I still hear these words loud and clear…

Come on Florin – you know how things work. Don’t play boss with us!

I had just asked them to prioritize a task I needed them to complete. Their response told me they did not see me as a leader.

There was one big problem, though: I was literally their leader!

Or at least I was on paper. I had recently been promoted to lead the team of engineers that I had used to work with. These people were my friends, and I was their friend. I had been next to them on the organizational chart for a long time. And now that I had shifted, I had no influence with them.

In leadership circles, we talk often about the need to connect with your teams. I have written many articles on this topic myself – after all, there is no way to move beyond “positional” leadership without it!

But the rapport I had with my team did not translate to influence. In fact, it was hurting my efforts to lead my team efficiently.

When I asked them to complete a task or put their focus on an important project, I would get this kind of response each time…

Don’t play boss with us!

Eventually I started borrowing authority from my boss to ask my team for anything. I would let them know that my boss needed something from me that I needed from them. And because of our rapport, they would do it for me. But that only worked for so long. 

I was still relying on “positional leadership.”

I keep using this phrase, “positional leadership.” It describes the first and most basic level of leadership, according to Dr. John Maxwell. There are five levels, each increasing in effectiveness and impact.

A positional leader is a leader in title alone.

At this level, you hear a lot of things like Don’t play boss with us! You hear That’s not my job. You see minimal effort being invested. You see minimal results. Employees are being motivated by their contractual obligations – no one is growing, no one is leaning in… they are barely even listening… and all because there is no real influence.

So I earned some.

I became my team’s advocate. Instead of talking to my team about my boss, I talked to my boss about my team and convinced them to prioritize the concerns my team brought to me.

I started solving their problems and showing them I cared what they had to say. With my actions, I reassured them that the only thing that had changed – apart from my title – was my ability to help set them up to succeed.

I began finding new ways to connect with my team, ways that were unique to my new role. We built on the foundation we laid before I was leading them and as I connected with them, I saw their needs in a new way, and that made me a better advocate.

And that earned me influence. With influence came leadership level 2: permission.

My team began responding to my requests. Not because I told them I was their boss or because my boss needed something, but because they had bought in. They saw my investment and responded in kind – I had their permission to lead them. 

And that brought us to a brand-new level of results.

Looking back now, I am grateful that something shifted in me. I did not learn about the 5 levels of leadership until later in my leadership career. But I am grateful that I could see I lacked the influence needed to engage my team to succeed.

And I am grateful that I never again have to hear the words, Don’t play boss with us!

Do these words haunt you? Does your team see you as a pal – or a position – and keep you from leading them to their full potential?

Well, if that’s where you are, you don’t have to learn the long way, like I did.

If my story shows anything, it is that you are not stuck with the level of influence you have. You can invest in a connection that is both personal and productive – and keep growing it to “perfection” :)

I am offering a free training session on 26th May at 4PM CET for all leaders who want to get to “level 5” with their teams – and if that sounds good to you, you can save your seat here.

I hope I’ll see you there!

That’s all for now.

Until next time,

Florin