John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

by Ben on March 21, 2011

I’m fortunate to work in an environment where developing one’s leadership ability is not only supported, but is actively encouraged. During the course of a typical work day, it would not be unusual to find a business leadership or management book in the hands of any one of my coworkers during their lunch or coffee breaks.

My coworkers and I enjoy reading and discussing the various ideas and theories contained in each book and how we might apply them to our own situations; not only at work, but in our personal lives as well.

With my most recent book purchase from Amazon, the 10th Anniversary Edition of John Maxwell’s The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You, I was looking forward to continuing this tradition.

The 10th Anniversary Edition is an updated and refined version of John Maxwell’s original “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” and includes additional material Maxwell has developed over the last 10 years as a world class conference and event speaker on the subject of leadership.

I remember the distinctive words of one of my coworkers when he saw my new book sitting on the coffee table in my office: “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” he exclaimed, “I would have a hard time remembering three rules, let alone twenty one!”

I was skeptical as well, but as I began reading Maxwell’s book and working my way through the “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” I was surprised at how well the book flowed.

Maxwell asserts in his third law “The Law of Process” that “Becoming a leader is a lot like investing in the stock market. If your hope is to make a fortune in a day, you’re not going to be successful”. Understanding the Law of Process will allow you to fully appreciate the scope of John Maxwell’s book.

Although most people are not born leaders, we all have the capacity to improve our leadership abilities. If we continually invest in our leadership development, letting our “assets” compound, the inevitable result is growth over time.

Maxwell is a champion of continual growth and his “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” is a collection of what is has identified as absolute qualities of effective leaders.

By breaking down the individual qualities (laws) in the 10th Anniversary Edition of “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”, Maxwell encourages readers to assess their own leadership strengths and weaknesses.

He acknowledges that some Laws are easier to grasp than others and he provides excellent real world examples of how effective leaders have effectively used the 21 Laws in their own work.

The book is significant in that it provides readers a quick reference to improvement areas in their own leadership qualities, and for that, the book is a valuable addition to any manager’s library.

Here is a brief overview of John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and how they can help you become a more effective and influential leader.

John Maxwell’s The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership:

The Law of the Lid:

Leadership Ability Determines a Person’s Level of Effectiveness

You may have the greatest business idea in the world, but if you do not possess the leadership skills to organize a team and move your idea forward, the potential of your idea will always be limited.

To illustrate this law, John Maxwell tells the story of Dick and Maurice McDonald. Two brothers who developed a revolutionary process that would later become the foundation of the fast food industry we often take for granted today. Although the McDonald brothers had an exceptional business plan, their lack of leadership put a “lid” on their ability to succeed.

It wasn’t until a proven business leader (Ray Kroc) partnered with the McDonald brothers, that the fast food chain “McDonalds grew to the American institution and global entity we know it as today.

The Law of Influence:

The True Measure of Leadership is Influence-Nothing More, Nothing Less

Maxwell explains the correlation of influence and leadership. If you lack the ability to influence others, it is nearly impossible to lead.

The Law of Process:

Leadership Develops Daily, Not in a Day

Becoming an effective leader does not happen over night. It takes years of study and practice to develop one’s leadership abilities to a high level. While some of Maxwell’s laws are easier to grasp than others, the good news is that in time they can all be effectively mastered.

The Law of Navigation:

Any One Can Steer a Ship, but It Takes a Leader to Chart the Course

Knowing where you are going is not nearly as important as knowing why and how you are getting there. The Law of Navigation is of particular relevance to me as the captain of a large ocean going ship.

On most large ocean going vessels, neither the captain nor a licensed officer actually “drives” the ship. The task of keeping the ship on course is generally delegated to one of the seaman who follows orders from whoever is conning (in charge of) the vessel at the time. It is responsibility of the captain that the course the seaman follows is the safest, and most efficient possible.

Although most people do not recognize it, most businesses are run in the same manner. Corporate executives create policies and expectations (the course) and their subordinates are expected to follow these expectations.

Maxwell professes that he is not the best “navigator”, and he shares an acrostic he has used throughout his career when planning important operations:

Predetermine a course of action.
Lay out your goals.
Adjust your priorities.
Notify key personnel.
Allow time for acceptance.
Head into action.
Expect Problems.
Always point to the success.
Daily review of your plan.

