The Three Levels of Leadership

I have been mentoring leaders for decades, from the very young high potentials to far more seasoned individuals. Regardless of age or experience, there are always certain questions that are top of mind in my approach, like whether they are trainable or have the courage to be a leader and not only a manager. Being a manager is relatively easy; being a leader is hard. It means that you cannot please everybody. It means you have to balance between different interests. It means you have to stand up against the forces that could make your organization mediocre. It means managing politics and power point are just part of your daily routine.

Before I decide to invest my time and energy in a potential leader, the first quality I look for is whether that person is capable of being taught and can withstand criticism. When I observe a passionate hunger to learn and grow, coupled with a genuine humility and willingness to admit that they don’t know what they don’t know, there is no limit to what that leader can accomplish. The next skill to look for is whether their internal processing speed is fast enough. This is a hardware issue, and without this power there is nothing I can do to train them for leadership. Finally, I look at whether they are prepared to make hard choices.

Ultimately, everyone’s journey to leadership is unique, but there are three distinct stages to progress through regardless of how you get there.

First, you must have some core skill and be the best in class at it. No one will respect you if you don’t do anything well. It may not be something that is clearly defined or classified as a skill, but you need to know what you are actually good at—and be able to show and teach this to others. After all, if you have nothing to teach, then you will never become a leader.

The second level of leadership entails seeing all pieces of the puzzle, not only your own narrow line of vision or official areas of responsibility. You must be able to challenge the status quo, not only executing on simple metrics that are placed upon you. You need to see the bigger picture and act to align your own interests to a greater one. The organization at large has bigger problems to solve, and you need to do your part as a leader. That means influencing even beyond your authority. It means the organization’s interest first.

The third level focuses on cross-functional leadership and general management. At this level, you’ll be leading top professionals and managers who specialize in things you know nothing about. You need to provide the strategic vision and decision framework for these experts in order to help them to make the best managerial decisions. You may be managing 5 people who manage 30, who manage 100, and so on. You need to be a spiritual leader, telling stories that resonate at all levels of the organization. You need to remind them of the core purpose of the organization and how each of them can do their part to advance that purpose.  In simple terms, you need to be a world-class storyteller to get to the third level of leadership.

Are you ready for level three?