Great leadership is not something that happens by chance. You don't just wake up one day and go from not being a leader to being a great leader. Leadership is a journey for nearly everyone, a journey with clearly defined stages, where you need to build on your knowledge, experience, and techniques to succeed.
Sadly just because you have mastered one leadership level doesn't mean that you will automatically succeed at the next, as the skills required can be completely different to achieve success at the new level. There is a huge difference between leading a team of people and leading a team of leaders who are leading teams themselves.
5 Stages of Leadership Journey
In this article, I want to talk about the 5 stages of leadership, the skills needed to succeed, and the challenges they can pose.
1. Informal Leader
The first thing to remember about leadership is that it is not about position or titles. It's about action. This means that everyone and anyone can be a leader irrespective of your level within the organization because of your actions and the example you make.
I can honestly say that of all the people I have promoted into leadership positions. They led long before they got the title. I would also say that anyone who waited to lead until they got the title is probably still waiting.
Leadership is a choice, and if you want to start the leadership journey, be a leader where you are right now. Irrespective of your current role, be the example you want to see, support people, show them respect, and give them positive feedback. In the movie Gladiator, even though he was just another slave, Maximus, through his knowledge and experience, led by example and became the informal leader as people followed his actions.
2. Hands-On Leader
For most, the first real leadership position is that of team leader, and you're involved in day-to-day delivery, a front line contributor. Hands-on, in the truest sense, you are an integral part of the team, not just an occasional pair of hands that helps out when the going gets tough. Here you're modeling daily what you expect of others, supporting those in need, collaborating and contributing, doing what needs to be done to ensure the achievement, literally leading from the front.
Here it's your ability to directly impact the outcome of the results with your own two hands that make you stand out from the crowd. There is a lot of satisfaction in these roles. Being the hero fills one of our most basic needs, that of being appreciated, and it helps us build great self-esteem. One of my favorite leaders is Mahendra Singh Dhoni. He is a great example of a hands-on leader, and he’s involved in both the leading and the doing. When an important innings was needed, India could count on him to stand up and show the way over the finishing line.
3. Expert Leader
One of the biggest challenges I see in organizations is who to choose for that next level of leadership, where you are now leading teams, and it's less about your direct hands-on contribution and more about getting the best out of the team.
In my opinion, too many companies choose to promote functional experts, e.g., the Supply Chain expert gets to lead the Supply Chain team or teams, using their expertise to shape strategy, solve problems, and define solutions. Here the role is still small enough for it to be more about functional expertise than leadership expertise. Still, it does require you to learn and develop more leadership skills and become people-focused if you want to be truly successful and move to the next level.
When I was promoted to my first project management position, I worked for London Electricity, and I had been one of the key architects of the billing system. I'd taken on the role of test team leader and led the system's delivery from the front. My personal contribution had been one of the key factors in ensuring successful delivery, and I was given the PM's role because of that and because no one knew more about the system than I did. I was your typical expert leader.
One of the challenges here is that that expertise can often cover up some leadership deficiencies. This is the level that many fail at because being a true leader is more than functional or technical expertise. I know this from hard personal experience where I would say that 100% of the skills and expertise that got me the role were used less than 5% of my time to help me be successful within that new role. Their key benefit was actually giving me the time and space I needed to develop the skills required to be successful.
Dr. Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is leading the fight against COVID in the US, is a great example of an Expert Leader; he graduated first in his Medical Class at Cornell University and has been involved in research into infectious diseases for over 40 years and is now recognized as one of the world leaders in this field.
4. Engaging and Enabling Leader
At each stage of the leadership journey, the requirements of the role change, often dramatically, that shift from the Hands on to Expert leader is probably one of the most difficult because it requires you to become much more people than technically focused, and that's a shift that not many are comfortable with.
Again, the change is very significant in this stage because now, instead of leading people, you are leading leaders, and you are often two and even three levels above the front line work. Your influence is now indirect, rather than direct, but it is also significantly more important. Here it becomes more about creating visions, engaging teams, putting them into positions where they can be successful, enabling them, and cheering and recognizing their successes.
