The Hierarchy of Leadership

A Hierarchy of Leadership is the concept of how much a person can lead from any given ‘level’ of the ladder. The lowest level would be the least likely to inspire others to follow. The highest tier is most likely to inspire others to join in to the new culture that the company is creating. They will also be the most likely to assist in creating that culture.

Level One: Leaders by Claim

This first level of the Hierarchy of Leadership is the lowest level, but also the most common form of leadership. It happens when the highest levels or decision makers, feel the need to fill a role with the easy choice. Sometimes they lose the former leader and have to pull up the next in line. That person isn’t always ready, and so they have to claim or seize their authority.

Listen for phrases like, ‘Because I said so’ or ‘I don’t need to explain myself’. The person or people who use these phrases are typically on this level of leadership. They often struggle to explain their decisions and feel ‘attacked’ if people question anything, even inquisitively. Leaders who have to claim their authority, aren’t much of a leader, after all.

“Any man who must say, I am the King, is no true King.” Tywin Lannister of Game of Thrones

Level Two: Leaders by Contribution

Give a person a title and they will do one of two things. They will either lord it over others, or they will respect the title themselves. They will either demand to be served, or they will choose to serve because of it. This is often the potential of a hard worker being promoted. We hope that they will translate that hard work into service instead of servitude. Level two leaders, serve.

This principle is best seen in the image here. The ‘Boss’ is Level one Leadership. The ‘Leader’ is Level two Leadership. And they may both get the mission accomplished, but the ‘Boss’ will do it while screaming and pulling out their hair. Their subordinates will finish the work, angry and frustrated and ready to quit.

The ‘Leader’ will complete the task with a team who is excited and ready to take on the next mission! They will follow because they see a leader who is willing to get their hands dirty doing the work. A leader who is there to direct them as well as take on some of the load when it is too much for the team to handle alone.

It is important to realize that this level of leadership should be level two and level one combined. Their leadership capabilities come from level two, but they should also have the title to go along with it. This isn’t always the case as there are extenuating circumstances.

Level Three: Leaders by Coaching

In this Hierarchy of Leadership, Level three is a Leader who Coaches. This tier should be, again, someone who also has Levels one and two in their repertoire. It isn’t a necessity, but without the title and the service attitude, they will not be fully equipped to Coach the team forward.

That being said, a ‘Coach’ is one who leads with encouragement and good advice. The reason this is a level three form is because people don’t care about what you say if they don’t see what you do. Tell your employees everyday how important it is to follow the Standard Operating Procedures, but if you don’t follow them, why should they? (If you say ‘because I said so’ or ‘those don’t apply to me’ you might want to check yourself.)

I think back on my Football Coaches. They wanted to win, but they also understood each of our limits as it pertained to the sport. Here are some Football Coaching Points I received that translate nicely to the workplace.

  1.  Know your ‘players’. That is, know the things about your employees that will help you to help them be successful. Know the way they feel appreciated in the workplace. (See the blog APPRECIATION FOR A JOB WELL DONE) Know their strengths for the position they hold and their weakness.
  2. Put the right ‘players’ in the right positions. Knowing your ‘players’ is only half the battle. Once you know their strengths and weaknesses and desires for the future, it’s time to put them in the right spot. TRUST ME, when employees hold the wrong positions, it will wear them down and burn them out. People being in the wrong positions is bad for them and bad for the company.
  3. Seek out new ‘players’ when necessary. My senior year we lost our kicker to an injury, and in 4A Football in North Carolina that was a major setback. So our coaches tried out players that we already had and no one was able to do the job well. So, they sought out a soccer player to join the team. It shouldn’t be a slap to the face when you gently tell an employee they just don’t have what it takes to be the leader. And your company WILL SUFFER if you put the wrong person in the wrong position just because you didn’t want to ruffle feathers or hurt their feelings. It hurts them and the team when you settle.
  4. The Coach didn’t tackle the runner from the sideline. The coaches job was to teach, train, encourage and empower. Then they had to let go and let the players play. What I mean by this is, the coach needs to train players to become ‘coaches’ themselves. The best teams have a head coach and a captain who also maintains this level of leadership. Create more leaders… My coaches were all about making us better men, even beyond becoming better Football Players.

Level Four: Leaders by Character

Lastly, in this Hierarchy of Leadership comes the Alpha Level of Leadership. This level gains followers because of the personal character of the leader themselves. Sure, they probably have a title and a service attitude. And, yeah, they are probably the best for coaching. But no one even thinks about those things because this leader is respected. Why? Because of who they are and what they mean to those who follow them. They embody things like kindness, goodness, encouragement and positivity. They have characteristics that form who they are at their core. Attributes that we look to emulate like compassion, vision, strategy and wisdom. People look up to and strive to be like this person. They follow them because they know this type of leader cares, and so they care about this leader.

Without falling down a rabbit hole, I will say that this is the type of leadership that changes the world.

  • Martin Luther King Jr. was one such leader, followed, not because of his words, but because of his character. He changed the world because of the man he was in his heart and the actions that followed.
  • Winston Churchill prided himself on building the morale of the people.  He sought to be motivational with a singular sense of identity for the masses. Unity was essential to his success.
  • Walt Disney who during his most formative years adopted a leadership style that valued the input of team members and peers. He took the time to know his team and their personal and occupational needs. And when he could, he met those needs.
  • Arianna Huffington speaks for herself. “Both my own leadership style, and that of the other leaders at HuffPost, is very much like being in the middle of the circle, rather than at the top of the mountain shouting down.” She also said, “Treat people like family and they will be loyal and give their all.”

Religious leaders had many of these same qualities. Many of them even spoke of these qualities and tiers. And, I don’t know of any leaders who would disagree with any of these four levels. Maybe they would add to them, but at the core, I believe this is the ladder we should strive to climb.

So let us climb it ourselves, as high as we need to. And then, let us lead by example, coaching others to climb the ladder also. Be willing to reach down and help them. And for those who might be hanging out at Level one… it’s time to move up the ladder, or step down completely. Forward motion is necessary as we move forward to a brighter tomorrow!


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