John Maxwell’s 21 Laws

by Christian L Haller on September 5, 2010

Let’s move on to the next level of traditional leadership activities.  John Maxwell has written many excellent books.   His Book “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” is probably one of the most read books on leadership taught outside of business school.  I like John’s books because they tend to get straight to the point and distill his thoughts into useable information.

Today we’ll review John’s 21 “rules.” I would be hard pressed to say any of these are really rules, but they all tend to be essential aspects of leadership.  In the coming days, I post my suggestion on best practices for leadership activities and you’ll be able to look back and see how Maxell and Yukl can be put to your best use.

Back to Maxwell’s rules:

1. The Law of the Lid– Maxell’s first law is right on the money.  As the leader of your business, church, or circle of friends, you will almost never get any better performance or behaviors than those that you exemplify.  Everything thing you do as a leader is magnified 100 times by your followers.  Bad moods or the occasional bad day will be interpreted in more bad ways than you can imagine.  Little things matter – even the perception of minor ethical indiscretions like taking office supplies home can easily result in Enron-like events.  This means you as the leader need to have you act together in all aspects – inner game, outer game, competence, communication, etc.  In particular, if you have not eliminated all of your internal self sabotaging characteristics, know that they will be reflected in your organization and sabotage your business.  Your followers will mirror you, down to the clothes you wear and the look on your face. You must be certain that what you project is exactly what you want.  Rarely will followers perform better than you – unless they are ready to pass you by or make a break for it.  That’s why when a corporation or team needs to be fixed, they fire the leader. They have to. 

2. The Law of Influence – You may have a vision and it may be right.  But unless you can influence others to adopt it and act to achieve your goals, you are nothing as a leader.  If you cannot create positive change in an organization, you cannot lead.  You may get by as a positional leader for a while, but your team’s performance will never be what it could.  Recently I was having a conversation with Kevin Hogan about leadership and I reflected that while every salesman was not necessarily a leader – every leader has the qualities of a successful salesman.  My forthcoming book will cover the basics of persuasion but for anyone looking to master the topic, talk to Kevin.

A good idea to keep in mind is to treat all your followers as if they are volunteers – because they are.

Maxwell seems to imply that persuasion is leadership, but in fact, persuasion is necessary but not sufficient.

3. The Law of Process – Leadership can be learned. To each others to be superior leaders is one of my driving purposes.  We’ve all heard it said that you either have or you don’t when it comes to leadership.  Simply not true.  Everything you need you can learn.  To master it, like everything else, takes years and is a road with no end.  Leaders are learners and if you do not continually invest in yourself, you will not be

4. The Law of Navigation – A leader has vision.  The problem is few people have no idea what a real vision is, why they have it or how to translate is down into doable projects and tasks to be implemented your followers. In other words, a vision is useless unless you can translate it into a plan. A plan that can actually be implemented.  Most plans are flawed, often with a guarantee of failure.  A bad plan is a classic corporate self sabotaging technique.  We’ll discuss effective visions and plans next month. 

5. The Law of E.F. Hutton – Hutton was America’s most influential stock market analyst. When he spoke, everyone listened. I certainly remember those commercials from when I was a kid. When true leaders speak, people automatically listen. This rule is not that strong for me.  Think of as – real leaders have followers.  That’s my definition of course.  Not sure its worthy of rule status. 

6. The Law of Solid Ground – Trust is the foundation for all effective leadership. Almost no one will follow you if they don’t trust you.  A devastating corollary is that people who don’t trust you may follow you if you give them something sufficient to make an excuse for your untrustworthy behavior.  You’ll never get the feedback you need. 

Trust is not just about lying and deception and honesty.  Trust comes in many flavors.  Also note that you have to give trust to get trust.  A case in point is a mid-sized company I worked at for many years. All real decision-making authority was centralized at the top C-level positions of the company.  Everything.  Division presidents had no say in hiring, firing, personnel assignments, compensation, business development or even seating arrangements.  They did not trust others to do the right things.  And so, because we all like to verify what we are told, the division heads and those that worked for them, often behaved irresponsibly.  And distrust was openly displayed and discussed in corporate meetings.  That company never got the financial results it had the skills to generate.  We’ll have many case histories for them in the future.

7. The Law of Respect– Maxell seems to be saying that people naturally follow people stronger than themselves. I’m not sure I’m buying this one.  But social status does play much into leadership. It’s a broad topic we’ll get to in a bit.

8. The Law of Intuition – Maxwell says leaders have to use intuition.  Dangerous stuff.  Intuition is often dead wrong and has all sorts of pitfalls related to competence and context.  No doubt that intuition has a place – but only in areas and contexts in which you are master.  Can you read people you know?  With practice.  Can you really read a complete stranger?  Probably not.  Another topic for in depth discussion later. 

