A leader standing confidently with his employees in the background of a city.

Do you make a deliberate effort to improve as a leader, or do you just expect it to happen over time? Do you have moral authority in the eyes of your team?

John Maxwell’s leadership principles have inspired and equipped thousands of leaders over the years. In his book Leadershift, he shares wisdom designed to help leaders break free from outdated notions and methods of leadership and thrive in today’s world.

Read more to learn five principles that John Maxwell lays out in Leadershift.

John Maxwell’s Leadership Principles

Maxwell argues that today’s leaders must be dynamic, forward thinkers who understand the importance of change. In the business world of the 1970s, the management model of leadership thrived in stable, predictable work environments. However, in modern society, things change rapidly. To help your team and organization excel in a changing environment, you must stop thinking like a manager and become a leader who can encourage growth within your organization, connect with your team, and help people perform at their best.

(Shortform note: In Trust and Inspire, Stephen M.R. Covey explains that the traditional management model of leadership is no longer effective because the nature of work is different. During the industrial era, workers mostly performed manual, streamlined tasks (like working on assembly lines), so speed and effectiveness were key to quality work. Today, however, most people perform knowledge- or service-based work that requires more creativity, innovation, and collaboration. Covey argues that often, management fails to inspire the employee engagement necessary to do this type of work well, supporting Maxwell’s view that leaders must change and adapt.)

Principle #1: Put Your Team First and Yourself Second

The first John Maxwell leadership principle is that, to be an effective leader, you must prioritize your team’s needs over your personal ambitions. Many leaders think in terms of what’s best for themselves and base their decisions on their personal goals and opinions. However, Maxwell suggests you consider how you can help your team perform and shine instead of how your team can help you achieve a certain objective. When you focus on supporting your team’s needs and leveraging each member’s strengths, you can harness the collective power of your team and achieve greater results.

To adopt a team-oriented focus, Maxwell suggests you:

  • Acknowledge the importance of others.
  • Pace yourself with the team.
  • Look for opportunities to help others.

Principle #2: Be Committed to Growth and Improvement

The second John Maxwell leadership principle is that leaders must make an active effort to grow and improve instead of just treating growth as a natural result of their experiences. You can do this by pursuing growth instead of achievement and by innovating instead of sticking to tradition.

Pursue Growth Instead of Achievement

Maxwell says leaders must stop focusing on achieving goals and instead prioritize continuous, long-term growth. He argues that when you pursue goals, you focus on external achievements and recognition. While goals may help you accomplish tasks, they don’t necessarily lead to significant personal development or lasting fulfillment. Conversely, when you focus on growth, you develop and challenge yourself, so you can become a more capable person and leader.

To prioritize growth over goals, Maxwell suggests you do two things:

  • Believe in your ability to grow.
  • Live each day with the intention to learn.

Be Open-Minded

Maxwell writes that to make growth a priority in your daily life, you must keep your mind open to new and inventive ways of doing things. This means nurturing your creativity and constantly looking for better, more efficient ways to do things instead of sticking to established practices. If you can be more open-minded, you can function at your highest potential, spot unseen possibilities, and more easily make changes to your life and organization.

Maxwell recommends several ways you can be more creative and open-minded:

  • Be curious.
  • Elevate your results with the 10-80-10 strategy. When performing a new task, spend the first 10% of the time identifying your objective and then 80% of the time accomplishing your task. Then, once you’ve completed your task, spend the last 10% trying to improve your work.
  • Add flexibility to your plans.

Principle #3: Unlock Your Team’s Potential

The first two John Maxwell leadership principles cover mindset changes you should make to lead more effectively. Next, we’ll explore management changes you can make to help your team operate at its highest level. Maxwell writes that leaders must: 1) understand instead of command, and 2) encourage diversity instead of uniformity.

