4 Levels of Leadership

A favourite book of mine is The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. It’s a great read for anyone. I have referenced ideas from it quite frequently wearing my coaching hat, but have also done the same during corporate speaking engagements.

With all credit going to Ben and Roz… The following thoughts are inspired by The Art of Possibility and Mike MacKay’s Levels of Leadership.

How Much Greatness Are You Willing To Grant?

Benjamin Zander

Like the conductor who decides who plays in their orchestra, coaches select the athlete make-up of their teams. Even as a guest-instructor working with a pre-existing team or at a basketball camp, you determine who is there.

When you see an audience who is listless, you can decide that they are disengaged and unenthused; or, can greet them with the child-like unbridled enthusiasm that originally seduced them into the game. You can say, “Aha… Fascinating! They have had to go against their passionate natures to succumb to the vying demands of playing sport, today. They just need to be recognized as their true selves: eager contributors with an insatiable desire to learn and improve!” You can see before you, the jaded and uncommitted; or, the enthused, curious, passionate and enthralled lovers of the game.

The Zanders go on to say:

“A monumental question for leaders [coaches] in any organization to consider is: How much greatness are we willing to grant people?”

I love this thought. This is not a rhetorical question either. Think on it. Answer it for yourself. Because it makes all the difference about what you do next, once you decide who you are leading.

As Mike MacKay shared with me, his ‘Levels of Leadership’ some time ago (below). In paraphrasing and subbing out the word leadership for influence, here’s what I got for you (Yeah… yeah… I know that’s not grammatically correct, but it sounds better!)…

The first level of influence is “leading” oneself. This takes place long before you step foot in the gym. And takes shape in the form of the thoughts you fashion in your mind about your athletes (and your coaching staff).

“That which you look for you will find,” I once read. Well, listening for passion, contribution and commitment is the practice of a special coach – and person.

The second level of influence is giving energy to the group. How can you tell you’re fulfilling this intention? Look into to the eyes of the players and be prepared to ask yourself, “Who am I being, right now, that their eyes are not shining?” Invite information and expression. Speak to their passion. And, look for an opportunity to pass them the baton.

The third level of influence is knowing when and who to follow. As humbling and uncomfortable as it may be, your athletes often have the answers to your questions. Step back. Ask. Listen.

Once you master the art and science of these three steps, you’ll be ready for the final (fourth) level: influence. Others, including your athletes, will be willing, eager and committed to following the direction set out for the group.

So as the onset of a new season, or new training camp begins, be mindful of the thoughts you hold.

You’ll get that which you look for.

The Four Leadership Levels

In order for a team to be successful you need a group in which each player, coach and manager strives to be a leader. You cannot rely on one or two chosen people to lead the group. There are four stages of leadership that we each must go through:

(1) Lead Yourself

You are responsible for you. Being responsible means: doing your best, doing what is right and treating others the way you want to be treated. You also want to be “good people”. This means making the right decisions at the right time and in the right place. That is, being more concerned with doing the right thing, than what you have the right to do. Do things that will reflect positively on you, your team, school and community.

(2) Contribute (Provide Energy) To The Group (i.e. team, family, society)

You can be an energy giver, energy taker or an energy conserver. Involvement without contribution is insignificant. Fix the leak! Don’t worry about whose job it is, solve the problem. Expect to do more than your share. Eliminate negative talk – especially talk that reduces someone’s chances of success in the future. Be weary of social loafing. This is the notion that as a size of a group increases the more the individual members feel their effort is not important.

(3) Learn How, When, and Who To Follow

Understand, accept, execute and know the proper way to change your role. Your role in any environment is dynamic, not static in nature. It is constantly changing. Coach K says: “Be the face your team needs to see!” Being loyal to the group is also important concept in being a follower. Loyalty starts with giving your honest opinion when asked. It is also listening to everyone else’s opinion and recognizing that people are entitled to have opinions that differ from your own. A decision will be made that is best for the group, not necessarily best for you. Once the decision is made, the time for debate is over. You should now accept the decision and support it as if it were your own. No whining and “I told you so”.

(4) Now You’re Ready To Become a Decision Influencer

Once you have the other three levels then and only then can you effectively lead others. Be a respectful, compassionate, passionate visionary who leads by example. Respect it is not only what you have done, but how you have done it. People don’t come to your funeral because of how much money you have or what you did, they come out of respect and appreciation. Compassionate means being concerned for others. Understand the dynamic balance between what is best for the group or the individual. Passionate people get to the “just do it stage” of commitment. You’re there because it is what you love to do not what you have to do. Visionary means you can see the end product and are able to describe it to others. You become the care taker of the group’s goals and mission.

Why I tweaked the wording from leadership to influence…

After having used this concept with athletes, I quickly realized that the ‘L word’ means so many different things to different people. It draws varied images in people’s minds based on their past experiences. And, most importantly, I found that the quiet athlete often never feels like they’re a “leader”; nor will ever be. They tag out.

Influence, on the other hand… or the desire to be heard, and have others hear you, is universal.

You don’t have to be the lead dog or alpha to influence decisions. This shift in mindset was powerful and engages all your athletes in this process of embodying the four leadership levels.

In utilizing these Levels with athletes, my debriefs and/or interventions have changed. By example, let’s say an athlete arrives late or is not doing their out of practice workouts:

…How did you do at leading yourself?

…Do your actions show someone who is giving or taking energy from the group?

…We’re looking to develop athletes who are willing to stay committed to their commitments, be a contribution and stretch their limits. I think you’re capable of all those things. Is this a standard you are willing to accept for yourself? [If no, there’s a completely different conversation that needs to be had.]
…[If yes…] I’d like you to define for me what specific actions will I see moving forward that will show me your taking care of the first two Levels?

Just an example that’s proven successful… It’s not demeaning and invites the athlete to participate in process of (re)defining THEIR standard for expectations.

An idea. Try it on for size. Shake it up and add a twist of lemon. See how it works within your existing coaching-teaching environment. Let me know how you modify the recipe!


“A leader of ONE, a leader of MANY. If you can’t lead ONE, you can’t lead ANY.”