In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John C. Maxwell shares what he’s learned from his lifelong study of leadership. There’s more to leadership than being in charge or having a title, and the 21 laws cover requirements such as influence, trust, and the importance of serving others. For a leader, success means achieving your vision. Following the laws will help you develop into the kind of person who can get things done.
The laws of leadership are broadly applicable. You can use them in any context, whether professional or personal.
There are several important things to consider when studying the laws:
Here are the 21 irrefutable laws. (Shortform note: For the sake of clarity, we’ve grouped the laws by theme. Because each is independent, you don’t need to follow them in order.)
These laws describe universal truths about the way the world works.
Law #1: Leaders Are Capped by Their Leadership Ability. If you’re not a good leader, no matter how good you are at anything else, you’ll never reach your full potential.
Law #7: Leaders Are Respected, and People Follow the Strongest and Most Respected Leader. By nature, people follow those who they respect, and those who are stronger than themselves. If there is more than one leader vying for followers, the followers (and weaker leaders) will flock to the strongest leader.
Law #9: Leaders Attract People Similar to Themselves. People are drawn to people who are similar to themselves. Therefore, leaders attract other leaders.
Law #13: Leaders Lead by Example. By nature, followers copy the behavior and values of their leaders. Leaders demonstrate the path to success, and followers imitate because they want to be part of the success too.
Law #14: Leaders Are Followed, Visions Aren’t. People follow leaders, not ideas. A person with a compelling vision is just a person. A leader is someone who can get others to an end (and followers may not even care specifically what that end is).
Law #9: Leaders Attract People Similar to Themselves: During the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt recruited an all-volunteer cavalry company. It...
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Everything that you do in life involves other people, whether it's running a business, playing a sport, pursuing a hobby, or simply being with your family. To most effectively interact with others, you need leadership skills. In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John C. Maxwell outlines rules to follow to increase your leadership abilities.
To be most effective, you must apply all 21 laws when acting as a leader. However, no one is good at everything. (Even John C. Maxwell says that there are five he hasn’t mastered.) Assemble a leadership team (Law #11)...
Your ability to be effective at anything is capped by your leadership ability. This is because anything you do that involves people involves leadership, and nearly every endeavor in life involves people. Think of the importance of leadership in a sport like basketball. If your dribbling skills are level 6, but your leadership ability is level 1, you’re never going to become great. You might be very good at dribbling, but the game also involves teamwork and interacting with others.
Leadership abilities limit organizations just as much as they limit individuals. That’s why, when an organization is doing poorly, often the first step is to change the leader. For example, when a professional sports team is struggling, the coaches are often fired.
How do you improve your effectiveness or the effectiveness of your organization? There are two main factors, and, as we’ll see, the second is far more important:
You can increase your dedication to success by learning to excel in your field. For example, if you’re running a restaurant business, you can work on the menu, the speed of service, the schtick, and so on.
Effectiveness is made up of two factors—dedication to success and leadership ability.
On a scale of 1-10, where would you rank your leadership ability? Consider: When there's a problem at work, do you brainstorm ways to solve it, or do you turn to others?
Influence is one of the most critical qualities in a leader. If you don’t have influence, you don’t have followers, and without followers, you’re not a leader. You’re just a person with title or rank, or a person going first.
Followers consider several factors when choosing whether or not to follow (or be influenced by) a leader:
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Are people born leaders? Leadership ability is based in skill, not inherent talent. Leadership can be learned over time, and that willingness and ability to learn is what separates leaders and followers.
There are five phases to developing leadership:
There are no shortcuts to applying this law. Learning to be a leader is a...
The third phase of developing leadership is daily, targeted practice.
What phase of leadership development are you currently in? Are you in the ignorance phase? Are you already practicing? How do you know you’re in this phase?
Leaders plan and anticipate because they’re always aware that their followers depend on them. Leaders of large organizations particularly need to keep this law in mind. Decisions affect more people, and it’s more difficult to coordinate changes, with a larger team.
