The Hidden Impact of the 7 Levels of Energy Leadership

The industry is changing, the CEO is new, the customer changed their mind, the project is behind schedule … change is inevitable. It happens every day, in all aspects of every company. Here’s a typical scenario I might run into with one of the teams I coach:

It’s been a long month. The team is working hard to meet a deadline, but morale is low, and everyone knows it. They tell me things like:

  • “There’s nothing I can do. I can’t finish my report until I get the data from Finance.”
  • “He said I made the wrong call, but it was clearly the right thing to do.”
  • “I’ll be done on time. If the rest of the team isn’t going to pull their weight, that’s on them, but I’m not going to let it pull me down.”

They’ve had enough prompts and prods to get the job done. Realistically, it’s not feasible for the leader to jump in and do every-one’s work for them. It’s true that “leading” with commands might get a quick-start response, but marching orders do nothing to inspire a team to step up and sustain high performance. What’s a manager to do?

The methodology of Energy Leadership was developed by Bruce Schneider, who published a book by the same name and established the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (IPEC), where I trained and became a certified professional coach. What I learned there and continue to practice has changed my life and the lives of those I work with.

Simply put, we bring energy to every situation, relationship, and interaction we take part in—and that energy has an impact on others. Schneider describes seven distinct levels of energy in which we engage with others. In this article, I’ll introduce the basic principles of Energy Leadership and expand on the seven levels, including how to apply Energy Leadership in your daily life.

In order to understand Energy Leadership, we first need a more specific understanding of what we mean by the words energy and leadership.

We are energy.

Albert Einstein, in his most famous equation, E=mc2, indicated that matter (the stuff of things) and energy (a fundamental force of nature) are closely related. Although a physicist might take exception to me saying so, I like to say that we are energy. We are resonating beings. Whether we’re sitting down at a conference table at work or at the dinner table at home, and whether we’re conscious of it or not, our energy affects everyone we interact with.

Einstein famously said, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another.” Since we bring our own energy wherever we go, we can determine what type it will be by applying the principles of Energy Leadership.

Consider for a moment what effect your presence has on people. Are they uplifted and energized? Or do they feel deflated and discouraged? Developing an awareness of our own energy and its impact on others is the beginning of consciously choosing how we do life—in other words, consciously choosing what type of energy we lead with.

We all are leaders.

When the word leadership comes up, it’s natural to think of people in positions of power—presidents and prime ministers, CEOs and board members.

But the first definition of lead in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “to guide on a way especially by going in advance.” The common understanding of lead—the one we might apply to people in positions of power—is also true: “to direct the operations, activity, or performance of.” But the first definition implies taking action that we want others to take in order to guide them on a certain path; it applies not only to leaders of companies and countries, but also to people everywhere. This definition of lead applies to every interaction with every person in our life, at work or at home.

We are all leaders, because we are always directing activity in some way. Our energy determines what kind of leader we are; we may lead positively, moving things forward, or we may lead negatively, with little to no movement forward.

When a manager asks an employee to take care of something that’s outside the scope of her responsibilities, the employee has many options as to how she can respond. Here are two possibilities:

1. “No, I can’t help you with that. I’m already overwhelmed with everything I have on my plate. Besides, it’s not my job!”

The manager was simply making a request, not trying to argue. However, the employee’s combative response stirs up a conflict. The manager is irritated by her tone and perceived lack of respect. The relationship begins a downhill descent.

2. “No, I can’t help you with that right now, because I committed to finishing this report by today. Jim should be available and can take care of what you need.”

The manager appreciates the input regarding who can help, given the fact that the employee he asked is not available.

Anabolic and Catabolic Energy

In the sphere of Energy Leadership, high energy doesn’t mean Type A, over-the-top enthusiasm, and low energy doesn’t mean listless couch potato. In Energy Leadership, higher or lower levels of energy are more closely related to our state of mind.

Energy Leadership borrows terminology from biochemistry, words that are usually used to describe metabolic processes: anabolic and catabolic. In biochemistry, anabolism refers to the construction, or building up, of molecules from smaller units—the building of bone or muscle. (That’s why some athletes and bodybuilders use anabolic steroids to promote unnaturally large muscles.) Catabolism refers to the breakdown of molecules into smaller units. The Greek roots “ana” and “cata” mean “up” and “down,” respectively.

