The 4 Levels of Leadership (Understanding this is powerful!)

In every leadership scenario, the leader is operating at one of four levels that will determine his or her ultimate success.  But first, what is leadership? 

There are many definitions out there, but none of them really differentiate leadership from other work.  To truly understand leadership, I think we need to define it by what leadership does - by the fundamental change that occurs when a leader steps in - not by what the leader has (vision, influence, charisma, followers, authority).  Leadership, in any useful sense, is a verb, not a noun.

see larger image at bottom

see larger image at bottom

Leadership (the verb) has nothing to do with titles, nor is it the capacity to do any particular thing.  It's something you actually do.  So what does it mean to lead?

Most people can get other people to do things when everything is going just right - when there is total agreement, clear goals and actions, and no problems to solve.  But that's really coordination, not leadership. 

Leadership is needed when there is a problem - when people disagree, when the necessary actions aren't completely clear, when things aren't getting done, when people aren't yet capable, when things aren't working.  In other words, leadership is needed when there is stress involved.  In fact, leadership is needed because there is stress involved.  

Leadership is the channeling of others' stress energy into the flowing energy of focused work.  And masterful leadership is the channeling of others' stress energy into the energy of growth (growth being the increased capacity to handle more stress - see my series on Stress & the YES for an in-depth explanation of this).

So a leader's job is to manage the energy.  And the most fundamental determiner of a leader's success is how they respond to other people's stress. 

Other people's stress always causes a reciprocal stress response in ourselves.  So, fundamentally, leadership is about how the leader handles their own stress response to other people's stress.  Our ability to lead rests on our relationship with stress and its corresponding relationship with authority.

In every leadership scenario, the leader is responding to stress at one of four levels.  I call these levels: Bailing, Fighting, Controlling, and Growing.

You (and everyone) will use all of the levels some of the time, depending upon a combination of your personal development and the context within which the scenario is occurring.  You are not the level.  Your behavior is at that level.  Understanding the levels helps you to recognize which level you're operating at in the moment and which level you'd like to be at. With practice, you can make your behavior whatever you want it to be.

Everyone will bail to the next level down at some point.  That point is determined by your groundedness - by your capacity to handle stress, or what I call your personal development perimeter (PDP).

Here's what happens at each level, in order of capacity to get focused action to happen:

Level 1: Bailing

Bailing is fleeing from the stress of the moment.  Leaders bail when they have almost no capacity to confront or process the stress in front of them. 

When someone is bailing, their sense of self in that context - their grounding - is very weak.  They are easily knocked off balance and then become of victim of circumstance.  When bailing, the response to any sign of trouble - to any disagreement or problem - is some form of "not":

  • "I'm not going to do this."
  • "It can't be done."
  • "There's nothing you can do."
  • "You can't change people." 
  • "Forget it." (I'm not going to continue this)
  • "Whatever." (I'm not going to continue this)
  • "Just do it your way." (not my way)

When leaders are behaving as bailers, they are operating from a place of frustration.  Their focus is survival and they are working from pure instinct.  In the moment, they abdicate their authority.

Response towards this type of leader: There is no leadership here and the group either falls apart or someone else steps in to lead.  Others are never attracted to this type of behavior.


Level 2: Fighting

Fighting is lashing out under the stress of the moment.  Fighting has the same roots as bailing.  Leaders fight when they have almost no capacity to confront or process the stress in front of them.  Their sense of self is very weak, in this context.  They are easily knocked off balance and allow circumstances to control them. 

A fighter has the same relationship with stress as a bailer, but with the opposite response.   Instead of "not", a fighter says, "I'm going to".  They operate via threats (which may or may not be real, but no one wants to find out), frequently in the form of if-then statements, name-calling, and bullying:

  • "If you don't do this, then I'll do x (take away something you value or cause some kind of pain]". 
  • "I've never seen anyone as incompetent as you are!" (implied threat of if you do that again, you're in trouble)
  • "You idiot.  I can't believe you did that."  (implied if-then threat)

When leaders are behaving as fighters, they're operating from a place of anger.  Their focus is survival and they are working from pure instinct.  In the moment, they mis-use their authority.

