Three Levels of Leadership Model

Three Levels of Leadership


[The following discussion of leadership has been adapted from Millard, B. (2012).  “Chapter 13: Pursuing Your Life Calling Through Personal Leadership.”  Explorer's Guide: Starting Your College Journey with a Sense of Purpose, 2nd ed.  Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.]

A number of years ago, my colleague Jim Laub and I were asked to provide our university with a broad definition of “leadership.”  We both are Professors of Leadership and have studied the subject for quite some time.  Yet we found ourselves working on this assignment for quite a while before we were satisfied.  We finally arrived at this definition: “Taking action to effect change by mobilizing others to accomplish a shared vision.” You probably already detected that we were attempting to craft a definition that did not immediately restrict the definition's application to established positions of formal leadership. We both believe that leadership occurs at many levels and can be effective on all of these levels if it is properly understood. I have slightly revised our original definition: "taking action to bring about change in your area of influence by mobilizing others to accomplish a shared vision." You will also notice that the definition has been personalized with the word “you” so that you can start imagining yourself in that role. Let's look at how this plays out on three broad levels that contain most, if not all, categories of leadership: positional leadership, influential leadership, and personal leadership.

Positional Leadership. This level of leadership is recognized in established positions of leadership, so it is both formal and positional leadership. This includes the President of the United States, a general, the CEO of a corporation, a church pastor, or the president of the college or university you are thinking about attending. We would adapt our definition for this level of leadership to be "taking action in a formal position to bring about change among those under your authority by mobilizing them to accomplish a shared vision." Unfortunately, those are the kinds of people that often come to mind when you think about leadership, and so you often don’t think of yourselves as leaders.

Influential Leadership. Life Calling culminates when you make a difference in the world, and this begins with a decision to act in the true meaning of the word leadership. In order to make a better world, the world needs more of these kinds of leaders. Citizenship requires leadership. So does professional success. If you can lead no one, your education is incomplete. True, the majority of you probably won’t be high-level formal leaders. But think about this: sometime in your life you will likely be some form of a director, a teacher, or an entrepreneur. And you will almost certainly at some point chair a committee, head a project, propose an idea to neighbors or colleagues, or parent a child. Each and every one of these roles or activities requires you to have some level of influence on others.

This is what we could consider as influential leadership. It can also be thought of as informal positional leadership. This level of leadership truly fits the basic definition "taking action to bring about change in your area of influence by mobilizing others to accomplish a shared vision." In other words, leadership doesn’t have to be a formal, exalted position or a permanent status. It is rather as the definition states: taking actions that bring about change in one's area of influence (that could be any setting) by mobilizing others (they don’t have to be a formal group) to accomplish a shared vision that leads to a better future.  And this is many times most effectively done from an informal position of leadership that is accomplished through influence rather than title.

Personal Leadership. But what about those cases where a person is making a difference in a manner that does not involve any type of role? We need a definition of leadership that allows us to consider this as well and does not depend on any kind of position related to others. So let’s adapt the basic leadership definition to form a version that will allow for personal leadership: "taking action to bring about change in your everyday situation by mobilizing resources around you to accomplish a desired vision."

A study of hundreds of leaders at all three levels has led to the conclusion that when leadership is effective in more formal positions, it has been preceded by those same leaders being effective first in less formal positions. This leads to the proposal that leadership should first emerge on the personal leadership level, then further be developed on the informal leadership level of influence, and only after that should sometimes be called for on the formal positional level. Figure 13-2 illustrates how one level should lead to another.  It also shows how each level of leadership maintains dynamics of the previous levels.  In other words, influential leadership maintains the dynamics of personal leadership, and formal positional maintains the dynamics of both personal leadership and influential leadership.

