I’m a big reader and do a lot of it to inform my current meaning in work/identity research analysis and results. Someone recommended John Maxwell’s work and I of course bought the Five Levels of Leadership book and then placed it in my never-ending pile to read. When I did get to it, I found Maxwell’s book refreshingly crisp and easy to see the progressive levels. I also recognized several people and myself among them. Leadership can be an elusive idea – not always well-defined BUT Maxwell provides five easy-to-comprehend levels, what leaders are specifically doing in each level, and what it takes for them to get to the next level.

Level 1 Position or title says people have to follow you, or at least pay attention to what you say. I suppose it’s fair to say I registered at this level in first entry level manager job in the mid-90s supervising bakery sales representatives for Fisher Mills in Portland, Oregon. I had the team’s respect, but many other people in the periphery deferred to me because I had the position and had the “authority” to do things. This doesn’t mean I was effective – or that everyone respected me or was motivated to do what I asked of them.

Level 2 Permission means you can’t lead until people like you. I believe I registered this level at Analysts International in Seattle, Washington, and probably T-Mobile when I first began even though I didn’t have a leadership role at either place, per se. I worked hard and had a lot of energy and I enjoyed myself in both these roles. My colleagues looked to me for inspiration and direction. It was there at Analysts International that I was voted by 27 peers to receive 5 of the 9 annual awards in our technical staffing sales office, including Employee of the Year, Glass Half Full (consistently positive attitude), Space Odyssey (commitment to the future of the company), Pit Bull (relentless pursuit of success), and Extra Mile (unparalled work ethic). It was really a fun time. Later when I joined T-Mobile I distinctly remember a colleague telling me that she thought I should devote myself to progressing as a leader (I was working full time and also in school working on my PhD at Fielding Graduate University, so I deferred that invitation.)

Level 3 Production alludes to making things happen and getting results. During my time as a member of the Lakewood Service League here in Dallas, I think I registered this level when I chaired the organization’s Walk Wag & Run fundraiser my first and second year (2007 and 2008, respectively). This event attracted some 2,000 people, and had a 5K run, 2K dog walk, and kids fair. I positively loved getting families moving together, and usually in Halloween costumes no less since the event generally took place the last week of October. I was so committed to that event and the 35 League members who I had the delight of working with in the effort. I personally worked more than 600 volunteer hours in 2007 on the event, along with running my own business (with a partner) and having a young daughter. Fellow volunteers saw my commitment to the event and that I was in the trenches working hard with them to produce results. I have incredibly happy memories working alongside the team and producing the results we did – we netted $16,000 in 2007 and $26,600 in 2008. Incidentally, it was SO much fun to partner with Derek Smith, then VP of Operations of the White Rock YMCA, one of the two beneficiaries in 2008.

Level 4 People Development coincides with a leader helping other individual leaders grow, which extends your influence and impact. To a certain limited degree, I got to do this in my recent role as (now immediate past) Chairman of the Board of the White Rock YMCA by working with fellow Board members who either offered or were asked to be in leadership roles. I got to lead three committees comprised of all the Board members, and then co-lead the $14 million capital campaign for our new building. A handful of Board members were willing and interested in assuming more responsibility in their Board role and asked for a role in leadership. It was incredibly satisfying to see them take ownership of their roles and work hard in them.

Richard Vitale who has served as Chairman of the Board of the White Rock YMCA for several previous years and in fact ushered me into the role is a great example of someone who has attained this level of leadership through and through. He has built the leadership abilities of many a community leader, including myself, Greg Campbell (current Chairman of the Board of the White Rock YMCA), and countless others in his community service efforts. He also co-founded and is the current President of the Woodrow Wilson High School Foundation (of which I am also a Board member), a role in which he exercises his leadership to develop the talents of other leaders in what seems to be an effortless fashion. I admire his dedication to our community. He has clearly learned that he alone cannot have the impact on the community he wants by himself – he needs to build a coalition of capable leaders who will lead their own army.

Level 5 The Pinnacle equates to developing other leaders to level 4. The only person I immediately know of who has reached this level is a high level leader I interviewed for my dissertation research back in 2003. When I asked him in the interview what he found satisfying about his current work, he answered without hesitation that his pride and joy was reflecting on the number of careers he had helped groom during his tenure, the number of leaders he had helped develop. He loved staying close to the heart beat of the business, and I could palpably feel that he had a HUGE impact on his organization in a most profound way. Probably many CEOs and high-level leaders operate at this level. These people leave a profound effect not just on the leaders they help achieve Level 4, but also to the organizations they serve.

As I reflect on my learnings from this book, I am reminded that of course personal development is forever, and so is becoming a leader and developing the according talents. Leadership is an ongoing journey, and we will not all get to level 5 or even level 4, but the effort and self-development is worth it for ourselves and for those around us who we serve. Not everyone aspires to leadership – and it isn’t for everyone. Some people are fantastic individual contributors and greatly impact others and their organization in so doing. For those who aspire to the leadership feat, here’s to the climb!