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What can you learn from reading John C. Maxwell’s leadership quotes? If you took his advice to heart, how could you become a better leader?
John C. Maxwell has been writing leadership books for more than 40 years, and millions of people have benefited from his wisdom. We’ve distilled many of his insights into a collection of quotes and provided them along with some context and explanation to help you get the most out of them.
Keep reading for 20 of the best John C. Maxwell leadership quotes.
John C. Maxwell Leadership Quotes
We took a deep dive into two books—The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and The 5 Levels of Leadership—to bring out several John C. Maxwell leadership quotes that are sure to inspire and equip you to lead. The quotes are organized into five categories: people, work (the task), influence, vision, and character.
Leadership Is About People
“To lead others, use your heart.”
Law #10 of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership states that leaders connect with others. Leading is more than just giving instructions and sending off your followers to execute your instructions. Leaders need to emotionally engage and connect with their followers. People won’t follow you until you move them with emotion.
For example, four days after 9/11, Bush went to visit Ground Zero. He talked to first responders and shook their hands. He thanked them for their work and listened to their stories. When he was speaking, the crowd shouted that they couldn’t hear him, and he responded, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” Americans were angry, scared, and mourning. Seeing Bush in person, or hearing reports of his interactions with frontline workers, made people feel connected with and cared for.
“The bottom line in leadership isn’t how far we advance ourselves but how far we advance others.”
Law #5 of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership states that leaders serve others. Maxwell believes that this is how true leadership is measured; it’s not about how far we advance ourselves. By nature, human beings are selfish. To care for others, it takes a conscious effort to prioritize their needs above your own. And, as a leader, you’re often the only person who can serve people in a particular way.
There are four guidelines for applying this law:
- Show people that you care for them. Never abuse anyone, and regularly demonstrate that you care about your followers.
- Develop valuable skills so that you can share them with others. Work on yourself. Improve your skills so you can offer better advice and mentorship.
- Learn what’s important to the people you lead. Listen to people and learn about their hopes and dreams.
- Do things that God values. Scripture describes how God wants us to treat people. For example, Jesus once washed his disciples’ feet, showing that he cared deeply for them.
“Good leaders stop bossing people around and start encouraging them.”
In The 5 Levels of Leadership, Maxwell implores Level 1 leaders to stop pulling rank. A title is just a starting point. Having “CEO” or “Ph.D.” attached to your name doesn’t mean much if you don’t add value. Some signs that you’re flexing your position instead of using your skills to get things done: You make it clear that you’re above everyone else, keep your distance from your people, and believe that they’re there to serve you. It’s easy to fall into the “because I said so” style of leadership, but this can get really old, really fast—no one likes being bossed around. Instead, start focusing on people instead of power, and use words of encouragement instead of intimidation.
In Level 2, Maxwell expects leaders to keep the Golden Rule in mind. Treat people the way you want to be treated, making sure you don’t cross the line from motivation to manipulation. Be generous with praise and encouragement, and include them in your decision-making when it affects them. If you’re positive and encouraging, you can create an environment that’s conducive to growth.
“How can we become more likable? By doing the following: Make a choice to care about others.”
At Level 2 of leadership, Maxwell writes that you’ll have a better chance of earning people’s permission to lead them if you’re able to manage this downside: It’s not easy if you’re not a people person.
Some leaders have a natural rapport with other people, while others struggle to form connections. If you’re one of the latter, think of relationship-building as a skill that you can hone. Choose to care about others, reflect on what you like about yourself and share that with others, and look for something likable in every person and compliment them on it.
“Leaders have to deal simultaneously with people issues and business issues, and they need to be able to do both effectively. That’s an art.”
This John C. Maxwell leadership quote also relates to Level 2 leadership. Particularly at this level, you can have a hard time balancing the “soft” side and the “hard” side of leadership. Leaders need to balance the “soft” side of relationship-building with the “hard” side of producing results. If you lean too much toward building relationships, you might accept subpar work from your people just to keep them happy. You might also end up having frustrated high achievers on your team—workers who value action over affection might become impatient with the slow process of building relationships.
The key is to maintain a good balance between the two: build relationships to encourage production, but show tough love when necessary. If you’re invested in your people, you’ll care about their progress, not just their comfort. Remember: It’s not about making people happy; it’s about making people better so that you can achieve a common purpose.
Leadership Is About the Task
“Busyness does not equal productivity.”
This John C. Maxwell leadership quote relates to Law #17 of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, which states that leaders prioritize. Being busy doesn’t necessarily equate to being productive, achieving, or accomplishing. Time is finite, so good leaders regularly evaluate how they’re spending it. They choose to focus on activities that help them achieve their goals, and they drop activities that don’t.
