The Three Levels of Leadership

My years working for corporate have learned me how not only corporations join the capitalist system, but also the people in it and even the external coaches and consultants, like me, who are hired to do work for them. Many of us have unconsciously internalized the capitalistic needs of constant innovation, incessant growth and fetishized efficiency. Leadership and organizational development that follows the capitalist logic of more, better, faster almost exclusively focuses on one level of the current reality, being the hard facts and figures of the project at hand. If you’re looking to lead in a way that moves away from that prevailing system, a first step is to increase your awareness of the other levels leadership has to intervene on.

Important to know is that these 3 levels of leadership are always somehow present, in various constellations and intensities. Although there is a deepening happening moving through the levels, from project to purpose, this doesn’t mean one level is better than the other. All levels have their value and all levels are needed.
However, you might find yourself prioritizing or feeling more comfortable with one or the other level in your leadership, or you might notice hesitance, resistance or even nervousness trying to move from one level to the other.
Sustainable leadership happens when you have the capacity to move through the 3 levels and when you’re able to choose freely which level needs to be focused on, depending on the needs of the moment.

Growing your capacity to move through and access the 3 levels means growing your capacity to lead.

Three Levels of Leadership


  • On the ‘project’ level you lead with facts and figures. Your interventions as a leader are focused on the outspoken, overt issues at hand. You apply intellectual labor and rational analysis. Decisions are taken fast and rationally, there is no use nor space for emotions.

    On this level of leadership you work with information we can all have ‘consensus’ on. In other words the data you use to drive decisions is clear, unambiguous and everybody can easily agree on it.

  • Decision making processes on this level typically leans on thorough and comparative analysis, You gather information, have people report to you and foster a solid exchange of arguments as a way to come to a decision. In the end of the day the data speak for themselves and will guide you.

  • Leadership within a capitalist mindset almost exclusively resides in this first level.


  • On the ‘people’ level you focus your leadership on what’s happening with the people in the moment. This is where your role as a facilitator is the most apparent and needed.

  • You have knowledge of and are sensitive to background emotions, dynamics or tensions between people in your organization. You value and embrace conflict knowing it holds answers to complex problems in your organization and you are able to have the type of conversations that bring these issues out.

  • This level of intervention is one that needs some support to be accessed. These human dynamics aren’t right there on the table, and usually need a little or a big nudge to get opened up.

  • You could say this level is ‘emergent’, since it is always around us, but needs help to come out. It’s the undercurrent of human dynamics and requires you to deploy your emotional intelligence. You might not always do it exactly right, but you can trust curiosity and presence will help the process move forward.


  • The level of ‘purpose’ is the level where you connect with your organization’s ‘reason of existence’, with it’s big ‘why’. It’s the level were you can see what universal human need you serve and how that is always and everywhere present in your organization.

  • An organization gets caught up in it’s project and people issues so much that it needs you as a leader to keep your finger on the pulse and stay in touch with the heart of the organization.

  • The purpose level is the level you access when you need to inspire your people, when your organization needs to hear it’s story again to understand why it’s even here. It’s the level you and your people need when energy and morale are low, but also when making big, complex decisions that need to match your organization’s path.

  • Interestingly, even if it’s not clearly named, this level is always there. That’s why you could call this level ‘pre-emergent’, because it runs deeper under everything that happens in your organizational life.

Storytelling: A Leadership Case on 3 Levels

A short story to help you make more sense of the three levels of leadership.

There's a local Brussels bakery in a popular area of town. It's a family business, run by the son of the founder. The bakery has always strived to offer the highest quality at the most affordable price, knowing that a big part of their clients isn't particularly affluent. Two years ago the son and his wife have decided to go fully organic because they strongly believe in the importance of clean and well sourced food. Smartly navigating their supply costs, they have managed to stay affordable and haven't lost too many clients when they made this big switch. Now midway through it's second generation, the bakery employs 10 people and is financially stable. It offers a wide range of organic bread, with a small offer of pastries.

