“The 21 Irrefutable Laws of leadership” is written by John C. Maxwell, one of the world’s biggest thought leaders on the topic of leadership. In this book, John summarizes the lessons of more than thirty (!) years of leadership experience. He bundles these lessons into 21 laws which are ‘irrefutable’, i.e. impossible to deny or disprove. They go up for every situation.
As John brilliantly explains:
“Leadership is leadership, no matter where you go or what you do. Time changes. Technology marches forward. Cultures vary from place to place. But the true principles of leadership are constant. Always.”
2. THE KEY IDEAS
You might ask yourself: “Well, which are the 21 laws of leadership then?”
Well, let’s have a look at them. (NOTE: all these laws are interrelated. You should study them by making connections.)
THE LAW OF THE LID
This law states that your ability to lead other people will always be ‘the lid’ on your personal and organizational effectiveness. In other words: if your leadership ability is high, the lid is high and your personal and organizational effectiveness will be high. If your leadership ability is low, the lid is low and your personal and organizational effectiveness will be low.
This law clearly shows us that, if we want to accomplish something great and have a meaningful impact, we will need a great ability to lead other people.
Now, what do we have to understand about leadership? Let’s have a look at the next laws.
THE LAW OF INFLUENCE
As Maxwell quotes: “Leadership is influence. Nothing more, nothing less.”
All successful leaders have influence. They are able to create a positive change. As Maxwell argues, influence is what separates managers from leaders. Where managers can only keep the direction, leaders can change it. To change the direction, you need influence.
The question is: how can you gain influence? Maxwell explains that influence must be earned over time. You can’t get it in a day. It comes from hard work and perseverance. The next law will bring more clarity.
PRO TIP: if you want to learn more about influence and persuasion, we highly recommend you checking out Robert B. Cialdini’s book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”. It will teach you how to influence and persuade other people. Great read!
THE LAW OF PROCESS
Becoming a great leader takes time. It’s a process.
Although it’s true that some leaders are born with a certain talent, all great leaders didn’t become great in a day. They acquired a skillset over time and continuously learned and improved.
Maxwell comments: “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. What matters most is what you do day by day over the long haul.”
THE LAW OF NAVIGATION
All great leaders are navigators. This means: they have a roadmap implanted in their minds on how to get to their destination. They are visionaries and understand what resources it will take to get there.
Great navigators draw on past experiences, listen to what others have to say within the organization and examine the conditions before making commitments.
Most important, great navigators are prepared. Prepared leaders create trust amongst their followers. This is what allows leaders to navigate for them.
THE LAW OF E.F. HUTTON
“E.F. what?”, you might ask.
E.F. Hutton is a financial services company. For a long time, their motto was simple: “When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen.” The company’s old television commercials are gold. Take 30 seconds and check it here.
Anyway, the message here is: when a leader speaks up, people listen.
Maxwell explains that you can identify a leader in any situation by applying this rule. If someone speaks up in front of a group and people are not listening attentively, he or she is probably not the leader. The best proof of leadership is found in the reaction of the followers.
PRO TIP: Ask yourself: When I speak, do people really listen? Are people waiting for me to make a final decision? If the answer is no, you have some leadership work to do. Read on!
THE LAW OF SOLID GROUND
Followers follow leaders because they trust the leader, i.e. someone who walks on solid ground. Trust is built up over time.
Maxwell uses a great metaphor to explain this law:
“A leader’s history of successes and failures makes a big difference in his credibility. It’s like earning and spending pocket change. Each time you make a good leadership decision, it puts change into your pocket. Each time you make a poor one, you have to pay out some of your change to people. A leader who keeps making good decisions and keeps recording wins will build up his change. Then, even when he makes a blunder, he can still have plenty of change left over.”
What do you need as a leader to build up trust and credibility? Maxwell argues that there are 3 qualities you must always exemplify as a leader: competence, connection and character. Especially character is important and should always communicate consistency, respect and potential.