Anabolic energy is uplifting, nurturing, and inspiring.

Catabolic energy is draining, exhausting, and contracting.

A few key points to bear in mind:

  • No one is exclusively anabolic or catabolic; energy is a continuum, and we all possess energy across the whole range.
  • The seven levels of Energy Leadership progress from the lowest, most catabolic state to the highest, most anabolic state.
  • Everyone has the capacity to experience all seven levels.
  • Although there may be levels that we spend more time in than others, we fluctuate from level to level throughout the day.

The energy we bring to our professional and personal interactions with others can be either anabolic or catabolic; it can build or strengthen relationships and make them last, or it can tear them down.

Energy entrains.

In 1666, Christiaan Huygens—a Dutch physicist and the inventor of the pendulum clock—noticed that the pendulums of clocks left together in the same room over a period of days eventually synchronized with each other. Intrigued, he set up successful experiments to reproduce the phenomenon, which today is known as entrainment. In the coaching world, entrainment is applied not to swinging pendulums or oscillations, but to our energy: Energy entrains. This means that over time, the energy we bring to our situations and relationships influences those around us so that they begin to either move up to our higher level of energy or, in some cases, are brought down to our lower level of energy.

Now, with these specific definitions of energy and leadership, the continuum of energy from the draining catabolic to the uplifting anabolic, and the concept of entrainment in mind, let’s discuss the seven levels of Energy Leadership in more depth.

The Seven Levels

Level 1: The Victim

In Level 1 Victim Energy, we feel powerless, isolated, and alone. Leadership involves movement, and in Level 1, we don’t feel like we can move anywhere. We don’t see any possibilities or opportunities. Things are happening to us, externally, and we lack the power to influence them in any way.

Victim is a strong word, and our initial reaction to the term might be to say, “That doesn’t apply to me.” But if you’ve said any of the following things (hint: we all have), then you’ve experienced the helplessness of victim energy:

  • “There’s nothing I can do to move this forward. I’m waiting on [this person, that department, funding, approval, etc.].”
  • “I can’t approve your request; I don’t have the authority.”
  • “The customer is king.”

We may not be a “victim,” in the classic sense, of a crime, disaster, or illness, but we’ve all experienced the powerlessness and lack of movement inherent in victim energy.

Level 2: The Fighter

In Level 2 Fighter Energy, we’re often justifying ourselves (perhaps in the form of an argument) or pushing a project or task to completion through resistance. Fighter energy is typically related to a desire to be in control of a situation or to prove “I’m right, you’re wrong.” When a boss or higher-up says we did something incorrectly, our immediate response might be to defend our actions, credibility, or work. This can be useful, but not for long; defending exhausts us and tends to result in others fighting back.

Victim and Fighter: A Default Response to Stress

Confront or retreat, fight or flight—victim and fighter energy are the classic reactions to a threat (usually a mental threat) or stress. Each level of energy, even if it’s on the catabolic end of the spectrum, has value. While victim and fighter energy are not particularly productive—they can each serve some purpose:

  • A retreat to Level 1 can offer some protection from a situation in which we believe we’re under attack. The question is: How long do you want to remain shut down, where nothing moves forward?
  • When we react to a comment, situation, or challenge with the desire to dig in and fight or defend, that’s often a signal that something is important to us, and that’s good to notice. The question here is: Is there a more productive response to the situation that won’t destroy the relationship and will keep things moving forward?

Level 3: The Rationalizer

In Level 3 Rationalizer Energy, we view others in a very logical, analytical, way. If they are contributing to our goals, good. If they aren’t, we tolerate them, perhaps by ignoring them or rationalizing their behavior. We may even manipulate others in order to achieve our objective. The focus is me and the accomplishment of my goals. In Level 3, we take responsibility for getting our job done, but we’re not looking out for anyone else in the process.

Level 3 energy is significantly more anabolic than Levels 1 and 2. People in Level 3 -Rationalizer Energy are task-oriented, moving forward by methodically making plans and taking action. Because we’re conditioned by our educational system to take a rational, fix-what’s-broken approach to problem solving, it’s not surprising that Level 3 is the default state for many people. Rationalizer Energy can be useful in many business settings, because most companies evaluate operational performance with metrics and numbers.