If you never have free time, it’s easy to think that you’re using all of your time doing important things. However, you need to consider what you’re actually doing and how it contributes to your overall goals.
“If you want to be a leader, the good news is that you can do it. Everyone has the potential, but it isn’t accomplished overnight.”
This John C. Maxwell leadership quote involves Law #3 of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, which states that leaders develop ability over time. Maxwell contends that leadership ability is based on skill—not inherent talent. Leadership can be learned over time, and that willingness and ability to learn is what separates leaders from followers.
There are five phases to developing leadership:
- Awareness and incompetence
- Daily, targeted learning
- Muscle memory
There are no shortcuts to applying this law. Learning to be a leader is a process, not an aha moment. While one-off conferences and formative single experiences contribute to learning, there are no timesaving tricks. Learning to lead requires committed practice.
“Champions don’t become champions in the ring—they are merely recognized there.”
This John C. Maxwell leadership quote from The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership is about planning and preparation. Maxwell provides the following guidelines for Law #4, which states that leaders plan and prepare:
- Reflect on past experiences, particularly failures.
- Examine the current conditions.
- Source information from others.
- Be optimistic but realistic.
In addition to the guidelines, Maxwell created a 9-step planning process to project completion.
Norweigan explorer Roald Amundsen is an example of this law in action. In 1911, two explorations raced to the South Pole. One was led by Amundsen. He was a planner. He spoke with other Arctic explorers and copied their methods. He recruited skiers and dog handlers, selected the best available gear, and spent countless hours setting up supply depots. His team traveled six hours a day by dogsled and reached the South Pole more than a month before his competitor’s team.
Leadership Is About Influence
“It’s not the position that makes the leader; it’s the leader that makes the position.”
Law #2 of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership states that leaders influence others. Influence is one of the most critical qualities of a leader. If you don’t have influence, you don’t have followers. Without followers, you’re not a leader; you’re just a person with title or rank—or a person going first.
For example, even though she didn’t have a title, Mother Teresa was one of the most influential people in the world at one point. She gave a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994. She spoke about family values and abortion. She offended nearly everyone in attendance, but they listened to her. People respected her because of her positive character traits, background, and track record. Most people even applauded when she was finished speaking.
“Position is a poor substitute for influence.”
In The 5 Levels of Leadership, Maxwell equates leadership with influence, and he uses the five levels to show how your influence progresses as you grow. Each level serves as a building block for the next one. At the first level of leadership, which Maxwell calls Position, people follow you only because of your role or position. While you have a job title, you lack real power other than the authority to lead.
At the second level of leadership, which Maxwell calls Permission, people follow you because of your influence and their trust in you. They do their jobs because they want to, not because they have to.
“Nobody achieves anything great by giving the minimum. No teams win championships without making sacrifices and giving their best.”
This John C. Maxwell leadership quote from The 5 Levels of Leadership relates to the previous one. It’s at this lowest level of leadership that you get the bare minimum from your people. Because you let your position do the heavy lifting by giving orders, people aren’t inspired to give their best. Instead, they do what they can to scrape by—they comply without being committed to their work and are only interested in getting a paycheck or keeping their jobs.
“Every message that people receive is filtered through the messenger who delivers it.”
Law #14 of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership states that leaders, not visions, are followed. You, as a leader, are a messenger, and so you’re tied to the message. When you propose a vision, it’s associated with you. If you’re a credible messenger, then the message goes through. If you’re not, people will look for a more attractive mail carrier.
This law is why famous people are hired to endorse products and why actors support causes. People think, “Oh, if Tiger Woods likes it, then it must be good or have value.” If you trust the person who’s giving you the message, then you trust that they’ve considered and/or fact-checked the message and determined that it’s valid.
Leadership Is About Vision
“Great leaders always seem to embody two seemingly disparate qualities. They are both highly visionary and highly practical.”
John C. Maxwell’s leadership quote from The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership is connected to Law #13, which states that leaders lead by example. Maxwell believes that this is the best way to communicate vision. By nature, followers find it difficult to keep track of big-picture things, so talking (or any form of communicating) about a vision will never be the most effective way to share it. Vision plans ahead and provides a mission and purpose, which is too future-oriented for followers. Leaders must pair vision with practicality, which provides strategy and a plan for how to get to the conditions imagined in the vision. Therefore, leaders should communicate their vision by visibly modeling the behaviors necessary to achieve the vision.
“Leaders see everything with a leadership bias.”
Law #8 of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership states that leaders pay attention to intangibles. Leaders view the world differently than other people do. They look beyond empirical data and consider intangibles such as morale, momentum, and chemistry. They pay attention to the world, notice things others miss, and “read” their environments.