THE LAW OF RESPECT
This law states that people naturally follow leaders who they perceive as stronger than themselves. In other words: they follow persons whose leadership they respect and perceive better than their own.
This goes back to law 3 and 6. As a leader, it takes time to build up respect and trust amongst your followers. It’s a process.
THE LAW OF INTUITION
Great leadership is not only a matter of learned skills, but also of intuition.
Maxwell says: “Leaders see everything with a leadership bias, and as a result, they instinctively, almost automatically, know what to do. All great leaders have this read-and-react instinct.”
The question is: can you develop this leadership intuition? Despite some people who naturally have it, Maxwell argues that you can. You then must put yourself in tough situations that force you to play on your intuition and make hard decisions.
THE LAW OF MAGNETISM
Ever heard of the law of attraction? This law states that whatever you are, you attract.
The same holds for leadership. Great leaders attract other great leaders. This might contradict with the concept of ‘staffing for your weaknesses’. Although this is important, it is crucial to realize that these people aren’t necessarily going to be attracted to your vision. True leaders attract people who are like themselves.
Leaders can attract people based on several ‘common ground’ areas:
- Attitude (e.g. positivity attracts positivity)
- Generation (e.g. baby boomers connect better with other baby boomers)
- Life experience
- Leadership ability
THE LAW OF CONNECTION
All great leaders realize that they have to connect on a deeper level with their followers. Before followers will pick up the work for you, you must touch their emotions. As Maxwell puts it: “You can’t move people to action unless you first move them with emotion. The heart comes before the head.”
How do you accomplish this? A key to connecting with others is recognizing people as individuals with their own needs and wants. As Sigmund Freud said: “The one thing all human beings have in common is their craving to feel recognized.”
PRO TIP: Read our summary on the book “How To Win Friends & Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. This book will teach you exactly how to build strong relationships and connections with other people
THE LAW OF THE INNER CIRCLE
This law states that a leader’s success is determined by the people closest to him, i.e. his inner circle. If these people are strong and supportive, you can make a great impact. If they aren’t, it will be very hard.
Maxwell recommends building up your inner circle with 5 types of people: those who raise up themselves, those who raise morale in the organization, those who raise up the leader, those who raise up others and those who raise up people who raise up other people. I know, it’s quite a list, but it’s worth thinking about it!
THE LAW OF EMPOWERMENT
Successful leaders empower other people. This means: they can make themselves dispensable while the organization keeps working like a well-oiled machine. Empowered leaders continuously help develop and give credit to their people.
When a leader doesn’t empower his people, he creates barriers within the organization. This can cause people to feel friction, give up or even move to another company.
How do you empower people? “You have to believe in your people”, Maxwell says. Belief is the first step to empowerment. Your people will feel it.
THE LAW OF REPRODUCTION
This law states that most leaders are mentored and therefore ‘reproduced’ by other leaders. As Maxwell puts it: “It takes a leader to raise up a leader.”
This means: if you want to be strong leader, you will have to surround yourself with already established leaders. Spend time with them, observe them and pay close attention to what they do. Maxwell argues that these people don’t necessarily have to be in your field or niche. You can learn from leaders in any field: business, sports, politics, pastors, etc.
Maxwell argues that – as a leader – you should continuously work on an environment where other potential leaders can thrive. He calls this an ‘eagle environment’ – i.e. “an environment where the leader casts a vision, offers incentives, encourages creativity, allows risks and provides accountability.”
THE LAW OF BUY-IN
Before people buy into a leader’s vision, they first must buy into a leader’s persona. This is the law of buy-in.
A leader’s vision can be great, but if people don’t buy into the leader as a person, then the leader awaits a difficult job. Therefore, don’t tell yourself: “My vision is so great people will automatically follow me”. Rather, ask yourself: “My vision is great, but are people buying into me as a person?”
You must have people buy into YOU first, before translating your vision into reality. That’s how the law of buy-in works. If people don’t buy into you, you have some leadership work to do. As we know: that takes time!
THE LAW OF VICTORY
Successful leaders find a way for their team to win. This is the law of victory.