The situation is the following: it's Sunday morning and the baker has asked André and Nancy to take care of the croissants. It's a seizable job, because Sunday morning many customers want to be able to take some of the bakery's reputed croissants home to treat their families.

At 5am the dough has to be done to go in the oven in time, but instead of a running oven, the baker suddenly hears André and Nancy raise their voices in the pastry room. They're engaging in an argument over the quality of the dough and what it would or wouldn't need to produce the best croissants for the clients. André and Nancy have been collaborating for a while and this isn’t their first argument.

Nancy is two years into the work as a baker. She has gone through an extensive bakery training, with a specialization in organic baking. André is the employee that has been with the bakery the longest, he has even served under the father of the current baker. He has learned the craft in the bakery and has seen and experienced all the changes throughout the years he has been with the business.

The baker hears them quarrel, puts down his work and enters the pastry room, knowing this is not the first time they clash. He wonders how to approach this situation in a sustainable way.


On a project level the case is simple. Time is limited, so resolving this needs to be efficient. The dough has to go in the oven asap and they need to get the dough up to the quality it needs to bake into the best croissants they are so known for. So, they need to analyse the dough and judge what it needs or doesn’t need to be at it’s best. The baker has the knowledge and expertise, he can just walk in, break up the argument, taste the dough and give a few instructions.
Case closed… for now.

After all, as long as the tension between André and Nancy isn’t addressed it’s highly unlikely that André and Nancy won’t have another argument that interrupts their work and collaboration


  • The baker knows this isn’t the first quarrel between André and Nancy. He is aware he needs to facilitate whatever friction there is between them and figure out how he can support both parties from his leadership position.

  • The background story for the baker to be sensitive to is the strong differences between André and Nancy. André is the most experienced and loyal employee of the bakery. He has seen other employees come and go and has stayed with the bakery through many years and many transitions. When the bakery switched to organic two years ago André has learned to bake organic bread on the job.

  • The bakery has grown since the switch and recently many new and younger employees have arrived, with little experience, but much more theoretical knowledge about organic baking since it has been part of their education. Nancy is one of these newer employees and even has specialized in organic baking. Being a woman she has felt she had to prove herself amongst the mostly male colleagues she works with. She has found her way to stand out by improving her knowledge and technical skills.

  • The baker understands he’ll have to find a way to bring out these differences between them, have them see each other’s side a bit more and acknowledge how they are both valuable employees for the bakery. He also knows there is no time to address their dynamic at this moment, given it is 5am and the oven is waiting. He’ll have to postpone the work on the people level. He decides to help them out with their technical disagreement, names the recurring tension and suggests a meeting at a later time.


  • The bakery is a family business and has been passed on from the father of the baker. As a second generation they can rely on an established clientele. However, the shift to a full organic bakery hasn't always been easy. Clients that have bought their bread at the bakery for many years had to adapt to the change and some were disappointed finding their usual bread choices had changed to a more pricey, organic type. Nonetheless, the bakery hasn't lost too many of these clients and even has gained some new ones, because it has always insisted on high quality in combination with affordable prices. The baker, through his father, has learned what it means to have to make ends meet and the bakery always wanted to be accessible for the people of the neighbourhood. His son has passionately continued that tradition and added his own values to the story by choosing to work with more whole grains and finally going completely organic.

  • When the baker sits André and Nancy down to address their recurring issues, he lets them talk and helps them see each other’s side, but he also tells them the story of the bakery again. André knows it by heart and Nancy has heard it before, but at this moment, when both feel frustrated, it is even more important to help them see what the purpose is of this project they’ve decided to be a part of. The baker tells them about his father’s dream to start his own bakery, about the neighbourhood’s needs and his own values for honest, clean food. Sharing this story also allows him to name why both André and Nancy are a valuable part of the bakery and how they contribute in their own way. This storytelling moment puts André and Nancy’s relationship in perspective and helps them reconnect to their own passion for the craft and for this bakery they both work in.

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Thomas Ameel

+32 (0)486 17 24 92

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