Response towards this type of leader: A leader behaving like this will have some success in getting others to do things, but those people do the barest minimum they believe they can get away this.  People only follow this type of leader when they feel they have no other choice.  The followers become either depressed or repulsed. This type of leader is always in danger of retaliation (which only reinforces his fight instinct) or just plain losing all his power should a tougher fighter come around.

Bailing and fighting are two sides of the same coin.  When leaders operate predominantly at Level 1 (bailing) and Level 2 (fighting), they are usually stuck in the bailing-fighting, frustration-anger loop.  They predominantly do one or the other.  But, when they can't take it any more, they temporarily flip to the opposite state.  Then they flip back and start the cycle all over again. 


Level 3: Controlling

Controlling is taking charge of the stress of the moment.  Leaders control when they feel competent to make an outcome happen. 

A controlling leader's sense of self, in the context at hand, is significantly more grounded than that of the bailer's and fighter's.  It takes a lot more to knock someone at this level off balance.  Their need or desire to get things done outweighs pure instinct.  Because of their grounding, when leaders are controlling, they're able to utilize the energy of stress to make things happen.  They get results and are frequently rewarded for their high performance. 

Controlling behavior ranges from immature (borderline Fighting) to mature (cheerful and respectful, but you dare not cross them).  The language of the controller is, "you need to".  They expect, and get, obedience:

  • "You need to get this done."
  • "You need to show it to me."
  • "You need to fix this."
  • "You need to abide by the rules."

When leaders are behaving as controllers, they're operating from a place where stress is uncomfortable, but they can handle it.  In the moment, they utilize their authority with some degree of tact.

Response towards this type of leader: What others feel can range from energizing to totally draining, depending upon the nuances of the relationship.  A controlling leader can accomplish much, but ultimately their success is limited because it's reliant upon one person to make everything else happen.  Others will often align with this type of leader because they like the sense of accomplishment from getting things done.  But they will only give their all for brief periods, when the pressure is on.  Personal growth of the followers is limited in this scenario, so having a controlling leader, no matter how good, will ultimately lead to a stagnating group over time.


Level 4: Growing

Growing is utilizing the stress for what it is - a natural and necessary part of growth (read Stress & the YES to fully understand that statement).  Growers see no conflict between stress and happiness.  They are at home with the fact that happiness comes from continually overcoming resistance to flow (stress) and thus they experience success without limits.  A level 4 leader's desire for growth outweighs their need for control.

A leader that's behaving at the level of growing is very grounded.  Their sense of self is so complete (at least with regard to their work), that they can totally focus on what others need to grow.  Their work is to be the catalyst for growth in others - to be constantly ushering them into their ever-expanding best form. 

The language of a grower is that of questions, often asked silently to themselves, but still framing the relationship:

  • "What's stopping them from doing this?"
  • "What do they have control over?"
  • "What can they do?" 
  • "What impetus do they need to make the leap?"

The grower is instinctively trying to get at what the person's stress is and how to convert it to a YES. 

When leaders are behaving as growers, they're operating from a place where stress is a tool and beautiful growth is the result of the successful use of it.  A grower's sense of self is so strong, they are no longer concerned with it.  They have become I, intertwined and their challenge is to be a catalyst for the growth of others.

A leader behaving as a grower has made the fundamental switch from using people to do the work to using the work to grow the people. 

Response to this type of leader:  This is a leader everyone wants to follow. This is the leader people give their all for.  When this type of leader is able to stay in level 4 enough to truly get growth in others (instead of bailing to level 3), their success is unlimited because they have the full creative resources of everyone around them and all these people are constantly growing.  By design, a group led like this never stagnates because it is fundamentally held together by the attractive force of growth, not by authority.

These are the 4 Levels of Leadership: Bailing, Fighting, Controlling, and Growing.  They are determined by our relationship with stress.  The levels are contextual, not set in stone.  A highly driven leader behaving at level 3 will accomplish much more than a moderately driven leader behaving at level 4.  But high drive at level 3 is not sustainable.  It burns people out.  When drive is roughly equal, a level 4 leader will always out-perform a level 3 in the long term.  

As a leader seeking the best, you should strive to operate at level 4 as much as possible.  But you also need to develop strong, yet benevolent, level 3 behavior because you (and everyone) will bail out of level 4 at some pressure point.  You need to have somewhere solid to go, rather than ending up at level 1 or level 2.