Level 4: The Caregiver

As we move from Level 3 to Level 4, consideration for others enters the picture for the first time. Level 4 Caregiver Energy feels good—to have compassion for, nurture, and care for others can be very satisfying. This energy is strong with many people, especially in their roles as sales people, bosses, team leaders, parents, or teachers.

Caregiver Energy, though mostly anabolic, can have a catabolic element to it, usually manifested in one of two ways:

1. Wanting to be needed:

Many times, new managers want to be needed by their team. They may repeatedly jump in and rescue someone who’s struggling; often they do so to save time, making things easier both for themselves and their people. But they may also create an unspoken belief that an associate (or their people, generally) is not able to do the work on his own. This may result in a codependent relationship that thwarts the associate’s growth and development.

On the personal side, my son didn’t learn to walk until he was 19 months old, well beyond the average age for first steps. The reason? I wanted to make things easy for him (and, to be honest, to make things easy for me)—so I carried him everywhere. As a result, he didn’t have much opportunity to practice walking. I created a codependent situation that delayed the development of his motor skills and resulted in physical therapy for years.

2. Having expectations:

Rather than being motivated by the pure joy of serving, our care for others might be given with the expectation of being liked or receiving something in return. This might be as simple as expecting to be thanked.

Even if we avoid these catabolic pitfalls, spending too much time in Level 4 may leave us feeling burned out. We may give and give in our care for others without taking the time to nurture ourselves so that we can be at our best. We also might end up feeling like we haven’t gotten anything done; we’ve moved others forward, but we haven’t gone anywhere ourselves. When we continuously put others first and neglect ourselves, resentment can build and we may find ourselves dropping into Level 2 Fighter energy.

Rationalizer and Caregiver: A Default Normal

For many people, Levels 3 and 4 are a default normal, the levels where they spend most of their time. They’re not mired in helpless inaction (Level 1) or engaged in constant conflict (Level 2); in Level 3 they’re moving themselves along, and in Level 4 they’re moving others along. But because there can be a catabolic element to these levels, it’s not unusual for burnout or overwhelm to drop them down into Levels 1 and 2.

As we’ll see, Level 5 True Partner Energy is usually a better alternative to Level 3 Rationalizer Energy, and Level 4 Caregiver Energy is best used judiciously for a limited amount of time. It’s good to help others, especially new team members that aren’t up to speed on how the company operates or who still need to learn additional skills. But be careful—are you helping where you’re needed, or is your “help” preventing your team from learning and practicing the new skills that they ought to be developing on their own—just like I delayed my son’s walking? At the right time, an effective manager will pull out of Level 4 Caregiver Energy and shift to Level 5 True Partner energy, perhaps saying something like this: “I can see that you have the skills that you need, and I’m confident that you can take it from here.”

(For more examples of the dynamics of Levels 3 and 4, listen to the podcast, The Rationalizer & the Caregiver.)

Level 5: The True Partner

In Level 5 True Partner Energy, trust is built as we work with others toward common goals. This can be true even in a boss-employee relationship; as true partners, each party recognizes the benefit of the mutually agreed-upon action not only for themselves, but also for the other, and each is equally satisfied with the result. The employee isn’t acting merely to please the boss, and the boss isn’t settling for something less than what they want; both parties truly benefit. True partnership means a true win-win, where both sides see the positive result for the other and are genuinely happy about it.

Because of the catabolic elements in Levels 1 through 4, their usefulness is limited; it is not productive, effective, or pleasant to be in any one of them long-term. The result will be burnout, frustration, a lack of progress, or perhaps all of the above.

In my coaching practice, I encourage my clients to aim to spend most of their time in Level 5 True Partner Energy, not only at work, but also in their personal relationships—marriages, parent-child interactions, friendships, and so on.

Level 6: The Visionary

In Level 6 Visionary Energy, we’re strategic and intuitive. We might have a gut feeling about a decision or a direction that we should take, like what market to get into or what product to sell. We’re tapping into our inner wisdom and high-level creativity to see a bigger picture than the specific challenge in the moment. While the Level 5 True Partner joins with others to work out a win-win for a given project or in a particular situation, the Level 6 Visionary sees ideas and synergies that benefit the whole team, the whole company, the consumer—and perhaps even the entire community, nation, and beyond. Level 6 is powerful, purposeful energy that feels vibrant, light, and connected.

