared, having made a list of her own for each of the columns. But being an effective leader on Level 3, the first thing she did was ask all the people on her team to share their observations. She added her own items to their list only when no one else mentioned them, which was rare. The meeting was a success. The team took ownership of the rest of the year because their ideas had come from the heart. They were the ones who came up with what was on the whiteboard. The process was so effective that it became a regular event every year.

Team members should work in an environment conducive to growth and inspiration—team leaders should make that happen.I have sometimes been criticized as a leader for being too positive and praising people more than I should. I think that criticism is justified. There have been times when I have built up people on my team more than their performance warranted, and it has come back to bite me. Believing the best in people usually has a positive return, but sometimes it doesn’t. Still, I’d rather live as a positive person and occasionally get burned than be constantly skeptical and negative.

Developing a group of people into a productive team is no easy task. If it were, every professional sports team would be a winner and every business would earn high profits. It’s a challenge to get everybody working together to achieve a common vision. But it is definitely worth the effort. Being part of a team of people doing something of high value is one of the most rewarding experiences in life. As a leader, you have a chance to help people experience it. Don’t shrink from that great opportunity.

4. Prioritize the things that yield high return.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, asserts that effective prioritizing begins with eliminating the things you shouldn’t be doing. He writes,

Most of us lead busy but undisciplined lives. We have ever-expanding “to do” lists, trying to build momentum by doing, doing, doing—and doing more. And it rarely works. Those who build the good-to-great companies, however, made as much use of “stop doing” lists as “to do” lists. They displayed a remarkable discipline to unplug all sorts of extraneous junk.

For years I have relied on the Pareto Principle as a guideline to help me decide what is worth focusing on and what isn’t. The Pareto Principle basically says that if you do the top 20 percent of your to-do list, it will yield an 80 percent return on your efforts. To help me understand what my top 20 percent is, I ask myself three questions:

What is required of me? (What I must do.)

What gives me the greatest return? (What I should do.)

What is most rewarding to me? (What I love to do.)

As you lead your team, your goal should be to help every person get to the place where they are doing their should-dos and love-to-dos, because that is where they will be most effective.

5. Be willing and ready to be a change agent.

Progress always requires change. That’s a fact. Most leaders desire to create progress. It’s one of the things that make them tick. However, only when leaders reach Level 3 are they in a place where they can start to effect change. Once you’ve helped your team to achieve some results, you’ve got the credibility and the momentum to start making changes. It’s very difficult to make changes when an organization is standing still. Get it going in any direction and you will find it easier to make changes to move it in the right direction. Momentum provides the energy for needed change.

6. Never lose sight of the fact that results are your goal.

There’s a big difference between Level 3 leaders and critics who simply theorize about productivity. Good leaders have an orientation toward results. They know that results always matter—regardless of how many obstacles they face, what the economy does, what kinds of problems their people experience, and so on.

Good leaders on Level 3 keep pushing. If they gain momentum, they don’t back off and coast. They press on and increase the momentum so that they can accomplish even greater things. And they help their people do the same. How are they able to stay focused and accomplish so much? Henry Ford said, “Make your future plans so long and so hard that the people who praise you will always seem to you to be talking about something very trivial in comparison with what you are really trying to do.” It is better to have a job too big for popular praise, so big that you can get a good start on it before the cheer squad can get its first glimmer of your plans. Then you will be free to work and continue your journey toward even greater success.

Leaders who reach Level 3 always experience success. But not all of them capitalize on that success and go to the next level. To do that, they have to remain focused and productive—all while cultivating and preserving positive relationships. And the really good ones use the Production level as a platform for Level 4, where they develop other people to become good leaders in their own right. In next month’s issue, we’ll explore Level 4.