The Three Levels of Leadership

In our training program The Facilitative Leader, participants often get excited about the differences they discover between a manager and a leader. While both managers and leaders play important organizational roles, we take participants through an exercise which helps them conclude several key distinctions.

  • While a manager supervises people, a leader inspires
  • While a manager solves problems, a leader eliminates
  • While a manager responds to client needs, a leader anticipates client needs.
  • While a manager implements vision, a leader creates
  • While a manager is reactive, a leader is
  • While a manager tends to focus on today, a leader focuses on
  • While a manager communicates policy to people, a leader engages people in policy creation.
  • While a manager ensures people are doing the job right, a leader ensures people are doing the right job.

Yet, managers do not become leaders overnight. Through our work with organizations of various sizes and in a variety of industries, we have found that leaders develop through three distinct phases.

The Levels

When people are first appointed to the manager role, they tend to behave like overseers and become task focused. We call this level 1. They are just trying to figure it all out. “What are we trying to do here? How do we get it done?” They are basically focused on the work and achieving on-time and on-budget delivery.

Once leaders understand what it takes to be successful in the work, they then begin to realize that they can be more effective if their people are more effective. When that happens, they make the leap to level 2. They go from being an overseer to a coach, from being task-focused to people-focused.

Level-2 leaders direct their energies toward understanding their people’s skills, maximizing their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses. Level-2 leaders focus on communicating the overall picture of what they are trying to accomplish. They delegate, they groom, and they spend a lot of time ensuring that everyone is clear about the goals. They understand that to be successful, their people have to understand the leader’s objectives and the key principles for decision-making.

If your people do not understand your principles of operation, they will make decisions based on their own principles – which may or may not match yours! Let’s look at an example of this from a previous newsletter article.


Principles of Operation

Let’s take a hypothetical example from our own organization, Leadership Strategies – The Facilitation Company. Each month we teach a series of public and private classes in facilitation skills, consulting skills, strategic planning, management and leadership. Let’s say a call comes into our office. The caller says, “I took your class last month in consulting skills, and I hated it. It didn’t cover any of the topics that were important to me and I want my money back!”

Like most leaders, I want the person from our organization who takes that call to respond to the caller in the same way I would. However, for this to happen, the employee has to understand three basic principles of the way we operate:

1. We are in business to make money.

2. We only deserve to make money when we have satisfied a client need.

3. We do not fix problems; we eliminate them so that they don’t occur again.

Suppose the person from our organization who takes that call understands only the first principle. How will he answer the call? He will likely say, “You didn’t like the class? I’m sorry. We don’t give refunds. Click.”

Of course, that is not the way I would want that call answered!

Suppose the person understands the first two principles but doesn’t understand the third. How will he answer the call? He might say, “You didn’t like the class? I’m sorry. We’ll gladly give you a refund. And here’s an extra 10 percent because we wasted your time. I hope you will consider us in the future.”

That response is better than the first. However, the root cause of the problem was never determined, so the problem will likely occur and have to be fixed again in the future.

However, if the person from our organization who that takes that call understands all three of the principles, he will likely respond as follows, “You didn’t like the class? I’m sorry. We will gladly refund your money. Can you take a minute to help us out? What were you looking for in the class? When you called to register and talked to our salesperson did they ask you what you were looking for? Oh, you didn’t talk to a salesperson. You registered online. It sounds like we might need a follow-up process for online registrations. The reason I say this is that the skills you were looking to improve are covered in our facilitation class, not our consulting skills class. We had you in the wrong class. The facilitation course appears to address each of the specific skills you are looking for. If it is OK with you, instead of a refund, I would like to transfer your registration into the next facilitation class at no additional cost to you. Is that OK? The next class is … ”

As you can see, we really are in business to make money (Principle 1)!


When you are in the presence of a level-2 leader, you know it because the difference is like night and day. Level-1 leaders talk about the tasks, the deliverables and the factors related to accomplishing them. Level-2 leaders, however, tend to be focused on people. They realize that they can be more successful if their people are more successful.

But while the difference between level-1 and level-2 leaders is significant, the difference between level-2 and level-3 leaders is even more so. While level-1 leaders focus on task and level-2 leaders focus on people, level-3 leaders focus on the future. They are constantly forward focused. We call level 3 the visionary level.

Level-3 leaders want to know how decisions today will impact the future. They consistently ask themselves, “Where is the business going? How do we align our efforts with the business objectives? What do our customers want? What is coming down the pike that we need to be preparing for today? What do we need to be doing today to better prepare our business for the future?”

Moving to a Higher Level – Question and Answers

Don’t leaders have to operate at all three levels? So how do I know at what level I am operating?

Yes, to some extent all leaders have to operate at all three levels. But where is your focus? What is getting your mindshare? What are you spending your time thinking about and addressing? Is your principle focus on task, people, or the future? The answers to these questions will tell you at what level you are operating.

Are the levels the same as positions in an organization?

No, the three levels are not positions in an organization. They are levels of development for a leader. Tragically, you can have the CEO of an organization operating at level 1. You can also have someone in a position like receptionist acting at level 3. For example, while a level-1 receptionist is just trying to get all the phone calls answered while greeting people who walk through the door, a level-3 receptionist would be constantly looking for ways to improve how the phone and greeting processes could better support the business.

What do I need to have in place to move from level 1 to level 2?

To move from level 1 to level 2, you have to understand what it takes to be successful in the job. You don’t have to know how to do the job, just what it takes to be successful so you can recruit, coach, groom and evaluate others. Until you are clear on what it takes to be successful, we recommend focusing your energies on level-1 activities.

What do I need to have in place to move from level 2 to level 3?

Remember, level 2 is called coach. Therefore to have the luxury of focusing your energies on level 3, you have to have people in place who know what it takes to be successful and who can coach other people. If you do not have people who can coach others, you will be kept at level 2 because you will be the one coaching. To move from level 2 to level 3, you have to have people who know what they are doing, but those people must also know how to develop other people.

What are the key reasons a manager might never advance beyond level 1?

There are many reasons, but we find two primary ones. First, the manager lacks either the desire or the people skills to move to level 2. In the information technology world especially, this is a frequent occurrence. However, it is the second reason that is the more challenging: many managers never get beyond level 1 because they don’t know that there are other levels! Everyone who has ever managed them has operated at level 1, so they believe that is what leadership is all about. They lack a vision of what leadership can be.

The Level 3 Leadership Model is intended to encourage striving for a higher vision for leadership. However if we only reward people who get things done on time and under budget, our leaders will be encouraged to focus on level 1. We must have rewards and incentives for building leadership skills in others, anticipating customer needs, and creating and implementing higher visions.