Leaders are attuned to many intangibles and can “read” the following:
For example, in the movie The Great Outdoors Chet and Roman sit on the porch and talk about the view. Chet sees trees. Roman sees a potential paper mill, mining operation, or waste management facility. Who you are determines your view of the world, and, if you’re a leader, you view everything with a “leadership bias.”
“Successful leaders help their people find their right seats.”
This John C. Maxwell leadership quote from The 5 Levels of Leadership refers to Level 3. You can lay the groundwork for a productive team by making sure they complement each other. By Level 3, you should know each of your team members’ strengths and weaknesses. Think about how you can use their strengths to compensate for others’ weaknesses.
Remember that your team members fall into three categories when it comes to momentum: those who go with the flow, bog others down, or make things happen. Figure out which team members fall into each category. You can put those who make things happen into roles that allow them to maximize their impact and influence those who just go with the flow. Then you can help the momentum-breakers change their mindset and give them a chance to improve.
In Level 4, aside from recruiting the people that your team needs, you also need to position them strategically. It’s a process, so take your time, and don’t be afraid to move people around. This is similar to one of the best behaviors in Level 3, which is about making sure that you put people in places where you can maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.
“Release tasks to the leaders you’re developing.”
If you’ve already proven your competence as a Level 3 leader, you need to start recognizing that sharing your load gives others the opportunity to fulfill their own leadership potential. This will benefit not only your people but also the organization (which will have more competent leaders) and you (as sharing the load will lighten the weight of your responsibility). Throw everything you have into developing your people, from providing training to giving them the right tools and environment to grow.
When you’re caught up in the daily grind, you don’t have time to think about ways to make an organization better. But when you develop leaders and cede some responsibilities to them, you free up quality thinking time, which you can then use to refine the vision, improve your strategies, and find more ways to grow your organization. It’s a paradox: By letting go of something, you gain something greater.
It’s natural to feel hesitant when you’re considering sharing the load, but it’s the only way forward. Ease your worries by using the 80% rule: Entrust tasks to those who can do them at least 80% as well as you do. Done is better than perfect, so as a leader, you’ll need to let pragmatism rule.
Leadership Is About Character
“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.”
This John C. Maxwell leadership quote from The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership connects to Law #7. This law states that leaders are respected and that people follow the strongest and most respected leader. Even other leaders will follow another leader if the other leader is stronger.
For example, Harriet Tubman had a lot of things working against her. None of these things particularly commanded respect. However, Tubman knew how to use this law—she was brave, loyal, and served others. In 1849, Tubman fled slavery with the help of the Underground Railroad. She made nineteen trips back to lead over three hundred people to freedom. She had a perfect track record—she never lost anyone—and, because of this, followers respected her leadership even more. Even her enemies acknowledged her leadership: They put a $12,000 price on her head.
“Your values are the soul of your leadership, and they drive your behavior.”
This John C. Maxwell leadership quote from The 5 Levels of Leadership emphasizes the importance of having a clear understanding of your values. They are the driving force behind how you act and will enable you to behave and lead consistently. Think about your ethics (acceptable and desirable behaviors beyond just following the rules), relational values (your method of gaining trust and respect), and success values (your most important goals). Once you have a better understanding of what drives you, align your behaviors with these values. When people see that you act consistently, it builds up your integrity and, consequently, your influence over time.
“To be effective, leaders must always be learners.”
Maxwell writes in The 5 Levels of Leadership that being humble means staying open to growth. Just as you’re taking emerging leaders on a journey, you’re also going through your own journey, so you should keep learning.
At the fifth level of leadership, you might think you’ve reached the end of your journey. Maxwell writes that, as a leader at a high level, you have great influence. So the impact of your decisions affects not just you but also your organization. If you think that you can rest because you’ve finally achieved success and have nothing left to learn, it can cause your organization to lose steam. To be a Level 5 leader, you should never rest on your laurels but keep trying to improve yourself and your organization.
“Recognize that what you do daily, over time, becomes your legacy.”
Level 5 of leadership, which Maxwell refers to as Pinnacle, combines everything you’ve learned, the skills you’ve honed, and your natural leadership ability to bring growth and success to an organization. Maxwell writes that pinnacle leadership is about making a lasting impact—developing Level 4 leaders so that your organization continues to thrive even after you’ve left. It’s about leaving a legacy.
What do you want your legacy to be? Given the extent of your influence, think about how you can use it to benefit others beyond your organization. Once you’ve determined what you want your legacy to be, align your actions. If what you do every day doesn’t contribute to the legacy you want to leave, then it’s time for a change.
We hope these John C. Maxwell leadership quotes have inspired and equipped you to be a better leader—or even become a leader for the first time. For even more empowering ideas, read the books and the Shortform guides that can help you put the principles into practice.
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