Here are some guidelines to using this law:
Do a leader’s motivations matter? Is the end result more important than whatever happened to achieve it?
The author believes that true leadership is measured by how much we serve others, not how far we advance ourselves. If you’re in charge of people, you’re affecting them, and never neutrally. You’re always having an additive (positive) or subtractive (negative) effect. Often subtractors aren’t aware that they’re negatively affecting others. However, leaders who positively affect their followers are nearly always doing it intentionally, because it takes work. By nature human beings are selfish. To care for others, it takes 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.
When you serve others, you benefit too. Serving creates a sense of fulfillment in the leader, and helps her put together a cohesive, loyal team free of conflict and sans followers with questionable motivations.
There are four guidelines to applying this law:
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Like Law #2 (leaders influence), this law is critical. Trustworthiness is the most important trait in a leader. If you don’t have your followers’ trust, or you’ve broken it, you can’t influence people.
You build trust by having good character. If you’re honest, caring, fair, hardworking, and/or a variety of other traits followers find appealing, they’ll trust and follow you. If you lie and cheat, followers will turn away. Your character communicates three things about your trustworthiness as a leader to your followers:
**You can measure your follower’s trust in your...
People follow morally upstanding leaders that they trust. What does your character communicate to your followers?
What positive personality traits do your followers admire in you?
By nature, people follow those who are more skilled than they are. When this principle is applied to leadership, it translates to: people will follow the person whose leadership they respect most. Even other leaders will follow another leader, if the other leader is stronger. And the better of a leader you are, the more easily you can assess the leadership ability of others.
There are several ways to gain respect (and therefore followers):
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:
Everyone is intuitive in their area of strength. Once you’ve learned to trust your intuition in one area, you can start developing it in leadership.
What is your greatest strength?
By nature, people are attracted to people who are similar to them. It doesn’t matter who you want to attract; you’re going to attract people who have a lot of fundamental things in common with you.
Consider your friends, followers, and the people around you. You’ll probably notice some similarities:
Leading is more than just giving instructions and sending off your followers to execute them—leaders need to emotionally engage and connect with their followers. People won’t follow you until you move them with emotion.
Even when leading a group, you have to relate to people as individuals. Think of a baseball team as nine individual players instead of as a faceless team.
Here are some tips on how to connect with people:
Nobody’s good at everything. Nobody achieves greatness by themselves. A leader’s success is determined by her team.
There are limits to what you can achieve personally. Once you’ve budgeted and scheduled all your time and energy, you need help to extend your reach and continue impacting people.
A leadership team can be within an organization (for example, everyone on a board of directors) and it can refer to the circle of the people you know. Therefore, most people already have a leadership team, though they may not have been intentional about creating it. Subconsciously, leaders recruit people they like or people they’re comfortable around. Consider what you want to do and if the people around you are capable of helping you get there. If your team can’t help you reach your leadership potential, then none of your people will reach their potential either.
There are some traits to look for in potential teammates, listed below. You’ll notice that many of them are leadership traits—when you’re putting together your leadership team, you should particularly look for other leaders.
A leader’s success is determined by the people on her leadership team.
Who are the people currently in your inner circle? Consider family members, employees, mentors, and so on.
To lead well you need to share your power, especially with other leaders. If you give people responsibility, authority, and resources, and help them develop as leaders, they’ll achieve. Believe in people, because when you, as a leader, believe in them, they’ll believe in themselves.
If you don’t follow this law, your organization will suffer. Followers will give up on their work, or leave.
There are three reasons leaders struggle with this law:
When leaders do things, people copy them. If the thing is objectively positive, the leader and followers have made the world a better place. If the thing is negative, people are still going to copy the leader because even if they think before acting, they can’t necessarily see far enough ahead to assess the effects of an action on the world. Therefore, as a leader, you need to carefully consider your actions, keeping in mind that they’ll be multiplied by all of your followers.
Leading by example 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 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 vision by visibly modeling the behaviors necessary to achieve the vision.
Leading by example is especially important in uncertain times. Uncertainty is not inherently problematic....
