Four Levels of Leadership
Read time: 10 minutes
Leadership is a personal journey that varies from person to person, yet there are common stages that most leaders will go through as they progress in their careers.
How do organizations decide who to promote to leadership positions? How do they determine if someone is ready to take on a new role with different responsibilities? Often, it is based on a gut feeling or the trust in a person's potential for success that one or several organizational leaders have, rather than concrete evidence.
You may say: Wait a minute! We have evidence of the past and current performance of this person! And this must be our solid indication of what is the person capable of!
YES and NO, because there is … a bit of a trap. YES, the person has results and these results indicate one main thing. The person is a very good match for the job and has all the requirements at their current leadership level. But to perform successfully at an upper leadership level, one needs more than being a performant manager at the previous level.
And this article explains what else is needed.
Level 1: Doing
We do stuff right from being born. In time, we learn and do things with our hands, our bodies, our minds and our imaginations. We study. At a certain point in time, we land our first job.
In this job, we are requested to do things. We are specialists: engineers, accountants, software developers, chemists, biologists, doctors, farmers, architects, lawyers, writers, marketers, teachers, dancers, musicians … you name it. Many of us are solo performers and are responsible only for our own work, even if we are part of bigger teams. We are recognized and promoted to a position of authority based on our passion, our specialist knowledge, our direct results, and … our ability to influence.
So, how come we are leaders if we are solo performers? What is this leadership about? What are we leading_
The answer is twofold. On one side, we are the leaders of our own expertise and knowledge. We make sure to follow a or the right path, method or process which is mainly dictated by the laws of the physical world. Doing so keeps us certain that we and the others around us are safe, and that we will obtain the right results. Which, in general, are also the results expected by our managers.
On another side, we are the leaders of ourselves, i.e. we actively manage the way we deal with our thoughts, feelings and reactions and learn to manage our actions and decisions in a conscious way.
What do we have the opportunity to become conscious of? Several things, for example, the way we pay attention, use patience, show up, set up and live through expectations, experience failures and mistakes, rise up, remain present or … not, maintain, lose or gain focus, use curiosity, and so on. And we do that in relation to the expectations of (1) an I-centric world, where whatever happens in the working place I am somehow taken care of, and (2) the following transactional model: I give my knowledge, effort and results for a salary.
Level 2: Managing
Moving to the next level involves a complete change of rules. This level is all about managing. As managers, we are responsible for leading teams, setting goals, and ensuring that our team members (the solo performers, remember about them?) are working towards achieving these goals. In addition, we are also responsible for providing guidance, mentorship, and direction to their team members.
Irrespective of the sector, as a manager we are responsible for leading a team of technical specialists. Therefore, we would need to have both deep technical knowledge and a good understanding of the technical process we manage, and to be able to provide guidance and direction in this process to our team members. Additionally, we would need to be able to identify and address any issues that arise, as well as ensure that the team is meeting deadlines and delivering high-quality products or services.
The essence of management activity is different from executing the “doing tasks”. Of course, management has specific tasks to do, too, but these are different from the previous technical ones, and related to setting goals, assessing risks, planning and managing the progress of the work, measuring the results and controlling the progress of the work, and managing people and resources.
The transition from an individual contributor to a management position can be difficult, as it often requires letting go of the skills and habits that made us successful in our previous roles. It's common for new managers to continue to micro-manage and focus on the details rather than the overall outcome, believing that there is only one correct way to do things, i.e. theirs, and that their technical expertise or input is essential for their colleagues to do a good job. This will act as a major roadblock whenever they will try to delegate.
As consequence, even if they hold the best intentions and technical knowledge for obtaining the bests results, their people management approach can frustrate and disempower others, and their personal leadership style will hinder their team and their own success. And how well they manage self-expectations, their thoughts, feelings and reactions in front of these almost inevitable growth failures or pains, and how fast they recover their self-esteem, confidence and drive for moving ahead team and self, become in fact the main predictors of their long-term success as a manager.
Making the transition from stage one to stage two is a significant challenge, as it requires shedding old habits and learning new skills. The promotion to a management position is a gamble, as some individuals struggle to adapt while others excel in their new roles. Some managers continue to behave as specialists bottlenecking the environments they manage, while others become even better leaders than they were as individual contributors.
The higher the management seniority, the more important becomes the leadership of self, the leadership of the inner game, inner balance, of the mindset.
Level 3: Leading
As senior managers, we are responsible for leading multiple teams or departments, leading several functions, several units, several accounts, or even a heterogenous group of consultants or clients. We are also responsible for ensuring that our teams are working together effectively and efficiently and the middle managers who are our reports and their teams are permanently aligned with the strategy.
