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Erik Van Alstine

Author. Leadership strategist. Expert in Perceptual IntelligenceTM.

Are you leading by “force” or “freedom”?

I love helping leaders lead better because there’s a lot at stake.

  • If we’re a leader, our own success, fulfillment, and happiness depend on good leadership.
  • So does the success, fulfillment, and happiness of those we lead. The atmosphere of our organization can be hell on earth, or heaven on earth, just because of the skills and style and mannerisms of the people running teams.

Unfortunately, leaders aren’t doing near as well as they could. A 2011 Gallup survey showed seven out of ten workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged,” and would rather have a new boss than more pay.1 It’s not the work itself that’s making them miserable, but the skills and mannerisms of the leaders.

The first leader test is to gauge whether people follow us because they want to or because they have to. Are we leading by “force” or in “freedom”? The “force leader” pulls rank to get people to cooperate. But the “free leader” has voluntary followers.

Which are we? Here are some questions that might help:

  • Do people feel a sense of freedom when working with us, or are they anxious and stiff?
  • Do people resent our leadership or appreciate it?
  • Do people follow us only to keep their jobs, or because we’re giving them something more as a leader?

Two Types of Leader in Maxwell’s Five Levels

Leadership expert John Maxwell describes five levels of leadership, where this first and lowest level is “positional leadership.” We have a position, and we lead from this position. People have to follow us to keep their jobs. This is our “force leader.”

Maxwell promotes four more levels, which I think are extremely interesting and useful. And because I’m always analyzing things and trying to break them down into their simplest form, I see the levels as variations of our two types:

  • The “force leader.” Leaders who lead by force. People follow because they have to.
  • The “free leader.” Leaders who lead by freedom. People follow because they want to.

Level one, “position,” is the “force leader” type. Leaders lead by force, saying, Follow me or else.

Level two, “permission,” is the “free leader” type. People follow freely, because they want to, not because they feel like they have to. They’re getting something positive out of the leadership.

Maxwell’s remaining three levels could be labeled “free leader 1, 2, and 3 in this viewpoint, because they offer reasons followers want to follow instead of feeling like they have to follow. Here are the levels:

  • Production. The leader is helping people get things done. There’s a sense of group and individual achievement that people appreciate. Therefore, they want to follow.
  • People Development. The leader is developing people as leaders. The followers believe the leader is making them better. Therefore, they want to follow.
  • Pinnacle. The leader develops a reputation for getting results and growing people who in turn get results and grow people. There’s a legacy effect in achievement and duplication. There’s a level of trust that isn’t there for leaders who haven’t been leading effectively as long. Therefore, they want to follow.

The point is, there are two basic types in Maxwell’s five levels. As I wrote earlier, the five level idea is useful and powerful, and has been one of Maxwell’s core teachings for thirty years. My purpose here isn’t to invalidate the levels but see the two types in the levels, with the “force leader” at the first level, and a few variations on the “free leader” in all the following levels.

The Leader’s Two-Question Test

The effective leader thinks of force and freedom, and works to build a freedom-based leadership style.

To build that free style, effective leaders are always asking two questions, and working to get positive answers:

  1. Am I helping people achieve better than they could without me?
  2. Am I helping people become better than they could without me?

1Carmine Gallo, “70 Percent of Your Employees Hate Their Jobs,” Forbes, 11/11/2011, and Dr. Piers Steele, The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), p. 101.

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