Oswald Letter

Master the 5 levels of leadership

Leadershipby Dan Oswald

My youngest son came home from school the other day with a packet of information from one of his coaches. Included in the packet was a sheet of paper titled “The Leadership Continuum.” It outlines five levels of leadership and what is necessary to demonstrate each. I hadn’t seen this before, but in reading it, I thought it was certainly applicable not just to team sports but also to the team environment in the workplace.

Here are the five levels of leadership as defined in this continuum:

1. Leading yourself. Included in the definition of self-leadership are character development and core values. In my book, that includes the types of choices you’re making in your personal and work life. Do you act with integrity? Do you put in an honest day’s work? Do you treat others with respect? I consider this passing the “mom test.” Do you behave in a way that would make your mother proud?

2. Being accountable and responsible. The second level on the continuum addresses accountability and responsibility. Do you hold yourself accountable for your actions? Do you act responsibly? It’s really impossible to succeed in a leadership position if you don’t do these two things. A good leader is accountable and is willing to take responsibility for the outcome regardless of what it might be.

3. Leading by example. This one is key in my book. You need to act in a manner that is worthy for others to emulate. Your actions should inspire others to improve their performance. This can occur only if you’re holding yourself to a high standard of performance and conducting yourself in a way that others aspire to achieve. I’m a believer that actions speak louder than words, and leading by example requires actions that are worthy of imitation.

4. Be responsible for “victory.” This is the step at which your leadership moves from personal to team-oriented. Do you hold yourself accountable for the team’s actions? Do you feel responsible for the team’s performance? Great leaders don’t stop with themselves—they believe their actions, their performance, and their leadership can and will influence the rest of the team. An individual who reaches this level of leadership accepts the responsibility of the team’s outcome, not just his or her own.

5. Verbal leadership. This fifth level of leadership, the highest on the continuum, requires you to find your “leadership voice.” It’s not always enough to lead by example or feel responsible for the team’s results. Sometimes being a leader requires you to be vocal. That may be saying something that must be said, being the voice of the team in difficult circumstances, or even demanding performance out of others on the team. Some situations demand more than action—and having a leader who can lend a voice to that situation is necessary. And there’s a reason this one is the highest level on the continuum—it’s not easy to know when to speak up or know the right words and tone for the situation. But make no mistake: There are times when leaders must find their voice.

It’s not sophisticated. It’s not terribly detailed. It’s not even all that original. But this “Leadership Continuum” clearly lays out the various levels of leadership. Take a minute right now to determine where you fall on the leadership continuum. Think about how you interact with your teammates. And don’t doubt for a minute that each step on the continuum is important. Whether you’re at a stage where you’re leading yourself or whether you’re at a level 4 or 5, every team needs leaders who can contribute in various ways.

And don’t be surprised to find that you’re at a different stage of leadership depending on the team. You might be on a team where being a level 1 or 2 leader is how you can best contribute, while on another team you might need to step up and be a level 4 or 5. Good leaders understand the nuances of the various teams they’re a part of and can adapt to the circumstances. You don’t have to be a level 5 leader every day or on every team you’re a part of. Knowing when to take on the various stages of leadership as the circumstances dictate is a key part of leadership.

So think about your role on the teams you’re a part of. Are you a leader? And are you the type of leader your team really needs?