9. The Law of Magnetism – You will tend to attract people like yourself.  This can be good – if you are the master of everything.  Probably sucks if you are not.  The real deal is this.  Surround yourself with experts and learn to attract them.  Avoid attracting people who will tell you what you want to hear. 

10. The Law of Connection- You must touch the heart before you ask people to follow. Communicate on the level of emotion first to make a personal connection. If you are not a natural empath, learn as much as you can about this skill and apply it.

11. The Law of the Inner Circle – A leader’s potential is determined by those closest to him. Maxwell is dead on with this one.  The leader is a guide.  Those that surround him do the real work (I call it the heavy lifting).  Surround yourself with the very best.  Always. Surrounding yourself with losers may be good for short term ego appeal, but limits your potential.  I have the very best people in my industry working for me and it shows.  The most common feedback I get from my clients is “where were you two years ago?”  It’s my team that makes this possible.

12. The Law of Empowerment – Empowerment is an overused word that should be taken out of the dictionary for a few years to cool off.  Scott Adams career was nearly made by the comedy of empowerment talk.  It’s really simple and I wish Maxwell just got to it.  Delegate responsibility and the authority to do what is necessary to achieve the goals.  This is just obvious but still most people are afraid to take this step.  Because they have not sorted out their own internal issues yet, that’s why.

We’ve all heard those stories that when the Allied Forces were invading on D-Day, the German soldiers were not allowed to respond in force until Hitler approved.  But he was asleep.  We won the war.  Do you want to win the war?

13. The Law of Reproduction – Leaders develop new leaders.  This one feels obvious.  But many otherwise good leaders fear developing followers into leaders in their own right.  I guess they are not secure enough in themselves.  Here’s a secret – if you don’t develop people to replace your position, you’ll never get to the next position.  You rise on the leadership you build.  Hold others back and you only hold yourself back. 

 14. The Law of Buy-In – People buy in to the leader first, then the vision. If they don’t like you they’ll find a new leader.  People do quit jobs even in the worst of times.  Of course, you only lose the good ones.  Learn to be likable. 

15. The Law of Victory – Maxwell says leaders find a way for the team to win. Of course they do.  If nothing else, you can redefine what winning means, right?

16. The Law of Momentum – Maxwell says you can’t steer a ship that isn’t moving forward and that it takes a leader to create forward motion. In my mind this is rehash of Law 1.

17. The Law of Priorities – What Maxwell essentially says is that you can’t pursue everything the team necessarily wants to.  In fact you typically can’t do everything that can bring benefits.  No, you have to down select to a few things that can be done with the resources at hand.  I think this is Law 4 again.

18. The Law of Sacrifice – Maxwell says a leader must give up to go up, or”when you become a leader, you lose the right to think about yourself.” I’m not sure I’m all the way there on this.  I think the real issue is that you put your followers and your mission and vision first (building value) and you’ll get your just rewards.  I’m down with that.

19. The Law of Timing – When to lead is as important as what to do and where to go.  You really need a plan for your relationship with each of your followers and know what is needed with each of them.  Make it up as you go and you’ll get the appropriate results. That’s right – have a plan for your relationship with your kids, your spouse, your followers, and your boss.  Share it with them.  So they’ll understand what you are doing and why, that’s why.

20. The Law of Explosive Growth – Maxwell says to add growth, lead followers. To multiply growth, lead leaders. I believe this is Law 13 again.

21. The Law of Legacy – A leader’s lasting value is measured by succession. See Laws 13 and 20.

So, there you have it.  Generally I think Maxwell is taking us in the right direction.  A good read that I strongly recommend.  The problem of course comes down to details again and again.  If you go no further than Maxwell, pay most attention to 1, 2, 3, 4, 11, 12, and 13.

In our next post we’ll set the stage to correct one of the most compelling failure modes I see in action every day and get to the bottom of one of the most common business paradoxes you’ll hear in practice today.


Jennifer Battaglino September 5, 2010 at 22:27

As I read down the list I kept thinking how many factors go into being a great leader, or at least an effective one. Problem is I couldn’t disagree with a one on the list to make less work! Great outline and makes sense.
Is this where Kevin got his Inner Circle name?

Jennifer Battaglino
Conquer Your Fear Here

Dale Bell September 5, 2010 at 23:57

I am a big fan of John Maxwell and his 21 Laws.

Dennis Perry September 6, 2010 at 00:00

I absolutely love Maxwell’s work and this one is one of his better books. We should all look to run not our businesses like this, but our lives as well.
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Dr. Wendy Schauer September 6, 2010 at 00:33

I loved this blog. I will be printing this one out and studying it.
Yours In Health!

