The 5 levels of leadership

What kind of a leader are you?
What kind of a leader are you?
Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter
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As Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup, once astutely noted, “Employees everywhere don’t necessarily hate the company or organization they work for as much as they do their boss. Employees—especially the stars—join a company and then quit their manager.”

But what makes a boss worth quitting over? Or, on the flip side, worth staying over? To understand what makes a great leader, we looked at data from 75,000 employees and more than 10,000 managers working primarily in the U.S., across industries including retail, hospitality, manufacturing, technology, finance, and health care. We reviewed employees’ ratings of their workplaces as well as their open-ended comments about their managers and looked for patterns and traits distinguishing great leaders from the not-so-great.

Based on those employee evaluations and comments, we identified five distinct leadership levels, which we’ve characterized into personas based on prominent themes.

Level 1: The Unintentional Leader

Common employee experience: “I don’t get paid enough to put up with this!”

Unintentional Leaders don’t seem conscious of the impact they have on others, and they often fail to inspire confidence. Employees reporting to an Unintentional Leader might feel like passengers on a bus whose driver doesn’t have a destination in mind and doesn’t tell the passengers what’s going on.

Nobody sets out to be an Unintentional Leader. People end up that way for various reasons, including some not entirely of their own making. They may have been so great at their job, they were promoted to supervise people doing the same type of work—and then not given the training needed to lead. They could have amazing technical skills but lack the people skills a leader needs to inspire and motivate. They could be dealing with a health issue, addiction, family crisis, or other personal problem that hinders their ability to bring their best self to work. They may mistakenly believe that being a leader means acting like a drill sergeant: barking orders, and keeping their compassion and humanity under wraps.

You might be an Unintentional Leader if you:

  • Think in terms of “employees” versus “people” who have full, complex lives
  • Take credit for work you didn’t do
  • Withhold information from direct reports
  • Are too consumed with worries about personal matters to care about the job
  • Have not made changes after receiving negative people­ related performance review feedback
  • Reveal your frustrations by raising your voice or being personal in your criticism of others

How to Improve:

Small changes can result in enough improvement to move up to the next level—with great positive impact for the company and its employees. Such changes could include getting proper training, acting in a more approachable manner, or making an effort to collaborate with employees more often. Adopting a more open, accepting attitude could dissolve employees’ fears and animosities, which could in turn im­prove their confidence in their manager’s abilities. It could also help break up the toxic environment, allowing people to focus less on getting through the day and more on the task at hand, making it less likely they would want to find another job.

Level 2: The Hit-or-Miss Leader

Common employee experience: “Anybody home?”

The Hit-or-Miss Leader isn’t terrible—at least not all of the time, and not for everyone they work with. They’re on or off, hot or cold, a good friend or ally to some, but not to others. Unlike an Uninten­tional Leader, they don’t actively hurt an organization, but neither are they actively supporting their team or performing their duties to the extent the organization needs. A Hit-or­ Miss Leader doesn’t always step up when they should.

As with an Unintentional Leader, lack of adequate train­ing or people skills could cause a Hit-or-Miss Leader to be oblivious to how their actions or inactions affect the people around them.

Because they often play favorites, intentionally or un­ intentionally, a Hit-or-Miss Leader may fail to hold people accountable for doing what they’re supposed to, or not stand up for people or teams they manage. Likewise, they may not work well with other teams, leading to communication breakdowns.

You might be a Hit-or-Miss Leader if you:

  • Often feel like you’re in over your head
  • Can’t focus due to current problems in your personal life
  • Go out to lunch or socialize with the same team members all the time
  • Have trouble relating to several people on your team
  • Have had direct reports transfer to other departments, complain about you to your boss, or leave for another job
  • Have received warnings about not hitting goals or improving your people leadership performance

How to improve:

For these bosses to move to the next leadership level they must eliminate favor­itism, communicate regularly with people in and outside the teams they manage, keep everyone feeling involved, and rou­tinely show they appreciate people’s efforts. If a Hit-or-Miss Leader can do that, the people they work with will gain faith in their integrity and put more effort into their work, which will improve cooperation and productivity.

Level 3: The Transactional Leader

Common employee experience: “They get the job done-and nothing more.”

More than anything, the Transactional Leader values check­ing things off the list, especially things related to their own goals. They’ve risen above some negative behaviors associ­ated with Unintentional and Hit-or-Miss Leaders and are good at what they do. But they are mainly concerned with checking tasks off a to-do list or hitting key performance indicators and consequently are not as forward-thinking or charismatic as leaders at higher levels. Though they are heading in the right direction, a Transactional Leader’s style of working and communicating is still inconsistent, and they don’t attempt to forge the personal connections necessary for employees to feel empowered and engaged.

A Transactional Leader could be a creature of habit, clinging to old patterns cultivated before digital advances and other innovations that have changed how work gets done and the requirements of the job. They could reflect the way they are treated by their own boss or a bureaucratic organization that doesn’t give managers much power. “Middle-level man­agement is unable to set and communicate strategies, and makes decisions accordingly,” one employee said.

In the environment a Transactional Leader creates, peo­ple take pride in their work and can be counted on to do what they’re told. That level of competency also applies to teams they manage, which are good at executing specific, known tasks.

