Rung by Rung

Veterinarian's Money Digest®December 2017
Volume 1
Issue 5

Step onto the ladder to discover the secret to becoming more than just a boss.

In his book "The 5 Levels of Leadership," author, coach and speaker John Maxwell outlines how true leadership works. The secret to becoming more than just a boss, he says, lies in being able to inspire others and build a team that not only is productive but also produces other leaders.

By understanding the five levels of leadership, you can evolve from an entry-level boss into a master manager at your practice.

The Leadership Ladder

Level 1: Position

Position is the first rung of the leadership ladder. It does not really require much ability or effort. Anyone can be appointed to a leadership position and implement orders. You are given a title, a business card, a desk, a nametag and, voilà, you are a leader.

In the veterinary world, you may be called owner, head receptionist, head technician, medical director, kennel supervisor, hospital manager or hospital administrator. Your team will do what you say merely because of the title you have.

Employees come to work to get a paycheck, so they will rarely go the extra mile. They will do only what is required to comply with what you ask of them. If you ask for something a little unusual, you may hear statements like “That’s not in my job description” or “You’re not the one who signs my paycheck.”


  • Leadership: The Difference Between Aggression and Assertiveness
  • Having an Effective Leadership Team

To maintain your position (and your job), you will need to create and implement rules, policies and standard operating procedures that guide employees in many areas. You will need to organize meetings to make sure people understand the rules. You will have to make them sign documents proving that they have heard or read the information and will comply with it.

There is nothing wrong with this entry-level position. It is a necessary step. Your newfound title makes you a boss more than a true leader. At this stage of the game, you merely have subordinates, not quite a team. If you find this position unpleasant, this may be the motivation you need to move on to the next level.

Level 2: Permission

In this leadership position, employees follow you because they want to, not simply because they have to. Once you start knowing and liking them, you become familiar with their stories and circumstances. You listen to their opinions, feedback and ideas. You treat them like valuable team members, and so you start to develop real relationships. In turn, your team members will want to learn more about you. All of this leads to trust and influence, which foster a happier work environment. As Maxwell writes, “You can like people without leading them, but you cannot lead people well without liking them.”

Aspiring leaders won’t stop there, though. Creating a happier work environment is all very nice, but you need to get some work done. This is what Level 3 is about.

Level 3: Production

Level 3 is based on achieving goals and results. The energy you have spent developing relationships and designing a fun work environment in Level 2 gives you more credibility and influence. This in turn enables you to work more efficiently as a team. Yet you cannot just talk the talk; you also have to walk the walk. You need to lead by example.

Maxwell summarizes the consequences of level 3 management in these words: “Work gets done, morale improves, profits go up, turnover goes down and goals are achieved.” Now you are starting to have fun as a leader. This is why you’ve worked so hard. But you can’t rest on your laurels. You can achieve even more in Level 4.

Level 4: People Development

Gaining more power, getting things done and generating profits are great. But true leaders have a longer-term goal: empowering others. Level 4 leaders “use their position, relationships and productivity to invest in their followers and develop them until those followers become leaders in their own right. The result is reproduction. Level 4 leaders reproduce themselves,” explains Maxwell.

Having more leaders on your team leads to a virtuous cycle. Relationships deepen and can become lifelong friendships. Teamwork reaches new heights. Productivity increases. Everybody’s happy.

Can things get any better? Of course they can. On Level 5, you can grow even more as a leader by helping others grow in the practice substantially.

Level 5: Pinnacle

A quick Google search for John Maxwell quotes brings up more than 13 million hits. Maxwell has been quoted about communication, change, teamwork, success and more. Here are some wise words from Maxwell on leadership:

  • “A leader who produces other leaders multiplies their influences.”
  • “When the leader lacks confidence, the followers lack commitment.”
  • “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.”
  • “The greatest mistake we make is living in constant fear that we will make one.”
  • “People never care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
  • “Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.”
  • "People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.”
  • "The best leaders are humble enough to realize their victories depend upon their people."
  • “A good leader is a person who takes a little more than his share of the blame and a little less than his share of the credit.”
  • “A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them and strong enough to correct them.”
  • “Learn to say ‘no’ to the good so you can say ‘yes’ to the best.”
  • “Remember, man does not live on bread alone; sometimes he needs a little buttering up.”

Theory Into Practice

Here is how a young colleague, passionate entrepreneur and practice owner in Pennsylvania describes his journey through the five levels of leadership.

“In the nine years I have been a practice owner, I can see the transition of leadership levels. On day one, I started at Level 1 (position). I was the leader of the hospital, but only because I took out a huge loan and said, 'I’m the boss.' I knew none of the protocols, let alone how to be a true leader.

As the first year progressed and I became more familiar with my team members and developed relationships with them, I morphed into a Level 2 leader (permission). At this level, I concentrated on morale-boosting activities, such as having a potluck lunch at staff meetings for special occasions. Every staff member brought in a favorite dish to share. This created a positive buzz in the hospital, and it brought in a lot of great smells and tastes! I would say that I remained a Level 2 leader until almost the end of my second year of practice ownership.

Then two things occurred. First, I demonstrated that our veterinary hospital was doing well compared with other hospitals, by growing 9 percent in our first year and 3 percent in our second year, despite the recession. The second event was firing the hospital manager. It took me almost two years to realize that she was not productive. Of course, the rest of the staff knew that well before me! They had felt the same way for years. Once she was fired, morale improved and my team leaders took on more leadership roles and thrived.

I was now in Level 3 (production) and on my way to Level 4 (people development). The hospital went from one practice manager to three team leaders (reception, technicians and assistants) who accepted and wanted a larger role in the decisions of the hospital. We all worked together to develop a leadership style. I developed stronger relationships with the team leaders and continued to boost morale. I provided outside training to give them tools to become great leaders.

I have not quite made it to Level 5 (pinnacle) yet. I strive to make it to this level, but as with the other stages, it will take time and patience.”

And without any doubt, he will get there. You can do the same in your own practice. Interestingly, these leadership principles are not limited to your professional life. They also apply to sports, volunteer work and family life.

Dr. Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur. His traveling surgery practice takes him all over eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey. You can visit his website at and follow him at


  • Maxwell JC. The 5 Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximize Your Potential. New York, NY: Center Street; 2011.
Related Videos
© 2023 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.