Permission Leadership

Permission Leadership

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership


Back in 2000, John Maxwell authored a book entitled Developing the Leader Within You. In that book, he posited that there are five levels of leadership. He named those levels Position, Permission, Production, People Development, and Pinnacle. In this post, I discuss the second of the five and we will explore the rest over the next several posts.


Although it’s only the second of five levels, the move from level one to

Permission Leadership

two in Maxwell’s model is major. At the “Permission” level, employees follow your leadership because they choose to, not because they are forced to. Leaders that achieve this level of influence are able to build interpersonal relationships to inspire and motivate employees rather than relying on their title.

The Tribe

In his book Tribal Leadership, Dave Logan points out that one of the most effective ways to lead is to have the tribe choose you to be the leader. They follow your lead because they want to, not because of your position in the organization. This then is permission leadership. It’s a bit like those John Wayne movies. You know the ones—the posse is milling around wondering what to do next and Wayne says, “Come on boys! Follow me.” And, they do. They gave him permission to be their leader. I never saw Wayne look back over his shoulder to find out he was alone!

Hidden Leader

In the first post of this series, I mentioned the hidden leader who, with no position authority whatsoever, is the go-to person when peers want to know what’s going on in the organization. While some of that leadership influence is earned, much of it is because the “tribe” bestows permission on that individual. This becomes a virtuous spiral of trust, permission, and leadership. It would be wise for all of us in executive positions to find and get to know these individuals. Their insight is invaluable.


A crucial part of permission leadership is trustworthiness. Trust in human relationships is believing that the other person has your best interest at heart, not just his or her own. Without trust, you will fail as a leader, regardless of the level of leadership you have attained. That is another reason why transparency is so important in leadership. Your team will continue to allow you to lead if they can understand the reasons for your decisions, and believe that those decisions are in the company, team, and individual’s best interest.

In developing leaders then, it is critical to help them understand the values that underpin trustworthiness, not just technical competency or relying on position authority.