From the point of view of a leader, the order of operations is 1) find a vision, 2) find followers. The follower’s order of operations is opposite—1) find a leader, 2) find a vision. Followers are less interested in the cause than the leader. It’s a common myth that if a cause is noble or objectively the right course of action, people will follow it. In fact, if a cause is good but a leader isn’t, people will go find a new leader for that same cause.
Why does this happen? 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.
Consider the four cases below. **In every case, you’ll see that buying in to the leader is the most important...
Good leaders accept only victory. Failure or quitting is not an option. Good leaders don’t even bother with a Plan B, because Plan A will for sure lead to victory. Victory-seeking leaders are responsible, passionate, creative, and utterly committed to their vision.
One of the best places to study this law is in sports—often leaders are behind the scenes, but coaches are out in the open. You can immediately see the outcome of their decisions when their teams score or win the game.
Victory requires all three of the following:
Sometimes, momentum can be the only thing that makes the difference between success and failure. Think of momentum like a freight train. It takes a lot of energy to get the train moving from a standstill. Initially, it moves slowly. Until it speeds up, even small obstacles like twigs can stop it. But once it gets going, it can plow through anything.
Keep in mind that momentum doesn’t always bring positivity. The train can be full of money, or it can be full of garbage. Whether or not you want the freight, once the train is moving fast, it’s hard to stop it.
There are some keys to momentum:
Leaders create momentum by paying attention to intangibles such as motivation.
Think about your organization. What factors are negatively affecting your employees’ motivation? How do you know?
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 drop activities that don’t.
Some people are reluctant to apply this law, for a few reasons:
The Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) can help you prioritize. Rank your activities by importance and focus on the top 20%. These top activities will give you 80% of your results, so spend 80% of your time on them. For example, say you have 10 customers. The top 2 will give you 80% of your...
Non-leaders sometimes have the misconception that leadership is pleasant—you get freedom, power, and wealth. While some leaders do get these things, the constant among successful leaders is that they’ve earned their success through sacrifice.
Here are some things to keep in mind to successfully apply this law:
Good leaders not only need to make good decisions, they need to make these decisions at an appropriate time. To be good at leadership timing, you must keep in mind the other laws of leadership, such as that leaders must plan and pay attention to intangibles; and embody the desirable characteristics of a leader such as competence and confidence.
There are four possible case studies to consider:
Since leadership is the cap on success (Law #1), developing other leaders is the only way for an organization to truly excel. If you develop only yourself, you’ll personally succeed. If you develop a team, your organization will improve. But if you develop leaders, your organization will experience exponential growth.
There’s always a tension between where the leader wants their people and organization to be, and where they actually are. Leaders are impatiently up at the front, and everyone else lags. Applying this law can help eliminate that lag.
Developing leaders is very different from attracting followers. Compare the following attitudes, values, and actions, one of which attracts followers, one of which attracts leaders.
When leaders join your team, they bring along all their followers, which multiplies your reach.
Are you primarily leading followers or other leaders? How do you know? Remember that followers need your direct attention and tend to be weaker, while leaders have the potential to take over for you.
Because leaders work with people, including other leaders, they have the potential to influence beyond their own lifetime. For example, many people still admire Gandhi and live by his teachings. Therefore, all leaders should be concerned with succession and legacy.
Clara Boothe Luce came up with the phrase “life sentence.” The sentence both states the goal of your life and describes your legacy. Your “life sentence” will likely change over the course of your life, and as it does, look for things that each of the sentences have in common. This will help direct you toward your legacy. For example, John C. Maxwell started with a life sentence about wanting to be a great pastor. Later, he wanted to be a communicator, writer, and leader. He finally settled on: “I want to add value to leaders who will multiply value to others.” This sentence encompasses all the things he wanted to be over the years and addresses his legacy.
Here are some steps to developing your legacy:
The following checklist contains a question about each of the 21 laws of leadership. When your answer to the statement is yes, check it off. The more checkmarks you have, the more laws you are applying.