Figure 13-2
Three Levels of Leadership


In order to better understand this concept of leadership, it will help to examine more extensively all three levels of leadership and the qualities within each that become the catalysts for developing that corresponding level of leadership. It is important to understand that these qualities can be developed. The mistaken belief is that some people are born with them and some are not, and this is what determines leadership potential. While some might be born with gifts and aptitudes that make it easier for them to develop the qualities, they will still need to go through the rigor of developing them. And while others might be born with less of these gifts and aptitudes and find the qualities harder to develop, they still can discover ways to develop them and begin to practice some level of leadership.

Personal Leadership: Taking action to bring about change in your everyday situation by mobilizing resources around you to accomplish a desired vision. The five qualities listed below are important catalysts that help produce personal leadership.


1.  Principles

People who take action to bring about change that leads to a better future do so because they have an inner compass guided by strong moral and ethical principles. They are determined to do the right thing. They are the kind of people who are honest and whose words are dependable. They are open and do not hide the true reality of a situation from those they associate with or lead. They are genuine—what you see is what you get at all times. This produces personal leadership that leads by principles instead of popularity or manipulation.

2.  Conviction

Next, people who decide to make a difference in the world around them become convinced this is the right thing to do based on the principles they hold. Conviction in many ways is similar to the passions at a sacrificial level that were examined in Chapter 11. Conviction compels people in a way that stirs them to want to take action. Conviction impels people in a way that transforms moral principles into moral actions. Finally, conviction propels people forward into the actual process of taking action. People with these kinds of convictions do not rationalize the convictions away by telling themselves that it is none of their business or that others should suffer the consequences of bad decisions. People of conviction believe that if good can be done, it should be done.

3.  Initiative

Next, people who are convinced that they should make a difference in the world around them respond to an inner willingness to take initial steps toward making that difference, and then follow through. This attitude arises primarily from an internal sense of responsibility. The following contrast is one of the greatest predictors of leadership—whether it is formal, influential, or personal.


Internal Sense of Responsibility

External Sense of Victimization

Individuals believe that under the guidance of God and the strength he gives them, their life and behavior is for the most part governed by their own personal decisions and actions.

Individuals believe that their life and behavior is for the most part ruled by the decisions and actions of other people or other external circumstances.

An internal sense of responsibility is sometimes referred to as an internal locus of control. Whether or not they are in formal positions, people who end up making a difference in the world around them believe they can make a difference and take action.

4.  Insight

People who make a difference in the world also have a capacity to discern the hidden nature of things and generate solutions to perplexing challenges. So the next catalytic component leading to personal leadership is to develop good ideas. The minds of people with good personal leadership are incubators constantly giving birth to new possibilities and concepts. These are where visions begin. Often these insights begin out of what could be called “inspired annoyances.” Something comes into a person’s life that disturbs the person or bothers the person in such a way that it displeases, troubles, or irritates the person. Many people just get mad when this happens. But the person exercising personal leadership moves beyond displeasure or anger and begins to look for solutions to the underlying problem causing the annoyance. Most of the great inventions of the world came about through this process. The bottom line related to personal leadership is this: it is hard to change circumstances around you if you have nothing to offer. Your attempts to convince others will appear hollow and will raise suspicion that you are making claims that you cannot fulfill.

5.  Trailblazing

The final component to be considered in people who decide to make a difference in the world is trailblazing. People who exhibit this quality are not afraid to chart a course that identifies a better place to be. They are also willing to then guide others on their journey to that better place. These leaders are not afraid to take risks if it is necessary to reach the better place. They are willing to take the path not taken. They are not like super cautious people who will not move ahead unless they are convinced that they know exactly what will happen, that no danger exists, or that the desired outcome will definitely be reached. I joke with these types of people that they are like the lady who would never go see a movie unless she had seen it one time before. If you think about that for a minute, you will realize she will never see a movie with that rule. Trailblazers are able to (1) recognize the path before others do, (2) travel the path themselves, and (3) reveal the path to others.