More often than not, you can be leading multiple teams where you have little to no technical expertise at all in the work that is being done. You have to be comfortable with that and confident in your ability to help get the best out of the team.
I remember in one firm, and I was offered a leadership role in an area where I had practically zero hands-on experience at all. I had to trust my teams and their capability and focus on defining and shaping the bigger picture and creating an environment where they could successfully execute. There is a tendency for us to want to revert to the hands-on leadership style in times of pressure, but when you don’t have the technical skills, that’s impossible.
Did that make me feel vulnerable?
But if you want to progress, then this will happen, and you have to be able to let go of the need to be in control.
It’s an illusion anyway because you cannot know everything about everything. You have to rely on others' expertise and on your ability to lead them. It's no longer about you being the hero. It's about creating and enabling the heroes in your department. If you cannot give up the desire to be the hero, this will be a difficult level to succeed.
My current favorite leader in this space in Marcelo Bielsa is my football team Leeds United; he is one of the leading experts in football. His expertise is widely appreciated, but what makes him a great leader is that his use of that knowledge improves all of his players. He creates a framework that enables them to approve and achieve their full potential, often reaching levels they felt beyond them. This makes players want to play for him because they believe in them and believe in them. One of our current players, who the team was thinking of selling because he was not good enough for the 2nd division, Bielsa said no - I can help him become an England player. Can you imagine how you would respond to a leader who said that to you, how inspired you would feel, how committed you would be? Last month, the player he told he would make an England international player 2 years ago made his debut for England and has now played 3 times for the National team.
5. Influential Leader
The last and highest leadership level is the one where you have zero direct impact on anything, yet practically everything you do has an indirect impact. The higher you go, the more people are watching you, checking for alignment between what you say and what you do. Leadership defines the culture, and it's the culture that guides people when there is no one there to lead them.
Everything you do contributes to the culture. If you are kind to people, it will be reflected in the culture, and if you recognize people, it will be reflected in the culture. If you show personal accountability, this will appear in the culture, or if you blame people, then that's what others will do.
For good or bad, your people will model your behavior. But it's not just about what you do, and it can also be about what you don't do. If you don't speak out about sexism, racism, or any form of discrimination, this will be seen and be seized upon, and it will be felt that you have condoned it by your silence.
Small things that you do or don't do can have a big impact, and you need to be conscious of your actions, inactions, and implications. Leaders at this level focus on creating the cultures needed for the organizations to be successful. They understand what's needed and ensure that they define it, communicate it, and live it clearly. To succeed at this level, you have to be clear, consistent, authentic, and work to ensure that your entire organization, culture, vision, mission, and strategy align with the goals you are looking to achieve.
Everything is strategic, and even the little things matter. Small disconnects at the top create cracks that can become fault lines at the bottom that can derail an entire organization. This is as true for a small company CEO as it is for a President of a Nation. One of the challenges at this level is that it takes time, which is often at a premium with everyone looking for short-term results and immediate returns, which can often lead to the wrong habits being created.
Patience is key, but it is usually in short supply with boards and shareholders, but for long-term benefits and success to be sustainable within an organization, it's mandatory.
There are several examples of leaders at this level in business, who have a great influence on their industry and the wider business world, people such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jack Welch. In politics, we have great examples such as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King. For many of these people, it’s not just about the work that they have done, but the indirect impact they have had through their inspiration of others.
Although you can achieve these levels on a smaller scale, you don’t need to be a CEO or World Leader to have a wider influence, and this is about leadership styles and capability, not just the scale or volume of people you lead. Many CEOs and World leaders do not reach this level of leadership, even though they might have the position.
The leadership journey is long, challenging, and often requires different skills and qualities at each level. To be successful as a leader, you have to be willing to be vulnerable enough to throw away what worked at the previous level, give up the need to be a hero, and continually learn and develop new skills along the path. If you're too rigid and want to stick with what worked previously, it's going to be a struggle, and at some point, your journey will end someway short of the final stage.
Where are you on your journey?
What new skills and techniques do you need to develop to jump to that next level and then succeed at it?