Employees working for Transactional Leaders also report more politicking and backstabbing at work than the higher levels, due in part to their boss’ nonchalant attitude. They may feel they don’t have a voice or don’t get enough information about what they are supposed to be doing. “Answers provided by management to date are very vague,” one employee says about their Transactional Leader boss.

You might be a Transactional Leader if you:

  • Value getting things done over talking to people
  • Give orders more than you listen to employees’ concerns or challenges
  • Don’t know much about what’s going on in people’s personal lives
  • Feel like a small cog in a bureaucratic machine
  • Are recognized more for your technical competency than your soft skills
  • Have had direct reports describe you as efficient but cold

How to improve:

For a Transactional Leader to move to the next level, they have to stop operating on autopilot and start building good people skills and habits. It could mean working to communicate with direct reports more consistently, listening to employees and welcoming their input on decisions, and showing people how their role fits into the big picture. To improve, a Transactional Leader also needs to show their sincere interest in employees as people, so individuals feel like they’re being managed in a fair and reliable manner.

Level 4: The Good Leader

Common employee experience: “I stay because of my manager.”

The Good Leader has a distinct edge over leaders at the lower levels. They are consistent, inclusive, and sincere. They are clear about expectations for people’s roles, understand that mistakes happen, and realize people have lives outside of work. Employees frequently describe a Good Leader as easy to talk to, understanding, fair, and the reason they stay. For many people, there’s very little practical difference between working for a Good Leader and working for a leader at the highest level, a For All Leader.

But while a Good Leader has a lot going for them, they haven’t reached For All Leader status. For all their good quali­ties, they may feel that the ultimate responsibility for reaching goals lies with them, not their team. Thinking that way may make them less comfortable being open and vulnerable about their own failings, which could prevent them from connect­ing with some people. A handful of holdouts don’t see them as completely competent or reliable communicators.

You might be a Good Leader if you:

  • Help employees develop in their careers and recommend them for promotions
  • Have been a mentor
  • Can talk to anyone on your team about most issues, whether work-related or personal
  • Haven’t been able to establish a good rapport with a few people whom you just can’t seem to warm up to
  • Think it’s important for others to see you as a leader
  • Receive generally good performance reviews, including feedback from peers and direct-reports
  • Have been promoted because of your superior management skills

How to improve:

For a Good Leader to make it to the top, they have to address whatever is stopping them from connecting with the holdouts on their team so everyone feels heard in decisions and feels they can speak up when it matters. To improve, a Good Leader can’t just focus on today. They must take the long view and focus both on the future and on how teams across the company fit together to achieve goals. Also, they must be able to artic­ulate an organization’s goals in a way that helps people feel inspired and connected to them. Finally, leaders at this level must abandon any ego attached to being the boss, and sub­sume their own interests in the service of helping others shine.

Level 5: The For All Leader

Common employee experience: “My manager truly has my best interests in mind.”

For All Leaders have a lot to brag about. After all, they’ve made it to the top of the leadership persona hierarchy, their people love them, and the teams they lead are more successful than teams managed by leaders at other levels.

But here’s the thing about For All Leaders: they’d rather leave the bragging to others. If you’re familiar with the con­cept of the servant leader, you’ll recognize it in these manag­ers, who prefer to lead from behind, enabling the people who work for them to do their best work. For All Leaders treat all people with dignity, regardless of position. People who work for these leaders see them as hardworking and leading by ex­ample. Employees also see them as honest, ethical, and true to their word. For All Leaders aren’t micromanagers . They’re happy to have people work autonomously, and welcome feedback and others’ input on decisions. Showing that they’re responsive and open to others increases their own influence.

For All Leaders are fair, though fairness in pay and other matters doesn’t necessarily equate to treating everyone the same. Fairness also takes into account the socioeconomic systems that historically have favored some people over oth­ers and an awareness of how all employees might perceive a leader’s actions.

For All Leaders make everyone feel welcome and treated fairly and establish a strong sense of collaboration within teams as well as through different areas of the organization. They stand out for their ability to reduce politicking and favoritism to nearly imper­ceptible levels, perhaps because they do a great job of getting feedback from everyone and involving them in decisions.

You might be a For All Leader if you:

  • Surround yourself with smart, engaged people motivated to do their best
  • Lead teams that make innovative products and gain above-average business results
  • Lead teams that work well with other groups throughout the organization
  • Often hear people who report to you say they love their jobs
  • Can recall at least a few instances where you have supported a direct report in succeeding but haven’t felt the need to take credit for your input
  • Have little to no voluntary turnover on teams you manage
  • Are frequently asked to be a mentor or have helped multiple people advance in their careers
  • Receive positive performance reviews or 360 evaluations
  • Have been promoted on the basis of your leadership skills or teams’ successes
  • Are invited to speak about leadership and what your teams have accomplished, or run workshops on the topic

Being a For All Leader isn’t easy. Constantly changing busi­ness needs, personnel, market conditions, and other demands of the job mean there’s no such thing as a status quo. Retain­ing a For All Leader mindset means constantly reevaluating what people and teams need to be successful-what  needs to be done, on the part of the leader, to help the team accomplish their goals. To remain open and flexible, For All Leaders may need to work on their own personal growth, through training, meditation, or other means. It could also take regular reminders of the inherent goodness of the people they are leading, to put problems that come up into perspective.

This article was adapted from A Great Place to Work for All.