We need to have a good understanding of all the processes we lead, but we will heavily rely on the technical expertise of our middle managers. In no way would we be able to gain in our lifetime the compounded knowledge and understanding our managers have altogether. As a leader at the third level, we will be responsible for learning to lead teams that specialize in areas where we have no expertise, whatsoever, and that makes it critical for us to learn to listen, question and critically assess everything, to be openly vulnerable, and to … trust.
We need to be able to identify and address risks and issues that arise and manage them with our middle managers without passing tension and stress down the organization.
At this level, we are both the strategy and the critical link between strategy and its execution. How effective are we to play this link, will directly impact the performance of our middle managers and their ability to ensure the deadlines, as well as the products or services of the right quality as required in the company strategy.
As we move up to level three, we will likely be leading a much larger number of people, possibly even thousands, across multiple departments and functions. This makes it impossible to have the same level of personal relationship with each team member that we may have had at the previous level. Instead, our focus should be on creating a positive and supportive environment that allows our team members to excel in their roles and achieve the goals of the organization.
As a leader at the third level, our role shifts to creating an enabling environment for the leaders below us to excel in executing the organization's strategy. This includes setting up complex systems or deploying complex technologies that create and maintains the desired behaviours among the employees and allows for standardised work practices aligned with a selected range of values and ethics across the organisation.
It is in this way we manage the organisational culture of the organization, based on selected values and the pledged code of ethics aligned with the company's strategy. Keep in mind that this is done in an indirect and intangible way: as senior leaders, we are creating a culture and structure that allows leaders to take ownership and initiative while still acting in sync with the company strategy.
As senior leaders, how we manage our mindset matters big way. Because in the mindset of a few lies the making or breaking of the organisation and the time horizon in which this happens.
Level 4: Leadership of Oneself
The final and most probably the most important level of leadership is the leadership of oneself. This level is about self-awareness and self-mastery. It's about understanding our strengths and weaknesses, working to improve ourselves, as well as about playing to max our strengths.
Because some weaknesses will be there for a lifetime. We need to accept that, go over it, and find how to still resource ourselves when needed.
A leader who has mastered leadership of self is able to manage their emotions, stay calm under pressure, and make sound decisions. These decisions will help him manage optimally his time, prioritize his tasks, make the best use of his personal and organisational resources, work efficiently, manage stress and maintain a work/life balance.
The leadership of oneself will mean at each level different things. Every step from one leadership level to another will stretch the incumbent leader to the maximum. Because the new level of leadership requires an elevated version of the mindset from the previous one. Although this growth journey is very personal for each leader involved, its success depends a lot on the way these leaders know to navigate the transition without opposing resistance to whatever comes new to them.
More than often, transitioning leaders are not prepared to see what is coming, and resisting is the worst way to react because it usually smashes you back with the tension you introduce in the system. Your stress will become your team's stress. Many organisations have gone under for this. If you, and the people you lead, can make these transitions consciously, you’ll be a step ahead of the rest.
Be conscious of the new skills you’ll need. Be aware that the old skills are still needed on top of the new ones. And know that you’ll need help. None of the world’s best leaders today got there alone.
Working with an executive coach who had her own successful journey through all four levels of leadership is a guarantee that you will land well and smoothly in the transition that lies in front of you.
Let’s have a strategy conversation and see how can I be your best partner in this journey.
My goal in 2023 is to help 50 senior leaders in reaching success in taking their leadership to the next level.
Your High-Performance and Mindset Coach
💥🎉 SUMMARY 💥🎉
- Leadership is a personal journey with common stages that most leaders will go through as they progress in their careers.
- The decision of promoting someone to a leadership position is often based on a gut feeling or trust in a person's potential for success, rather than concrete evidence.
- A leader's past and current performance can indicate their ability to perform at their current leadership level but does not necessarily indicate their ability to perform at an upper leadership level.
- Four primary levels of leadership are discussed: Doing, Managing, Leading Others and Leading Oneself.
- Level 1: Doing involves being a specialist and being responsible for one's own work, as well as leading one's own expertise and knowledge.
- Level 2: Managing involves leading a team, setting goals, and providing guidance and mentorship to team members.
- Level 3: Leading involves developing a vision and strategy, building relationships, and inspiring and influencing others to achieve the vision. It also involves transforming, i.e. creating and implementing large-scale change, and leading the organization through the change process.
- Level 4: Leading oneself, is a level that gets developed permanently, in parallel with the other 3. It is inner work, personal growth, and evolution of the way the leader perceives, feels, thinks, and reacts. When inner work is not sufficient for the management level at which the manager is operating, the manager will get caught into vicious loops of thinking, feeling and reaction that will not support or qualify them for the new position.
- Transitioning from one level to another is not about acquiring technical knowledge, but rather creating for you the next step of progress within Level 4.
- Coaching will accelerate this transition and will gift you not only a successful transition but also a fluent and thriving life period.
- Book now your free strategy session and let's talk about your aspirations in management.
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