Dr. Wendy M. Schauer, D.C., R.K.C.
Come Experience The Power of the Russian KettleBell Revolution at Kettlebell Olympia – Home of A Better Body With Bells!

G.E. Moon II September 6, 2010 at 00:51

I’m not aware of John Maxwell and his work. I will definitely check it out…if he is 1/2 as good as Robert Greene and his book, “The 48 Laws Of Power” I will be impressed.

Yours In Health!

G.E. Moon II

Sabrina Peterson September 6, 2010 at 01:09

This list is a bit overwhelming. I often use my intuition in business and it works for me. Interesting to read that Maxwell says using intuition is dangerous.

Sabrina Peterson, NASM CPT, CES
Corrective Exercise for Every Body

Jandy Quismundo September 6, 2010 at 01:13

Maxwell…a one of the great authors. Your outline of the book is awsome. I will have to look into adding this book to my collection.


Scott Sylvan Bell September 6, 2010 at 03:12

Christian as I kept reading I was thinking oh that example was a great one, then I would read the next and it was another great exmple of leadership. Thanks for a great reminder.
Scott Sylvan Bell
Now go implement!

Shane September 6, 2010 at 08:23

Had no idea I was a regular law breaker. I’m going to print those out!

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kevin hogan September 6, 2010 at 09:23

how does a corporate leader balance the requirement of quarterly profit reports with ethical action at every level? (sales, marketing, accounting practices)

Christian Haller September 6, 2010 at 10:22

Kevin – That is one of the toughest things. The best solution I have found in action is to always do the right thing. If you do the right things, the right outcomes will usually result. In my company, we do not track monthly numbers but we’ve hit records each of the past five years. Our metrics are on doing the right things regardless of outcome. What I have seen is the drive to make numbers cause people do crazy things and it has taken down too many companies. I hop my next post touches on this in a little more detail.

Rob Northrup September 6, 2010 at 10:44

Bosses need to “walk the talk” and demonstrate the same behavior that they want to see from their employees.

The old “do as I say and not as I do” also came to mind while reading this. People are very perceptive and do not like hypocritical behavior,

Seize the Day,
Survival Rob

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Christian Dating Expert September 6, 2010 at 13:44

Hi Christian,

I rather like and admire John Maxwell’s leadership books, too. My church in San Francisco massively encourages members to read. Yeah, there’s a reason I fit right in there… And Maxwell’s leadership books are well featured and well stocked in the little book store there.

The Law of the Lid – whatever the leader does, whatever the parent does, will be amplified and multiplied 100 fold. That is so true and so apt. When I have been part of team endeavors, I had known that concept now for 18 years and know I have to DO and BE a bit better and bit more accountably responsible because all eyes are on me. Whatever I do, they will do a little bit LESS. So if I want X from them, I must do X+15.

Excellent leadership content, Christian.

What do you think in terms of how Leaders packages, dresses, and presents themselves?

Happy Dating and Relationships,

April Braswell
Christian Dating Expert

Christian Haller September 6, 2010 at 19:04

Oh now you know that’s coming. The leader, again, sets the tone for everything.

Rae & Mark September 6, 2010 at 14:05

I have to confess to never having heard of John Maxwell, but based on your summary of his 21 Laws, I know that this book should be read and studied (several times) by almost everybody in the upper echelons of the company I used to work for back in England.

It seems, with hindsight, that they went out of their way to break all of these Laws – deliberately and/or accidentally. :-)

Rae & Mark
Gazalum 12 x 18 Single Door Glass Window Gazebo

Don Hill September 6, 2010 at 23:51

Empowerment is an overused word that should be taken out of the dictionary for a few years to cool off. It may be said too much but is very rarely implemented.


Eva September 7, 2010 at 10:10

I’ll print those 21 laws and read them from time to time. Thanks!

Michael D Walker September 7, 2010 at 12:36

I’m aware of John Maxwell but have never read his books, so this was a good introduction. Thanks!

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Karen Van Ness September 7, 2010 at 16:03

I’m glad you took the pains to synthesize Maxwells’ list and actually point to the top seven laws that you think are the most helpful. Maxwell has written so many amazing books, but I sometimes become overwhelmed with everything he says you have to do. Who has the time – and focus – to actually do all of these things, all the time? Prioritizing, simplifying and reducing to the most critical things you should focus on is always helpful. Thanks for a great post.

Karen Van Ness

Bryan September 7, 2010 at 22:12

I have read 21 laws..and agree they are not real laws…but he does give great pointers for leaders..

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