Most businesses get started because someone has a great idea and leverages their own knowledge and passion to lay the groundwork for success. They bring in mentors and hire talented people so they can hit the ground running. Yet they still fail.

So what happens? More often than not, these failed startups can trace their problems back to the same source: a founder who failed to learn and improve as a leader.

You may have plenty of industry knowledge and unique insights when you first start your company, but this isn't enough to create a lasting, successful brand. As you make improving your leadership skills a priority, you'll be in a better position to generate desired results for your company, ensuring that your entire team can achieve their full potential.

Here are four distinct "levels" of leadership that all founders must go through if they wish to get the most out of their employees and strengthen their chances for long-term success.

Level 1: Focusing on yourself.

No one wants to work for a boss that isn't self-aware. Mike Erwin, author of Lead Yourself First came on the Follow My Lead Podcast and we discussed how suggestions become orders and body language becomes culture. At the end of the day, people watch and focus on the leader.

No one knows this better than Dharmesh Shah, founder and CTO of Hubspot.  He explained in a LinkedIn blog a few years ago, "The best way to earn respect, to earn trust, and to earn the right to lead others is to lead not by word but by example. When I know you truly believe what you say - because your actions support what you say--then I will start to trust you. Then I will start to respect you. Then I will truly start to follow you."

Because of this, the first "level" of leadership isn't really focused on directing others at all. Instead, it's all about holding yourself personally accountable for your actions, habits, and behaviors so that you will set an example others will respect and follow.

Level 2: Building better relationships.

After focusing on improving yourself, the next step is to cultivate authentic, meaningful relationships with your employees. The best leaders don't just care about getting results (though this is certainly important as well). They legitimately care about the well-being of their employees, and seek to bring out the best version in each person with the foundation of having a strong relationship with them.

The amount of time leaders at this level spend getting to know their team members is one of the best indicators of their progress. In a recent interview for the upcoming Welder Leader book, Maria Weist told me, she spends as much as 25%-30% of her time building relationships with team members. 

Building better relationships doesn't mean you need to become best friends with each of your employees, but it does require that you get to know them as individuals. By demonstrating an interest in their well-being and serving as a positive, supportive mentor rather than a harsh dictator, you will build trust and influence that will help them produce their best effort.

Level 3: Creating a dynamic culture.

Your dedication to your own work and your interactions with your employees should naturally blossom into the creation of a distinctive company culture.

As Ankur Srivastava, CEO and co-founder of Swarmsales explained, "In an increasingly specialized, competitive business landscape, companies need to differentiate themselves and find their place in the market in order to survive and succeed." This doesn't just apply to differentiating yourself to clients -- it also means you must differentiate yourself as a leader.

In my experiences, I've found that the most authentic company cultures stem directly from the attitude and values of their leaders. By focusing on your unique values and mission, you'll be able to attract and retain like-minded individuals who are willing to follow your lead. In fact, research has found that companies that describe themselves as "mission-driven" improve retention by 40 percent.

Level 4: Developing new leaders.

Finally, the best leaders aren't content to merely motivate their employees. Instead, they have a genuine desire to develop the leaders of tomorrow. They want to help current team members become legitimate leaders who can make a difference both in their current company and the world at large.

When you build a team full of leaders, you'll have even more people actively working to improve their own efforts and the performance of everyone in the company. You'll have more people striving to strengthen relationships and increase company loyalty.

Developing new leaders within your company is a process that will ultimately keep on giving. You will create lasting relationships, and people will stick with your company because you have created a powerful and uplifting culture. Best of all, your new leaders will continue to develop other leaders, further increasing their contributions to your business. By getting the best out of everyone on your team, your company will make it through the long haul.

Leadership is a journey, not a destination. By being intentional in your development as a leader you drastically improve your companies odds of being successful not just for the short term but most importantly for the long term.  Are you ready to take your leadership to the next level?

Published on: Jan 29, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.