Influential Leadership: Taking action to bring about change in your area of influence by mobilizing others to accomplish a shared vision. This second level of leadership moves to the level of mobilizing other people.  It is more than just changing your own personal situation.  It now involves changing other people’s situations as well. We still are not talking about recognized formal positions of leadership, but we are talking about people of influence.  Kubicek (2011) believes that influence is the engine of true leadership.  He suggests that it might be the most potent and underutilized professional resource on earth. As personal leadership moves from an individualistic focus to a focus of influencing others, all the qualities of personal leadership will still be needed to be effective on this level.  But we need to bring into play additional qualities that will help produce influence that can mobilize others. The five qualities listed below become catalysts that help produce informal positional leadership.

1.  Credibility

If a person is going to be a leader who can influence others, it starts with other people believing that the leader is a credible person who is worthy of their confidence and trust. In many ways, credibility is to informal positional leadership what initiative is to personal leadership. Initiative is your belief you can make a difference, and so you take action. Credibility is the belief of

others that you can make a difference, so they take action to follow you. This is why others are willing to listen to you to begin with. This credibility is built to a large extent on the principles, convictions and insights that were developed in personal leadership. It is important to note, however, that when a leader loses credibility with those led, it is nearly impossible for the leader to ever regain it, and the leader’s influence will disappear.

2.  Inspiration

One of the primary reasons people emerge into informal leadership is their ability to inspire others. The insights they developed in personal leadership intrigue others to eagerly follow these ideas. This starts, however, by a person moving beyond personal leadership into the realm of influential interaction with others. In other words, inspirational leaders begin to share the insights they developed in personal leadership. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proposed that people who light a lamp do not put it under a bowl where it will be blocked from shining. He said, “Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:15-16). These words of Jesus reveal two important aspects of sharing insights that inspire. First, communicating good ideas to others in a way that they can understand is important. Second, and just as important, the example that these emerging leaders demonstrate in their own lives reinforces their credibility and evokes others to aspire to follow them as a leader.

3.  Persuasion

If emerging leaders are going to be able to mobilize others, they will have to be able to persuade people to take action. This starts with the insights identified as a quality of personal leadership and builds on the inspiration discussed in the previous paragraph. Leaders of other people need to be able to effectively communicate these inspirational insights in a manner that clearly explains the concept, benefits, and value of the idea. If this level of communication is truly influential, it will compel others to want to change and take action because the ideas make sense, are appealing, and are worth adopting.

4.  Empathy

and imaginatively enter into the experience and feelings of another person. They instinctively ask themselves “what if” questions whenever they consider courses of action that they will ask those led to pursue, always trying to see things from the viewpoint of those led, rather than just the viewpoint of the leader. A mistaken belief is that empathy is something a person is born with or without. In reality, empathy grows out of emotional strengths and can be developed and enhanced if a person seeks it and begins to practice it.

5.  Partnership

People who emerge from personal leadership into informal positions of influence join with others to move toward a vision through partnerships. They are not “lone rangers” who have to be in control and always be the winner who gains all the glory. Instead, they work collaboratively alongside others to develop and accomplish shared goals. This kind of partnership between the leader and the follower is more like a flat circular relationship than a vertical ladder. The circle is characterized by equality and mutual respect and a commitment to learn from each other, whereas the ladder is characterized by dominance and subordination.


Positional Leadership: Taking action in a formal position to bring about change among those under your authority by mobilizing them to accomplish a shared vision. The third, and final, level of leadership is found where a person is in a recognized, formal position of authority over other people. Command and control now come into play. But here is a key concept: all the qualities of personal and informal positional leadership must be developed in a person before entering this level of leadership if the person is going to be effective.  However, there are additional qualities that will be necessary if this formal position of authority is to be exercised effectively. The five qualities listed below become catalysts that will help make formal positional leadership successful.

1.  Serving

Servanthood is a mindset in a leader that places the needs of those led before your own self- interests. This is what Jesus advocated for leadership when he instructed his disciples:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28).

The 6th century B.C. Chinese philosopher Laozi suggested that “Enlightened leadership is service, not selfishness. The leader grows more and lasts longer by placing the well-being of all above the well-being of self alone.”

