For the past two weeks, I’ve been writing about The 5 Levels of Leadership, my book coming out on the 4th of October. Last week I shared an overview and description of Level 1.
Here’s the overview of the book again:

This week, I’d like to continue discussing Level 1: Position.

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: laborer, salesperson, waiter, clerk, accountant, manager. Position is the starting place for every level of leadership. It is the bottom floor and the foundation upon which leadership must be built. 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. True, there are still nations with kings and queens, but even in most of those nations, such as England, monarchs rule with the permission of the people, and the real leaders are usually elected. Position gives you a chance, but it usually carries with it very little real power, except in systems where the penalties for not following are dire.

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.

Position is a good starting place. And like every level of leadership, it has its upsides and downsides.

The Upside of Position:

You Have Been Invited to the Leadership Table

Just as there are positive and negative aspects in every season of life, there are both positive and negative aspects to every level of leadership. If you are new to leadership and you receive a position, then there are things to celebrate. I’m going to tell you about four of them.

1. A Leadership Position is Usually Given to People Because They Have Leadership Potential

Most of the time when people enter a leadership position, they do so because it was granted or appointed by some other person in authority. That probably seems obvious. But think about the implications: It usually means that the person in authority believes that the new leader has some degree of potential for leading. That’s good news. So if you’re new to leadership and you have been invited to lead something, then celebrate the fact that someone in authority believes in you.

If you have a new leadership position, then let me say welcome to the first step in your leadership journey. You have a seat at the table and have been invited to be part of the “leadership game.” You will have opportunities to express your opinion and make decisions.

Your initial goal should be to show your leader and your team that you deserve the position you have received.

2. A Leadership Position Means Authority Is Recognized

When an individual receives a position and title, some level of authority or power usually comes with them. Often in the beginning that power is very limited, but that’s okay because most leaders need to prove themselves with little before being given much. As the Infantryman’s Journal (1954) says, “No man is a leader until his appointment is ratified in the minds and the hearts of his men.”

As a new leader, you must use the authority you are given wisely, to advance the team and help the people you lead. Do that, and your people will begin to give you even greater authority. When that happens, you gain leadership, not just a position.

3. A Leadership Position Is an Invitation to Grow as a Leader

There should always be a relationship between receiving a leadership position and fulfilling the requirements demanded by it. One of the main requirements is personal growth. I learned this early in my life from my father, who loved to quote, “To whoever much is given, much shall be required.” He believed that each of us had received a lot in life, and we had a responsibility to learn and grow so that we could make the most of it.

The journey through The 5 Levels of Leadership will only be successful if you dedicate yourself to continual development. If you believe that the position makes the leader, you will have a hard time becoming a good leader. You will be tempted to stop and “graze,” meaning you’ll stay where you are and enjoy the position’s benefits, instead of striving to grow and become the best leader you can.

4. A Leadership Position Allows Potential Leaders To Shape and Define Their Leadership

The greatest upside potential for people invited to take a leadership position is that it affords them the opportunity to decide what kind of leader they want to be. The position they receive may be defined, but they are not.

When you first become a leader, your leadership page is blank and you get to fill it in any way you want! What kind of leader do you want to be? Don’t just become reactive and develop a style by default. Really think about it. Do you want to be a tyrant or a team builder? Do you want to come down on people or lift them up? Do you want to give orders or ask questions? You can develop whatever style you want as long as it is consistent with who you are.

As you think about the way you will define your leadership, take into consideration what kinds of habits and systems you will consistently practice. What will you do to organize yourself? What will you do every day when you arrive at work? What spiritual practices will you maintain to keep yourself on track? How will you treat people? What will be your work ethic? What kind of example will you set? Everything is up for grabs. It’s up to you to define it. And the earlier you are on the leadership journey, the greater the potential for gain if you start developing good habits now.

The bottom line is that an 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.

The Downside of Position:

True Leadership Isn’t About Position

Like everything else in life, the Position level of leadership has negatives as well as positives. Each of the levels of leadership possesses downsides as well as upsides. You will find as you move up the levels that the upsides increase and the downsides decrease. Since Position is the lowest level of leadership, it has a great number of negatives. On Level 1, I see seven major downsides:

1. Having a Leadership Position Is Often Misleading

The easiest way to define leadership is by position. Once you have a position or title, people will identify you with it. However, positions and titles are very misleading. A position always promises more than it can deliver.

2. Leaders Who Rely on Position to Lead Often Devalue People

People who rely on position for their leadership almost always place a very high value on holding onto 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 an annoyance, 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. They do what they can to get the largest staff and the biggest budget they can—not for the sake of the organization’s mission, but for the sake of expanding and defending their turf. And when a positional leader is able to do this, it often incites others to do the same because they worry that others’ gains will be their loss. Not only does it create a vicious cycle of gamesmanship, posturing, and maneuvering, but it also creates departmental rivalries and silos.

4. Positional Leaders Place Rights Over Responsibilities

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, positional leaders who rely on their rights develop a sense of entitlement. 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 and 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. Positional Leadership Is Often Lonely

Positional leaders can become lonely 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. If you’re atop the hill alone, you may get lonely. If you have others alongside you, it’s hard to be that way.

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, and this book will help you. 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. You may even need to change positions in order to restart the process of developing influence with others.

7. Turnover is High for Positional Leaders

When people rely on their positions for leadership, the result is almost always high turnover. 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

Every company has turnover. It is inevitable. The question every leader must ask is, “Who is leaving?” Organizations with Level 1 leadership tend to lose their best people and attract average or below-average people. The more Level 1 leaders an organization has, the more the door swings out with high level people and in with low level ones.

8. Positional Leaders Receive People’s Least, Not Their Best

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 in leadership. 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.

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  1. […] has been expanded upon by others to include new categories.  John Maxwell, in his book on the 5 Levels of Leadership, describes the dangers of relying on positional power as a leader.  Maxwell describes this as the […]

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