John Maxwell’s “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” is a book that I have found quite helpful in measuring my own personal growth in leadership abilities, as well as in finding the areas where I struggle or need to grow. The premise of this book is not to say there are only 21 principles concerning leadership. That idea is clearly false, proven by the number of leadership books, articles, blogs, and podcasts available today. Rather, accord to Maxwell, there are 21 “laws” to leadership that are universally true no matter where one may lead in any culture or area of society. (Note: Sociologists generally agree that there are 7 “areas of society” which are business, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, the family, and entertainment.)
Since each chapter of this book discusses one of the leadership laws, it will be most beneficial for this book review, to walk through theses laws one at a time. Taking into account the sheer number of principles to discuss, this summary will be presented in three parts. Laws 1 through 7 are presented here; be sure to watch for the next two parts.
LAW #1 – THE LAW OF THE LID
Maxwell defines the Law of the Lid by saying “leadership ability is the lid that determines a person’s level of effectiveness. The lower an individual’s ability to lead, the lower the lid on his potential.” This idea is troubling for some people because it means that no matter how much you desire to be a 10 on the scale of leadership, there is a cap to your abilities based on a number of factors. Some of these factors are your people skills, planning abilities, vision, dedication to success, and your past results.
The truth is, there are very few 10’s in the world; however, when you leverage the law of the lid and assess your own leadership, then you will have a straightforward view of who your followers are, where they might land on the leadership scale, and areas in which you can grow in to raise your leadership lid. The reality is that if you are a 7 on the leadership scale, in most cases you won’t be able to lead someone who is an 8, 9, or 10. Yet your skills can still offer invaluable leadership to people who are at a level of a 5 or 6.
The good news is, the law of the lid has room for flexibility. It is unwise to think that where you are today as a leader is as good as you will ever be. Every leader can grow, but it takes a dedication to do so and a willingness to work for it.
LAW #2 THE LAW OF INFLUENCE
Maxwell’s definition for the Law of Influence is that “the true measure of leadership is influence nothing more, nothing less.” This, of course, is one of John Maxwell’s most famous quotes heard around the world (and world-wide web). It’s a great quote, but how often do you take time to ask yourself the big question: who are you influencing?
Maybe a bigger question for us to ask is, what type of influence are we offering those who follow us? Insecure leaders often influence people in such a way that it keeps others down in order to protect their own position of leadership in the group. This is a shame. The best leaders leaders realize that leadership is always about raising people up to their highest potential, even if it means they one day become better leaders than themselves.
Leadership is not determined by having a title. It doesn’t matter if you are CEO, Pastor, Director, Manager, or Man of the House, you are not a leader if people do not follow your lead. Maxwell says, “True leadership cannot be awarded, appointed, or assigned. It comes only from influence, and that cannot be mandated. It must be earned.” He goes on to say, “When it comes to identifying a real leader… don’t listen to the claims of the person professing to be the leader. Don’t examine his credentials. Don’t check his title. Check his influence. The proof of leadership is found in the followers.” He ends the chapter with a famous leadership proverb, “He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk.”
LAW #3 – THE LAW OF PROCESS
The subtitle for this chapter is, “Leadership Develops Daily, Not in a Day.” This means that you can tell where a person will end up by watching their daily habits and priorities. It means that as a leader, we must have a personal plan for growth. Maxwell writes, “What can you see when you look at a person’s daily agenda? Priorities, passion, abilities, relationships, attitude, personal disciplines, vision, and influence” All of those things contribute to the destination you will arrive at later on in your journey of life. Therefore, it doesn’t matter at all where you hope to end up, if you do not first determine which road you ought to be traveling on to get there.
The law of process also comes into play as we set out to lead others. Maxwell says, “Just as you need a growth plan to improve, so do those who work for you.” This means that as we lead others, we have to set them on a course for success as well.
LAW #4 – THE LAW OF NAVIGATION
This law follows closely after the law of process. Once you have determined the process to get where you are going personally, the next step is being able to navigate your business or organization through the challenges and obstacles to reach to success. Maxwell quotes Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, as saying, “A good leader remains focused… Controlling your direction is better than being controlled by it.”
The Law of Navigation is where leadership differentiates itself from other voices wanting to be heard. Leaders look back at past experiences, prior successes, and hurtful failures. They learn from those things and then look ahead to see where conflict and challenge may arise. With all of these in mind, leaders will preemptively respond according to those challenges as they move forward toward the goal. This is more than vision-casting. This is determining what it will take to fulfill the vision. Maxwell says it this way: “Anyone can steer the ship, but it takes a leader to chart the course.”
LAW #5 – THE LAW OF ADDITION
The Law of Addition law simply says, “leaders add value by serving others.” Maxwell says that we add value to others when we truly value them and intentionally make ourselves valuable to them. He says, “90 percent of all people who add value to others do so intentionally.” The most helpful way we do this is to actually get to know the people we are leading, find out their priorities, goals, hopes, and dreams, and then figure out what we can do to assist them in getting where they need to go. Maxwell says, “Inexperienced leaders are quick to lead before knowing anything about the people they intend to lead. But mature leaders listen, learn, and then lead.”
LAW #6 – THE LAW OF SOLID GROUND
Maxwell defines The Law of Solid Ground by saying, “trust is the foundation of leadership” This is perhaps the greatest challenge leaders face in the 21st century, especially those of us expressly leading as Christians with the Kingdom of God in mind. Too many people are disillusioned with leaders because it has been too-often abused by self-serving leaders. This is especially true of politicians and television preachers. Trust, then, is the most important element in leadership. If you do not have trust, you have nothing to offer.
Maxwell says that we build trust “by consistently exemplifying competence, connection, and character,” and that we must “treat trust as our most precious asset.” He later writes, “How do leaders earn respect? By making sound decisions, by admitting their mistakes, and by putting what’s best for their followers and the organization ahead of their personal agendas.” This is because, “no leader can break trust with his people and expect to keep influencing them,” and, as we already know, “leadership is influence, nothing more.”
LAW #7 – THE LAW OF RESPECT
Similar to the high necessity of trust, is the necessity of respect. The Law of Respect reminds us that “people naturally follow leaders stronger than themselves.” Maxwell says, “One of the greatest potential pitfalls for natural leaders is relying on talent alone… good leaders rely on respect. They understand that all leadership is voluntary.” He says that “when people respect you as a person, they admire you. When they respect you as a friend, they love you. When they respect you as a leader, they follow you.” The opposite is true as well. As soon as people lose respect for you, your influence over them will disappear.