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5 Levels of Leadership

Qin EnQin En

Delegation. Sounds like a dirty word. As if someone above threw you a ball, and they only shouted “Catch!” when the ball was already in mid-air.

Yet delegation is critical. Our scope of work and roles have grown rapidly through the past 2 years, and earlier this year, the 3 of us founders realised we had to build a team. We wanted an open, flexible and creative culture, but we also needed to get things done. We struggled. How do we direct, guide and lead our team members to accomplish their OKRs while giving them the flexibility and freedom to come up with new ways too do things better, not incrementally but radically?

As new members joined the team progressively, it didn’t make sense for us to treat our 6-month employees the same as 1-week employees. Clearly the 6-month employees had more room for freedom and expression, especially having proven themselves, whereas the 1-week employees needed more hand-holding. How do we know when the 1-week employee transits over to be the 6-month employee?

That was when we found the 5 Levels of Leadership — a framework that we brief all new team members on Day 1 of joining us. We found the 5 Levels to well-describe the varying levels of responsibility, and more importantly, setting the right expectations between the team leader and team member.

Excerpting from Michael Hyatt:

  • Level 1: Do exactly what I have asked you to do. Don’t deviate from my instructions. I have already researched the options and determined what I want you to do.
  • Level 2: Research the topic and report back. We will discuss it, and then I will make the decision and tell you what I want you to do.
  • Level 3: Research the topic, outline the options, and make a recommendation. Give me the pros and cons of each option, but tell me what you think we should do. If I agree with your decision, I will authorize you to move forward.
  • Level 4: Make a decision and then tell me what you did. I trust you to do the research, make the best decision you can, and then keep me in the loop. I don’t want to be surprised by someone else.
  • Level 5: Make whatever decision you think is best. No need to report back. I trust you completely. I know you will follow through. You have my full support.

We loved the concept, but didn’t want to categorically tag people as Level X. And so, we came up with titles for each Level and this is what each means to us:

Upstart (Level 1)

The Upstart follows right to the letter, and is an order-taker. Don’t deviate from my instructions – says Michael, and we agree because as an Upstart, you’re still learning the ropes. Don’t let go of the rope, don’t try to hang on to the rope with one hand (or one finger), don’t try to swing the rope. Trust us.

All new team members start at this level, without exception. All new team members are also told, without exception, that they are expected to be “upgraded” to be a Novice (Level 2) by end of Week 1 with us.

Reason is simple – we are a startup, and we can’t afford to have anyone who are order-takers. We need self-starters – motivated, driven people. But of course, you have to learn the ropes first, before you can take it to the next level.

Novice (Level 2)

The Novice is assigned a task, collects the information & resources, and consults before taking action. From Week 2 onwards, the Novice will start to ease into his/her role and start to get a clearer picture of how his/her role fits within the team. With this clearer picture, the Novice can present to the team leader and say “Here’s what it is, what should we do next?”

Most of our team members have a 2 month probation period when we bring them on-board, and in order to successfully complete probation, each and everyone of them are expected to be “upgraded” to be a Super Junior (Level 3).

Super Junior (Level 3)

The Super Junior gathers the relevant information & resources before making a recommendation to the team leader. Questions the Super Junior will need to answer are: Why do you recommend this? What are the costs-benefits? What is the follow-up action we need to proceed?

The Super Junior is a full-contributing member of the team, and is capable of thinking for the best interest of the company. Go-ahead is still necessary because the team leader needs to be kept in the loop, but typically, most recommendations would be met with a Yes or Sure, and do consider this…


Sensei (Level 4)

The Sensei is considered be a leader in the team. The Sensei makes the decision and proceeds with the decision, with an inform-basis (informing the relevant parties and/or team leader). At this level, the Sensei is aware of the implications of his/her decision and is capable of taking responsibility from planning to execution together with other team members, and only need to inform.

With this Sensei-zen comes the benefit of complete daily flexibility in work hours with the exception of our AHOD hours. The message we convey to Senseis is — I trust you to make the best decision you can, but no surprises please.

Nirvana (Level 5)

The Nirvana is a full, autonomous leader. The Nirvana (is it a state, is it a title, or is it a quasi-mix of both, we keep it open) is where you make decisions with no need to report back because you have the full, complete trust and support of the team. The Nirvana is where you are fully aware of what the team is doing, how you and your team’s role fits into the big picture and you have the capability to lead & execute relentlessly.

On top of the Sensei-zen benefits of complete daily flexibility, the Nirvana enjoys unlimited vacation time — be at work whenever you want to, and take holidays as you deem fit. At this level of maximum responsibility, we know you will have the company’s best interests at heart, and the unlimited vacation time will be used strategically.


We adopt a self-declared approach towards the progression of the 5 Levels of Leadership. To progress up each level, simply display the qualities, actions and behaviors of what is expected at the next level.

If you are a Super Junior and aspire to be a Sensei, take on the initiative to lead your peers and ask for leeway to decide-then-inform. If you are a Sensei, figure out what’s best for the company’s short- and long-term growth and advance that cause.

Finally, we don’t believe in delegation – here’s the ball, catch it, and if you drop it, I’m going to screw you. We prefer empowerment – here’s the ball, here’s how I’m going to throw it and here’s how you should catch it. Let’s practise it a few times, and we will work together to make sure you don’t drop the real thing.

Would you like to catch our throwing ball?


Image Sources: Upstart, Novice, Super Junior, Sensei, Nirvanas

Comments 2
  • Vikri
    Posted on

    Vikri Vikri

    Reply Author

    Well I agree about the delegation stuffs, and I also want to catch your company’s throwing ball as if your company is also willing to showing the true meaning of empowerment, the example of the power, not the power of giving example. Nice share!

  • Bryan
    Posted on

    Bryan Bryan

    Reply Author

    The 5 Levels make a lot of sense! Great organized structure to work with!