The Law of Addition:

Leaders Add Value by Serving Others

In the Law of Addition, Maxwell argues that great leaders nurture other great leaders below them. He explains the selfless leadership qualities of Costco CEO Jim Sinegal and how his employee first mentality has built his company into a leading national retailer with a highly motivated (and loyal) workforce.

The Law of Solid Ground:

Trust Is the Foundation of Leadership

Maxwell believes that trust is the most important aspect of a leader. “It is the glue that holds organizations together”.

In order to build trust Maxwell encourages leaders to consistently exemplify competence, connection, and character. If you’re followers see you ability to lead varies from day to day, they will begin to loose faith in you as a leader.

The Law of Respect:

People Naturally Follow Leaders Stronger Than Themselves

This was one of the more enlightening chapters for me. In it, Maxwell explains how people of varying leadership abilities interact with one another. When a group first comes together, the leaders within in the group naturally take off in their own direction they feel the group should go. As the group continues to interact, the leaders (and most of the followers) begin following the strongest leader within the group.

In this chapter, Maxwell shares the top six ways that leaders gain others’ respect from his own observations and personal experiences.

Natural Leadership Ability: Although we can all improve our leadership skills, some people are more gifted than others.

Respect for Others: People will follow you because they want to, not because the have to. Autocratic leaders rule people with fear, the goal of an effective leader based on respect.

Courage: People will respect a leader who is not afraid to take calculated risks in order to advance the team.

Success: If people see you achieving success in your goals, they will be more inclined to follow you as a leader.

Loyalty: Followers want leaders to be loyal to them. Followers hold leaders accountable to see that they have the resources and expectations to see a task through to completion. If you drop the ball on your followers, they will lose respect in you as a leader.

Value Added to Others: Elevating followers around you will earn you more respect as a leader than constantly pushing people down or holding them back. People will respect you and support you if they know you have their best interests in mind.

Maxwell also shares Harriet Tubman’s story of leadership and how she came from very humble origins to play an integral part in the formation of the Underground Railroad.

The Law of Intuition:

Leaders Evaluate Everything with a Leadership Bias

In the Law of Intuition, Maxwell claims that everybody is intuitive, but not all people are intuitive in the area of leadership. Generally speaking, people are intuitive in their area of expertise. As you continue in your growth as a leader, so to will your leadership intuition. “Natural ability and learned skills create an informed intuition that makes leadership issues jump out at leaders.”

The Law of Magnetism:

Who You Are Is Who You Attract

In the Law of Magnetism, Maxwell explains how we attract followers similar to ourselves. These similarities span several key areas:

Generation: We can not control our age, but as we advance through our professional and social lives, we often surround ourselves with peers of the same general age.

Attitude: If you’re an optimistic and happy individual, chances are you will attract followers with a similar outlook on life. On the other hand, if you are always worried about what the day will bring expect the followers you attract to be equally disheartened.

Background: If you where raised in a hard working blue collar neighborhood, chances are you will attract followers from a similar background.

Values: What are you values? How important is family, religion, politics, etc. in your life? In all likelihood, the individuals that seek you out as a leader will share similar values.

What does this mean to you as a leader? Maxwell states that if you find the people you attract to be unreliable and untrustworthy, then examine your own character and see if there are any shortcomings.

The Law of Connection:

Leaders Touch a Heart Before They Ask for a Hand

In what I consider one of his most poignant leadership examples in his book, Maxwell compares and contrast how President George W. Bush handled two distinct national tragedies.

In the case of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 President Bush made an immediate connection visiting “Ground Zero” and standing alongside firefighters and search and rescue workers as they looked for survivors. We all remember the iconic images of President Bush standing amid the wreckage with his arm around battered firefighter Bob Beckwith.

Ironically, nearly four years of leadership experience later, George W. Bush showed virtually no connection with the Gulf Coast States of Louisiana and Mississippi as they responded to the devastating effects of hurricane Katrina during August 31st, 2005.

In his second opportunity to implement the law of connection, President Bush failed miserably and his lack of leadership during the crisis greatly undermined the recovery efforts.

Maxwell summarizes the law saying “You can’t move people to action unless you first move them with emotion…The heart comes before the head”.