Placing the needs of those led before your own self-interests, however, does not mean you are always giving as if you were an endless fountain. Go back to the quality of partnership developed at the level of informal positional leadership. The interaction between the leader and the follower is more like a circle of relationship characterized by mutual respect. Hence, there is a commitment by both the leader and the follower to not exploit each other.

With this mindset as a leader, authority and responsibility are shared rather than hoarded by the leader. Why is this attitude so important? Servanthood guarantees that leadership is only engaged in when the good of those led is truly the focus. Those led can trust that they are not being exploited or manipulated. Entering leadership with any other mindset leads to suspicion and mistrust. inspiration were two important qualities. Credibility was the quality that made the emergingleader som eone you could believe in and want to follow. Inspiration took that even further by calling for leaders to demonstrate in their own lives the ideas they were proposing to others. In other words, they were modeling the way. As a person moves into a formal position of leadership, modeling the way needs to become an intentional and regular practice. When Jesus entered into a leadership relationship with the disciples, he did not start off by giving them a list of tasks to complete. Instead, he said “Follow me.” Leaders in formal positions need to be role models for all that they ask followers to do, as well as for the values they promote. Leaders will seldom be successful at asking others to do something if they are unwilling to do it themselves.

3.  Positioning

An important understanding of leadership can be discovered in the formal structure adopted by leaders in relationship to those they lead. Let’s look at three different ways this can be structured.

a.  Above: When leaders see their position primarily one of power, privilege, or possession, they tend to behave as if they are vertically superior to those they lead and are above demanding action or behind driving the led. There is no question that some decisions made by leaders in formal positions will require a top down approach and many key decisions require a clear supervising process of responsibility and accountability. We can’t get away from the fact that positional leaders have authority and are expected to use it. This is especially true when quick decisions have to be made, when ultimate accountability is needed, when personnel matters have to be addressed, or when a final decision cannot be made by consensus. But it is important to realize that when this style of authority is exercised, it is based primarily on fear as a motivator, it produces mostly compliance rather than growth, it creates resentment more than understanding, and it results in resistance more than synergy. This is not a recipe for dynamic growth. Accordingly, if an organization is to flourish in a healthy manner, the above aspect of formal positional leadership will be required less than 5 percent of time.

b.  Ahead: When leaders see their position primarily as a responsibility to be out in front modeling the way, they tend to enter into relationships with those they lead that promotes individual development, increases appreciation of diversity, demonstrates an internal locus of control for those led, and results in a sense of self-worth. And the reason for all of this is that when this style of authority is exercised, it is based primarily on trust as a motivator. Leading from ahead has some limitations. It still is focused to a great extent on the formal position, lacks sufficient fluidity for maximizing team dynamics, and can lull the follower into an unhealthy dependence on a benevolent leader. Because of this, if an organization is to flourish in a healthy manner, the ahead aspect of formal positional leadership should be exercised less than 45 percent of time.

c.  Alongside: When leaders see their position primarily as an opportunity to collaborate with their fellow workers, they tend to develop relationships, better described as peer relationships than vertical relationships. When this happens, the formal position of leadership is not the focus. In fact, the interactions among leadership, managers, and followers could better be described as a circle of relational action. Needs are addressed by the person with the best strengths set to deal with them. Functions are not bound in rigid systems correlated to a single leader. Ability to adapt quickly to varying situations is increased. Everyone is encouraged to strive for the highest level of collaborative synergy. When this style of authority is exercised, it is based primarily on respect and value as a motivator. Leading from alongside also has some limitations. Lines of responsibility and authority could be confusing, a pay structure the worker if such support is needed. As the saying goes, “If everyone rules, no one rules.” Hence, the alongside aspect of formal positional leadership will likely be appropriately exercised less than 50 percent of time.