Understand People’s Needs and Desires

First, Maxwell recommends you try to understand team members’ needs and desires instead of simply imposing orders without considering their perspectives. To learn about another person’s needs and desires, encourage people to share their thoughts by asking questions and then thoughtfully listening to their answers.

Build a Diverse Team

Besides asking questions and listening well, leaders can also empower their team by fostering a culture that celebrates diversity instead of homogeneity and conformity. Maxwell writes that a diverse team—one where team members have different backgrounds and perspectives—achieves greater results than teams where everyone thinks similarly.

Maxwell suggests you ensure your team environment is a safe space for sharing ideas. To achieve this, encourage people to participate by putting less emphasis on job titles and roles, acknowledging people’s contributions, and sharing responsibilities, task ownership, and rewards.

Principle #4: Gain Respect With Moral Authority

We’ve explored how leaders should shift their mindset and team management approach to lead effectively. However, as a leader you must also develop your influence over others. To do so, you must gain moral authority—respect and recognition for exemplary personal qualities, values, and actions. Having a leadership position may force people to follow you, but earning moral authority makes people want to follow you.

To develop moral authority, Maxwell suggests you:

  • Demonstrate excellence.
  • Be consistent in your actions and values.
  • Face challenges courageously.

Principle #5: Equip Others for Success

The fifth John Maxwell leadership principle is that the hallmark of effective leadership in the modern era is not a leader’s personal achievements but rather their ability to inspire others to grow and become leaders in their own right. Maxwell suggests two ways to become a leader who inspires a new generation of leaders: 1) Focus on what makes people better, not what makes them happy, and 2) encourage others to make a positive difference.

Focus on What Makes People Better, Not What Makes Them Happy

A common misconception is that, to be a good leader, you must please everyone and get them on board with your plans and ideas. However, Maxwell argues that effective leadership is about pushing people to reach their potential, which occasionally means making difficult decisions that might not please everyone.

To guide others to become their best, you must balance care with candor. To balance the two, have a genuine interest in what’s best for the other person. This way, you can be supportive but also willing to challenge people to improve.

Maxwell suggests several ways you can help others to be better through care and candor:

  • Overcome personal discomfort.
  • Set clear expectations.
  • Use the 25-50-25 principle to stop chasing consensus. Maxwell writes that, when you make any decision, 25% of people will support it, 50% will be undecided, and 25% will resist it. Instead of worrying about how to get everyone in agreement, concentrate on turning the undecided section into supporters, and don’t waste time trying to win over the resisters.

Empower Others to Become Leaders

Maxwell argues that the most profound change you can make in your leadership approach is to become a transformational leader: a leader who inspires others to do better and to make positive differences. By nurturing others to become positive influences, you can amplify your influence and have a greater impact than you could have individually.

To become a transformational leader, graduate from what Maxwell refers to as “climbing ladders” to “building ladders.” Instead of focusing on climbing higher in the leadership ranks, you should shift your focus to helping others become leaders.

To help others become leaders, mentor them to give them the tools to lead. Maxwell writes that a good mentor is a specialist in their field, has more knowledge and experience than the mentee, is good at asking questions, and is humble.

Exercise: Plan Your Leadershifts

Evaluate your current leadership approach and consider how to use John Maxwell’s leadership principles to unlock your full potential and elevate your team and organization.

  1. Maxwell argues that good leaders focus on helping their team perform well, rather than on achieving their own goals. What’s one way you can promote a collaborative work environment among your team members?
  2. What’s one area where you’d like to improve? What small steps can you take daily to continually grow in that area?
  3. How well do you understand your team members’ needs and desires? What step can you take to learn more about them?
  4. How much moral authority do you possess? Which of Maxwell’s strategies for developing moral authority resonates with you most, and how might you incorporate it into your leadership approach?
  5. Think about a recent time when discomfort got in the way of making a decision. What was the outcome of the situation? How can you focus on the well-being of your team and organization to overcome this hurdle in the future?
John Maxwell’s 5 Leadership Principles for Today’s World

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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