The Law of the Inner Circle:

A Leader’s Potential Is Determined by Those Closest to Him

No matter how great of a leader you may be, if you do not have an inner circle of family, friends, and/or associates, you will find it extremely difficult to reach your full potential as a leader. As leaders, we cannot do everything ourselves, we need to rely on other individuals who have expertise in certain areas to provide guidance and support.

Even the President of the United States has an Inner Circle. Although, he may have had only brief personal relationships with some of his cabinet members, each was chosen because of a particular skill set they possessed that would benefit the administration as a whole and help further the prosperity of the nation.

The Law of Empowerment:

Only Secure Leaders Give Power to Others

To fully develop as leader, you must establish the ability to trust others around you. Maxwell retells the story of the Ford Motor Company and Henry Ford. As talented an inventor and visionary as Ford was, his inability to trust and empower those below him severely limited the Ford Company’s ability to adapt to changing times.

Although he was pressured routinely to update the company’s aging Model T so that it was more competitive with those offered by other companies, Ford stubbornly refused. Had Ford been more nurturing with his engineering department, and empowered them to research new automobile technology, the company may have been able to retain the dominance it eventually lost in the automotive business.

Maxwell furthers his point by saying “to push people down, you have to go down with them”.

The Law of the Picture:

People Do What People See

Perhaps one of the most widely known of Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership is the Law of the Picture. Although most of us do not refer to it by this name, we all know the importance of leading by example.

If you take shortcuts around the right way to do things, those below you will do the same. You cannot say one thing and do another.

This is another law that I can directly relate to as a ship captain. If my crews here me saying something about a safety issue on board my ship, they may need a little extra encouragement to recognize the importance of my message. If they see me doing something about a safety issue on my ship, they generally don’t need any further encouragement. They are “on board” with my message!

The Law of Buy-In:

People Buy into the Leader, Then the Vision

According to Maxwell, most people do not follow a worthy cause until someone they look to as a leader promotes it. If you admire someone, you are more receptive to their vision. “The leader finds the dream and then the people”.

On the other hand, if you do not buy into your supervisor, you will have a hard time buying into his vision and moving forward as a result oriented team.

The Law of Victory:

Leaders Find a Way for the Team to Win

As leaders, we often find ourselves in management scenarios of varying complexity on any given day. So what separates victorious leaders from managers who cannot seem to consistently meet these daily challenges? Maxwell claims “victorious leaders share an unwillingness to accept defeat”.

Becoming a victorious leader means you must do everything within your power to see that the task is completed safely, and in a timely manner. As a leader you are responsible that your team has the resources and skill to complete a task safely, but as a victorious leader, you must hold yourself accountable for the results and avoid letting your team get sidetrack from safely reaching the goal.

Maxwell also identifies his three components of victory in this chapter.

Unity of Vision: Each team member needs to be on the same page in regards to the teams goals. If one team member is looking out for himself, and not the best interest of the team, the talents of individual team members will never be fully utilized by the group.

Diversity of Skill: The individual talents of a group’s team members need to be cherished. Every one of us bring a unique set of skills to the table, no one does everything well, and in most everyone does something better than the rest. As leaders, our job as leaders is to identify the unique skills of our subordinates and utilize them to the team’s advantage. This leads us into Maxwell’s third and final component of victory.

A Leader Dedicated to Victory and Raising Players to Their Potential: Maxwell drives this point home with a famous quote from legendary Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz:

“You’ve got to have great athletes to win, I don’t care who the coach is. You can’t win without good athletes, but you can lose with them. This is where coaching makes the difference”.

As a leader you must keep the collective talents of your team on a course for success.

The Law of the Big MO:

Momentum Is a Leader’s Best Friend

No matter how talented of a leader you are, it is hard to get people on board with your ideas, vision, or project, without momentum. Maxwell talks about baby steps and how to capitalize on small victories to tackle bigger challenges as a leader.

As an example he uses the story of Pixar animation and how they used momentum to build up their small animation studio to become a successful multimillion dollar enterprise.

You don’t need to be a cutting edge animation studio to use the law of momentum to your advantage; Maxwell says that “even average people can perform far above average in an organization with great momentum”.

The Law of Priorities:

Leaders Understand That Activity Is Not Necessarily Accomplishment

The Law of Priorities is another one of my favorite leadership laws. As a ship captain I am continually bombarded with issues of varying complexity and relevance. With a 200 person crew and 835 ft ship to manage, my desk can quickly become case study in in-efficiency. Keeping track of each issue, and finding time to accomplish them can be a full time job in and of itself.

