5 Levels Of Living

An Old But True Story on the Wall

One day, a king who had it all was confronted in the midst of a serious party he had thrown for his posse. His face turned white as wool when he beheld a disruptive sight: a dismembered hand had suddenly appeared and was writing on the wall pronouncing judgment on him  (where the proverbial ‘the writing is on the wall’ comes from). He was wealthy, powerful and had connections but here he stood condemned under a gibberish clause. A later translation of the writing on the wall by a wise man revealed the following prophetic words: “You have been weighed and found wanting—you don’t weigh much.” Wow. Even a sovereign has a Sovereign who weighs everyone’s soul.

If the emperor’s wealth did not give him enough weight and his power was inadequate to exonerate him, there must be some things in life weightier and more powerful than others. And who determines the weights—ourselves, society, a sovereign? If there are levels of living I want to know. 


A New and True CEO on the Block

A couple of weeks ago, I became friends with a CEO in Ghana l had never met before. In fact, the only reason l went looking for her was because the John Maxwell certified leaders in the country were seeking other significant leaders to speak at an annual John Maxwell simulcast in October, Live2Lead, and her name had come up from my Chief of Staff. We hit it off! Of course she is a beautiful person, smart, wealthy (she’s got stuff) but what excited me about her the most, which I later realized upon reflection made us connect so deeply and authentically, is that she is a Level 5 leader, living on the 5th floor. 

l recognize that  ‘5 Levels’ or ‘Level 5’ is used in different business contexts for different things. I have trained for John Maxwell for many years and he has a course I teach known as ‘5 Levels of Leadership.’ The ultimate leader operates at Level 5, where one’s influence is purely from respect of who you are and what you represent. Jim Collins, professor and author of ‘Good to Great’, also talks about the Level 5 leader as the executive who’s built enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility and professional will. I am also using 5 Levels and Level 5 for different purpose. l have found that there are 5 levels of living:

  1. Living for Stuff 
  2. Living for Self 
  3. Living for Society 
  4. Living for Standards 
  5. Living for Soul’s Sovereign



There are people who unapologetically live for stuff. They are the ones who say things like, “he who dies with the most toys (stuff) wins.”

By ‘stuff’ I mean tangible, living and non-living things, from those that meet our physiological needs (as outlined by Maslow like air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing and sex) to others beyond survival needs including big toys like luxury vehicles, bling, real estate. Be careful about the deceitfulness of stuff, especially of wealth.

People who live at this level would use and abuse themselves, others, ideals and due process and even God to get stuff. “Is life not worth more than what you will eat and drink?…” the greatest teacher there ever lived once rhetorically inquired. “Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”



Elsewhere this greatest of gurus tells a story that illustrates both Level 1 and Level 2 living well: 

There was once a rich man who had a bumper harvest. He was so thrilled, drew up warehouse expansion plans and said to his soul, “Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Eat. Drink. Be Merry. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’“ Just then his soul’s Sovereign, God, showed up and said, “Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?”

So by Level 2, one has realized we eat to live and not live to eat. Although better than living for stuff, the Level 2 chap is living for a person, themself: me, myself, mine and I. While living for self may range from personal safety and health needs to employment (to put food on the table and change in the pocket), it really is a level of living where everything is about how anything and everything only promotes one’s personal well-being (physical, mental, emotional, social, spiritual) and ambitions. One gets even into social stuff only to the extent that it benefits oneself. This is self-help to the max. A scarcity mindset is abundant at this level of living.

Many leaders are unable to distinguish between self-care and selfish behaviour. Self-care is vitally important to be able to flourish and sustainably climb further up the ladder of life to higher heights, yet it is a life of not only personal success but also societal significance. If all the self-care is an end in itself then it has ended up as selfish. The object and subject in life at Level 2 is me, myself, mine and I. The Level 2 life is selfish living.



This is living for the sake of others, people—the common good.  It is living beyond me, myself, mine and I to considering the other—thou, they, them, thine. The greatest teacher who ever lived once said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down their life for their friend.” Even though this is an upgrade from living for one person (yourself) to several others, this is not always a healthy thing (we’ll save that for another day)..

Level 3 living begins a life of love beyond self to love as in belonging—friendship, intimacy, family, sense of connection—all the way to the esteem society bestows in the form of respect, status and recognition.

It is not an easy thing not to be selfish (Level 2), for even in apparently living at Level 3 people can use people—the very apparent act of living for society—still for their selfish ends in Level 2.



When Nelson Mandela faced trial for treason in April 1964, the words of his three-hour speech from the defendant’s dock epitomize the penultimate level of living: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Rather than life being about a living standard as an economic matter (a combination of wealth and services in Level 1), this Level 4 life is about living for standards, as in ideals, values and principles.

These standards and ideals are intangible values (unlike Level 1 where one values physical things) and even timeless, universal laws. These may include strength, freedom, and self-actualization (desire to become the most that one can be).

This is sagacious living, a life of enlightenment, like being a values-based leader and gunning for “the good society.”

It is portrayed as the discerning life of discerning people, living in rarefied air. This is the life many elites are envisaged to be living until scandals break out and we see through the charade that they were far lower on the rungs in reality.



I love Africa and have been so sick and tired of people thinking unless they traveled to the West they cannot make it. Despite the many opportunities to live, work or even study abroad, my Canadian-born wife and I turned a blind eye, resolutely living at Level 4 until one day our souls’ Sovereign called us up and sent us out with the following instructions: “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to a land I will show you.” And so we did. First to Cote d’Ivoire for a year and then to Canada for the next dozen. And like William Borden, we too have had “No Reserves. No Retreats. No Regrets.”

Obedience to God is the highest level of living. Sometimes in living for the soul’s Sovereign one may still acquire stuff (Level 1), satisfy oneself (Level 2) or even please others (Level 3) and live out some cool values (Level 3) but make no mistake. Often, the only way to satisfy the soul’s Sovereign is to deny oneself, sacrifice the things of this world and eschew the applause of people.

Indeed, “What do you do when two high ideals clash?” is a Level 4 dilemma and that evaporates at Level 5 because what the soul’s Sovereign desires, dictates or even demands is what goes. No, religion per se is Level 4–a set of beliefs and values one lives by; even one’s notion of ‘God.’ Many Gen Zers say, “I am spiritual but not religious.” Even spirituality in itself would be Level 4 living. Level 5 living is having through one’s Level 4 spiritual quest discovered there is a sovereign One, the God of Heaven and all the earth, who has a good, pleasing and perfect purpose to be heeded.

Sure, there are many religions all claiming to have a corner on the Truth but I believe that anyone authentically seeking their soul’s Sovereign will eventually find Him (or be found by Him), when they seek with all their heart.


While one might find some correlation between my perceived 5 Levels of Living and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, this is more. My classification goes way beyond the popular psychologist’s work. In fact, his peaks at my penultimate point. As mentioned in my introduction, if there are levels of living I want to know. Not only do I want to know so I can measure how I’m doing, I would like to know that I’m living my best possible life. Just like all dollars are dollars but there are denominations—a $5 bill isn’t the same value as a $100 one, every weight is a weight but there are milligrams and kilograms (even tons)—so are there levels in life. Will you live your best life? Check your weight, assess your level, in the eyes of your soul’s Sovereign. He still writes on walls.


Post Script

In the next blog, I’ll share what life on Level 5 looks like (in my coaching of several C-level executives I’ve found myself having to be a pastor in the marketplace. Even the best leaders need help to nurture their souls; denying it doesn’t take the reality away or render the need untrue).

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