4.  Envisioning

Leadership researchers Kouzes and Posner (2010) put forward the premise that “the capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is a defining competence of leaders.” But for leaders in formal positions to be effective in the vision process, they must go beyond just imagining the future. They have to help bring that future into reality. This can best be seen in three roles they must exercise in the Dream Cycle of leadership. The first role is that of dreamer. In this role the leader imagines a better future or way of doing things. At this stage, boundaries are avoided and creativity is allowed to run free. The second role is dream-caster. In this role the leader helps those led to catch the same vision. If we go back to our definition of leadership, we find that change will be brought about by “mobilizing others to accomplish a shared vision for a better future.” The sooner a leader can transform a vision from being “my vision” into becoming “our vision,” the better the likelihood that the vision will be achieved. And more than just catching and endorsing the vision, the hope should be that those led will expand and enhance the vision. The third role is that of dream-maker. In this role the leader provides the resources for empowering those led to accomplish the shared vision. One definite capability of most persons in formal positions of leadership is that they have the greatest access to resources. Good leaders find ways to open up these resources to those they lead so that visions can be pursued.

5.  Investing

The most effective leaders at any level are those who truly care about the people they lead and invest in them. This can clearly be seen with those in formal positions of leadership in how much they make those they lead a priority. This priority can be discerned in four key areas. First of all, it is impossible for leaders to inspire and empower those they lead if they are not willing to make them the top priority and spend time with them. The most effective leaders are more concerned about being available to those they lead than those who are over the leader. Second of all, effective leaders make it a priority to provide adequate resources to those they lead. This includes staffing, budget, facilities, equipment, and supplies necessary to be successful in carrying out the responsibilities that have been given to them. Third of all, effective leaders do not buy into the “need-to-know” myth that leads many organizations to stifle the flow of information. Instead, effective leaders believe that the more information that can be provided to those led in their efforts, the better off they will be in carrying out those efforts. Last of all, in most cases successful leaders have a great deal of life experience, including work and leadership experience, that can provide valuable insights to people whom they lead. Effective leaders find opportunities to share this appropriately with the people they lead.


Leadership Integration

We considered fifteen catalytic qualities that enhance leadership development, and we divided these into groups of five and correlated them to the three levels of leadership. It is important to realize, however, that this categorization is somewhat arbitrary. In other words, all fifteen of the qualities will be valuable at any of the levels. For example, serving is a quality that was identified as producing a better leader in a formal position. But it is also a quality that will also make a person a better personal leader as well.

Let’s return to our basic working definition of leadership. Four key elements stand out: vision, action, mobilization, and change. A vision for a better future leads to a decision to act. Early on, this action involves sharing the vision with others. As they buy into the vision and share it, they mobilize around the vision. Ultimately, this mobilization brings about the change originally envisioned and desired. Interestingly enough, this change will probably produce new visions, so this becomes a cycle, as illustrated in Figure 13-3.. A vibrant continuing leadership cycle is the kind of leadership that can truly make the world around you a better place.

Figure 13-3
Leadership Cycle

This leadership cycle can happen on all three of the levels of leadership that we have considered. So let’s take the leadership cycle with its four elements and place the three levels of leadership inside of it as the engine by which the cycle can be implemented. Each of the four key elements in the leadership cycle will have a different manifestation within the three levels of leadership. For example, vision many times remains more of an individual dream at the personal leadership level. But when vision moves into the influential leadership level in an informal position, it becomes a shared vision held jointly by the leader and the led in a spirit of collaborative development. Vision has the greatest capacity to be realized, however, when a person is in formal positional leadership helping to open up the resources that can make accomplishing the vision a possibility. When we approach leadership with this understanding, a useful leadership model begins to emerge (Figure 13-4). 

Figure 13-4
Leadership Protomodel

As useful as this protomodel is, we can take it one step farther.  At any point in the leadership equation, there are dynamics related to the person who is leading, and there are dynamics related to the person(s) following,  And there is also a context in which this leadership equation is taking place.  And the two sets of dynamcis and the context are constantly shifting and and changing.  By recognizing this and placing this everchanging environment behind our protomodel, we can produce a very useful leadership model (Figure 13-5).

Figure 13-5
Leadership Model


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