I was enlightened by Maxwell’s introduction of the Pareto Principle (otherwise known as the 80-20 rule). The Pareto Principle suggests that “if you focus your attention on the activities that rank in the top 20 percent in terms of importance, you will have an 80 percent return on your effort”.

In other words, if you have 10 issues that require your attention, the two most important issues will give you an 80 percent return on the time you devote to them.

The Law of Sacrifice:

A Leader Must Give Up to Go Up

In most cases, successful leaders have made great sacrifices to be where they are. Whether more time than they would have liked away from family while working on their career, taking a pay cut to accept a job that was a better experience, or just going above and beyond what is expected of them in their current position, leaders must be willing to sacrifice to reach their full potential.

In the Law of Sacrifice, Maxwell shares how Martin Luther King, Jr. effectively utilized the law of sacrifice to advance a cause he eventually paid the ultimate price for.

The Law of Timing:

When to Lead Is As Important As What to Do and Where to Go

In the Law of Timing Maxwell retells the tragic events leading up to the devastation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. For the most part, few people would question the leadership qualities of Mayor Ray Nagin. He was a fresh voice in a city (and state) where corruption had been running rampant.

Although Mayor Nagin had great leadership skill, and certainly knew the consequences of a Category 4 hurricane reaching hitting the City of New Orleans, his timing in ordering an evacuation of the city was off.

“If a leader repeatedly shows poor judgment, even in little things, people start to think that having him as the leader is the real mistake”.

The Law of Explosive Growth:

To Add Growth, Lead Followers – To Multiply, Lead Leaders

In this straight forward chapter, Maxwell explains how gaining followers can only go so far in growing and organization. If you truly want to grow your organization, you need to turn those followers into leaders, so that they too can attract a new set of followers.

Henry Ford tried to operate his corporation by leading only his followers and pushing down anyone who exhibited leadership ability. He saw it as a threat to the entity he had created. Had he instead nurtured aspiring leaders within his company, and developed their growth, there is no telling how successful the Ford Motor Company may have become.

The Law of Legacy:

A Leader’s lasting Value Is Measured by Succession

The final Law of John Maxwell’s book “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” ask readers the reflective (and uncomfortable) question “What do you want people to say at your funeral”.

He refers to the answer to this question as one’s “life sentence”. What do you want to be known as? What do you want your life sentence to be?

Maxwell’s point is to continually strive towards your “life sentence” so that when your day comes, the vision you had of your legacy will no doubt be realized.

Is John Maxwell’s Book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership Worth Reading?

In my opinion, the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership is mandatory reading for anyway serious about improving thier leadership skills.  The book not only enjoyable to read, its subject matter is timeless and will serve as a great bookshelf for any leader regardless of level of managerial success in life.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

edsel s. rosalita April 30, 2010 at 12:56 am

fantastic..want a copy of it.

Fioleta A. Malasa June 1, 2010 at 4:52 am

John Maxwell’s commentary about leadership is one of the inspiring word… May God continue to use people like John Maxwell. God Bless!!!

Fioleta A. Malasa June 1, 2010 at 4:55 am

John Maxwell’s commentary about leadership is one of the inspiring word… May God continue to use people like John Maxwell. God Bless!!! i want a copy of it…

Frances B. De Lima September 9, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Being a future leader, and aspiring to be an effective one, I think, it would be a great help on my part for achieving my dreams. I really like this reading and studying these laws of leadership, because these are very inspiring. Thanks Rev. Maxwell.

Joel G. September 21, 2010 at 12:04 am

This was the first leadership book I read and had my eyes opened on the true power of leadership. I read it more than 5 years ago and it’s lessons, I’m still learning…

Exceptional insight from John Maxwell. MUST READ.

FARROKH MEHTA November 4, 2010 at 2:58 am

I had listened to Maxwell’s audio cassette years back.
Now I am going out and buying the book.
Simple and inspiring speaker!

jessica nunez dagadas December 5, 2010 at 11:40 am

fantastic book, I love to read this book,I wanted to have a copy on this but I cant afford to have it. To those who aspire leaders someday , dont miss to read this book and have a copy on this.

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