As Maxwell explains:
“I think that victorious leaders share an inability to accept defeat. The alternative to winning seems totally unacceptable to them, so they figure out what must be done to achieve victory, and then they go after it with everything at their disposal.”
THE LAW OF THE BIG MO
Successful leaders use momentum to their advantage. Maxwell calls this “the Law of the Big Mo”.
If you’ve ever started something new (e.g. working out in the gym), you probably realized that in the beginning nothing seems to work. Even the simplest tasks can seem to be real hurdles. However, once you get things going and momentum is created, things start to ‘click’. For example, you start to enjoy the reps and the sweat.
Same holds for leadership: it takes a leader to get things going. As we’ve seen before: a leader directs change, a manager keeps it.
Maxwell explains: “When leadership is strong and there is momentum in an organization, people are motivated and inspired to perform at higher levels.”
THE LAW OF PRIORITIES
Successful leaders have learnt to set priorities. They can make a difference between what is urgent and what is important. The best leaders focus on the important things.
PRO TIP: Read our summary on ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen Covey. He dedicated a whole chapter on the notion of urgency and importance and why you should focus on the latter!
There are two ways to figure out what is important. The first one is the Pareto Principle. This rule states that 80% of our results come from 20% of our activities. The key is to figure out which activities are part of that 20% and fully focus on them.
The second guideline is what Maxwell calls the 3 R’s: Requirement, Return and Reward. Ask yourself first: what is required? Then, determine what gives the greatest return. As a leader, you should always focus and spend most of your time on your strengths. Delegating activities which you are not naturally good at is a necessity. Lastly, ask yourself: what brings the greatest reward? As a leader, you should have passion for what you do. It should be rewarding.
THE LAW OF SACRIFICE
The law of sacrifice states that leaders have to give up before they can go up.
Maxwell quotes: “Leaders give up to go up. That’s true of every leader regardless of profession. Talk to any leader, and you will find that he has made repeated sacrifices. Usually, the higher that leader has climbed, the greater the sacrifices he has made.”
To be a leader, you must sacrifice. Many people want to climb the corporate ladder to become ‘free’ or ‘enjoy life’. However, they often forget that real leadership requires a lot of losses.
THE LAW OF TIMING
“When the right leader and the right timing come together, incredible things happen.” – John C. Maxwell
This law reminds me of the book “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell. In his book, Malcolm explains that success is not only a function of talent and hard work, but also timing and luck.
In leadership, this rule also holds. Only the right action at the right time results in success.
THE LAW OF EXPLOSIVE GROWTH
This law states that an organization can only grow explosively when leaders create leaders instead of followers.
Think about it. If a leader creates followers, he only grows the organization one person at a time. However, if the leader creates another leader, the organization grows not only with that one person, but also his followers. This is the law of explosive growth.
Maxwell quotes: “Leaders who develop leaders experience an incredible multiplication effect in their organizations that can be achieved in no other way –not by increasing resources, reducing costs, increasing profit margins, analyzing systems, implementing quality management procedures, or doing anything else.”
THE LAW OF LEGACY
Lastly, successful leaders want to leave a legacy.
Leaders who aim for legacy have a few things in common:
- They lead the organization with ‘a long-term perspective’. Leaders don’t aim for quick wins, flashy new products or big temporary events. They can see the bigger picture behind every action.
- They create a leadership culture. Successful leaders continuously develop other leaders in their organization. This is what allows them to leave a lasting impact, even if the leader himself quits the scene. (LiNK with law 13 and 20!)
- They value team leadership above individual leadership. Each successful organization needs a strong team of leaders.
Here you go. These were the 21 irrefutable laws of leadership by John C. Maxwell.
Although this book gives you a great understanding of what leadership is and which skillset is required to be a successful leader, there is a lack of practical application.
The laws and concepts are great, but Maxwell didn’t dive very deep into the implementation of these laws in your day-to-day life. For this, you’ll have to buy his workbook in which he allows you to learn and internalize the most important laws.
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