Level 7: The Creator

In Level 7 Creator Energy, we’re in the realm of unconditional love and complete non-judgment; it is being in flow, where it feels like time stands still. Everything is perfect; things are as they should be. This may be hard to comprehend because of the society that surrounds us, full of criticism and strife, but we all possess this level of energy. It’s not something that we need to go out and get; we only need to allow our minds to clear in order for it to surface. I tell my clients that Level 7 is like allowing a fine wine to breathe. Level 7 is suppressed when we allow our judgments, our sense of competition, or our self-doubts to take up the space in the moment. But when we strip away our beliefs that this or that should be different—when we, in essence, dance with how things are—we can touch the pure bliss of Level 7.

Level 7 Creator Energy invigorates us. We break through human boundaries and develop innovative products, methods, systems, and services to make a difference. There is a feeling of freedom, a feeling that things make sense; decisions aren’t difficult because things move and flow naturally. There’s no comparison, and no competition. It’s a state of being where you can create anything because there are no limiting factors. It’s where fresh new ideas abound.

We recognize, at times, when others have experienced their Creator Energy. For instance, we might hear from a musician, “The song just came to me.” In other words, they didn’t work to write it; it flowed out from somewhere, like a download from the universe. Some technological innovations, like the Apple products developed by Steve Jobs, are also the outflow of spending time in Level 7.

Most of us are not musicians or inventors, but the Creator Energy of Level 7 is still available to us all. Perhaps we touch Level 7 energy to create a new conversation that connects us more genuinely with someone. Nothing big; simply powerful.

When you’re sitting across the table from a customer, associate, boss, colleague, spouse, child, friend—what type of energy do you want to bring to the conversation? How do you want to lead the interaction? By being inspiring, creative, uplifting, and connected? Or by being judgmental, defensive, and pushy?

Now let’s talk about how to manage your own energy level to move into productive, enjoyable, powerful engagement with others.

Application: Using the Energy Levels

The principles of Energy Leadership apply fully to both private, personal life and to the professional realm. Applying the energy levels is conceptually simple, but our success in applying them grows with practice. There are three basic components:

1. Be aware.

The first thing Energy Leadership does is to make us aware of how we show up for the different roles in our life—as a parent or child, as a boss or employee, as a friend or a coworker. Without the consciousness developed by knowing the 7 Levels, we might wallow in victimhood (Level 1) or engage in protracted battles (Level 2) without any thought of how our energy is affecting those around us. Simply ask yourself in the moment, “Is the energy I’m bringing to this interaction anabolic or catabolic? Is it strengthening the connection between us or breaking it down?

2. Recognize where you are.

As our awareness of our energy grows, we learn to recognize where we are on the continuum of the energy levels. This can be trickier than it sounds, and it’s an area in which a good coach or supportive peer can be an invaluable aid. We fluctuate between different levels based on how we’re thinking about the situation we’re in. We may have thoughts or beliefs stemming from our personal experience that bias our perceptions and keep us in the catabolic range. Challenging those beliefs, questioning how true they are at this time, today, is a great way to loosen the grip of catabolic energy.

(To learn more about these types of filters and obstacles to being your best, listen to the podcast episodes, Four Barriers to Optimal Performance and External Barriers to Optimal Performance.)

3. Choose where you want to be.

Once we’ve recognized where we are, we can slow down, consider the situation, and consciously choose the level that’s the most productive or useful for the situation we’re in. Sometimes this is an in-the-moment action, and sometimes it takes a bit longer.

We’ve all heard the flight attendants on board an aircraft instructing parents that, in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, they should put their own oxygen masks on before attempting to help their children. We have to remember to take care of ourselves first; then—as we’re hanging out in the higher energy levels—we’ll have the ability to help others with their energy, to bring them up to more productive levels. It feels better for everyone to be in a more productive space. It just makes sense.

With practice, everyone can become aware of the energy at play in their interactions with others, learn to recognize what level of energy they’re in, and develop the skills that allow them to shift quickly into higher, more creative and empowering levels of energy.

This is great news! We no longer need to complain about the changing world around us and hope that someone or something outside of us will change. It’s my responsibility to manage and shift my energy, not anyone else’s. Each of us can be personally accountable for how we show up in any interaction with anyone at any time. That, my friends, is freedom!