The Five Cups of Leadership

By Stephen T. Messenger

May 18, 2021

I often ask myself, “How full is my cup of leadership?” Some days I have lots to give, and others I find myself running low. I know that I owe it to those I lead to keep my cup not just full but running over and pouring into other people. Sometimes this is easy and sometimes this is hard. All leaders have the ability to pour into others, but many operate with a cup that never spills over.  I call this the Five Cups of Leadership. [i]

You have to decide what kind of leader you want to be. Each of us have the ability to make a difference by pouring into others and allowing others to pour into us. Imagine you have a cup full of liquid representing the amount of leadership inside you at any given moment. You can control how much you let in; you can control how much you let out.  We all have differing levels at differing times, but generally settle into one of five categories.

1. The Empty Leader.

The first cup has nothing in it. This leader does not receive leadership from others nor has any to give. They don’t even want to be leading. It’s almost like they have no purpose in their job and regret that they’re in a leadership position in the first place. They have nothing to pour out and little desire to improve. No one is following them by choice.

2. The Minimum Standard Leader.

This leader has just a little bit of leadership in the bottom of their cup. They see their role as irrelevant and useless, but they get paid and so aren’t going away. They’ll do the minimum: show up on time… probably; solve problems as they arise… maybe; and listen to followers but apathetically follow-up. They are punching the clock and can’t wait to head home. These leaders have limited to no impact on others and their organizations, and they never pour out of their cup nor seek to fill it.

3. The Undecided Leader.

This cup is half full, and the leader is half-in and half-out of their role. They are undecided if they truly want to give it all. They think leadership is important… but also a lot of work. They’ll lead when it’s fun… but disappear when it’s hard. The undecided leader takes the credit… but passes off the work. They care… but not enough to realize their full potential, and they’re content with that. They will allow others to pour into them but won’t actively seek improvement. They will be okay, but never great. It’s hard to follow these people because they are never fully committed to either individual or team growth.  

4. The Spotlight Leader.

This cup is filled to the very top, which is good, but also bad. The Spotlight leader is seeking the glory for themselves and fill their cup at all costs. They must get promoted. They need to outshine their peers. They are the best leader in their organization and aren’t afraid to tell you about it. They unnecessarily hang out with the boss and seek greater influence—more money, more followers, more power. It is all about them. But if it’s about one person, no one wants to follow. Everyone knows the spotlight leader is in it for themselves and understands there is really no difference between them and the previous three leaders. Nothing is spilling out of their cup.

These four types of leaders are in every organization. Now I realize, people have many different levels in their cup at many different times. I personally know that I can have a bad day and be an empty leader. I sometimes get wrapped around a promotion opportunity and make it more about me than about the team. Even at home leading my family, I can listen to my son talk about his day while my mind is wandering thinking about other things. We are all human.

But ultimately, I want to be the fifth cup.

5. The Maximum Standard Leader.

This cup is not just full but overflowing. This leader is filled with purpose to serve others, and they are the leader of the overflow. Everything they do is about building others and creating more potential for the team, the organization, their peers, boss, family, and friends.  They are the leader that pours into others and makes them better. Their eye is on the future.

Maximum Standard Leaders do this through filling their cup first. Other leaders pour into them, and they are receptive. They seek self-development through reading, writing, mentorship, reflection, and recovery time, then spill into other people. They find others to receive and provide purpose, direction, and motivation. They spill into those who are performing well and those that aren’t. They approach broken people, those hurting with depression, and ones struggling at home and see how to help. They impact lives, stay in touch with others over years, and continuously mentor, coach, and teach.

I want to lead that way.  I want to punch above my weight class and exceed my potential while pulling others along. The Maximum Standard Leader is not in it for themselves. They are in it to generate team wins, build future leaders, and set conditions for habitual, future success.

If you are not pouring into other people, you are not leading. I challenge you – let others fill up your cup and spill into other people. True leaders seek to build a network of others and continuously pour into them to grow the future.

A leader’s cup runs over!


i. This narrative was adapted from Pastor Dino Rizzo.  He preached on, not leadership, but us choosing who we want to be based on the amount of God we allow poured into our cup of life. Great message that I encourage you to watch.  Dino Rizzo. Church of the Highlands. August 23, 2020. My Cup Runs Over.

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