The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Published: 9/16/1998
John C. Maxwell has done exactly that in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. He has combined insights learned from his thirty-plus years of leadership successes and mistakes with observations from the worlds of business, politics, sports, religion, and military conflict. The result is a revealing study of leadership delivered as only a communicator like Maxwell can.

Book Summary - The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You by John Maxwell

Key Insights

This book contains a series of “laws” or traits shared by great leaders like Winston Churchill, Harriet Tubman, and Teddy Roosevelt. The laws illuminate what it takes to master any position of leadership and build a loyal following. Maxwell insists that no one is a born leader: these traits are skills that can be learned and mastered by anyone.

Key Points

The potential for success is capped by the leadership’s skill. The most important skill is the ability to influence others.

John Maxwell states that the most important determinant of a mission’s success is the leadership abilities of those running the show. This is known as the “Law of the Lid” which states that the lower an individual’s ability to lead, the less their organization is likely to achieve.

For example, the original McDonalds brothers experienced great success when they opened their drive-in restaurant but couldn’t figure out how to effectively market their business. When they handed leadership over to Ray Kroc, a more experienced leader, the company exploded into a nationwide phenomenon. This is a classic example of how unskilled leadership can limit the capacity for success while skilled leadership can take things to new heights. Therefore, those in charge are the most accountable for the success or failure of their organization.

When choosing a leader to take your organization to new heights, look for those who have a great ability to influence their followers and get people to join their mission. This is known as the Law of Influence. An example of a leader who had great influential ability was Mother Theresa, who was able to attract an army of followers to help her in aiding the poor.

To develop this skill in yourself, pay attention to the feelings of your followers. Is anyone feeling upset about the decisions of leadership? By respecting and treating your followers with sensitivity, you boost the morale of your entire operation. Another way to do this is by acknowledging the successes of the operation as often as possible. In order to want to be influenced, followers must know that their leaders care.

Great leaders earn respect by being stronger than their followers. Respect is maintained through trustworthy behavior.

When you think of great leaders, you imagine those that possess exceptional levels of courage, strength, and determination. That is because followers appreciate leaders who are more competent than themselves. By cultivating these qualities and exhibiting them openly, leaders can become the kind of people others admire and listen to.

One way of doing this is showing courage when the organization is struggling. By being a model for faith, followers will appreciate the resolve and strength needed to remain focused in hard times.

People also only withhold respect for those leaders who they can trust. Trustworthy leaders are honest, fair, and don’t take shortcuts. If followers notice their leaders are avoiding the rules, they will rightfully feel slighted. This is known as the Law of Solid Ground: followers want unwavering trustworthiness so they don’t have to constantly second-guess the morality of their leadership.

Leaders should lead by example.

People look to their leaders to understand how to act as seen in the previous section. Therefore, leaders have a responsibility to embody what they want from their followers. This is called the Law of the Picture: leaders must become the picture or embodiment of their vision. For example, if a leader wants their followers to dress professionally, they should always wear clean and professional attire themselves. If they want their followers to be good listeners, they should listen closely and obviously.

To develop this skill, think of how young children look to their parents for guidance on how to act. Go about your leadership with the sensitivity of a parent trying to make a good impression on their child.

Once followers understand the vision through their leader, they can commit to the vision. This is known as the Law of the Buy-In.

Timing is everything. Know when to act and where to spend your time.

Knowing when to execute on tasks is an extremely important trait for a leader. This is known as the Law of Timing. It involves developing an intuition for when to act before it’s too late. An example of poor leadership due to a lack of this trait, the author considers Ray Nagin’s role as mayor of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Nagin waited to evacuate New Orleans and this indecision resulted in casualties and suffering. Leaders should understand when a decision will be vital for their followers and act quickly and efficiently.

Part of timing involves an understanding of momentum. Leaders should notice whether their organization is experiencing positive momentum and maintain this forward energy to experience faster or even exponential results. They should also notice when their organization is experiencing negative momentum and throw their energy into reversing this downward slide. This is known as the Law of Big Mo.

A related phenomenon is a leader’s understanding of priorities. Leaders should know where to allocate their time in order to get big results. This is called the Law of Priorities. Instead of spending time on anything and everything, invest time on the things that will deliver a majority of success. One practical way to accomplish this is to reduce to-do lists to only the most important and urgent tasks or only ask the most essential interview questions.

Of course, this intuition takes time and practice to form. According to the Law of Process, intuition is developed over periods of learning and observing the timing of other great leaders. Budding leaders should trust the process and allow themselves time to grow.

Great leaders know how to build a good team. They attract people who are similar to themselves and know how to share their leadership with others.

Every leader has their strengths and weaknesses. To be a good leader, you should understand what yours are and build a team of co-leaders who can compensate for your weaknesses. If any of the Laws of Leadership seem difficult for you, look for someone to help in that department. This results in a team of diverse talent and is known as the Law of Inner Circle.

This is often the case in business when there are co-founders of an organization: one is often more technically skilled and a stronger long-term planner while the other is often better at creating personal connections, networking, and finding funding.

When thinking of your ideal time, you might imagine people who think a lot like you. According to the Law of Magnetism, people are attracted to leaders who are similar to themselves. Therefore, if leaders want to attract like-minded people, they should project the goals and traits that they appreciate in others.

Finally, good leaders are confident enough in their strengths and weaknesses that they can share their power with others on their team. By giving power to talented people and trusting in their abilities to lead themselves, teams are able to grow and develop. This is known as the Law of Empowerment: leaders should know how to distribute their power.

This empowerment leads to something known as the Law of Explosive Growth. Leaders should influence more people to become leaders. Together, this raises the potential of the organization and expands the amount of followers.

Losing is not an option for great leaders. Leaders should instill this in their followers by lifting them up and help them move past difficult moments without compromising victory.

According to the Law of Victory, every member of a team should be working towards a shared goal that they are not willing to compromise. A leader’s job is to communicate this goal and direct their team towards it. This is known as the Law of Navigation. If followers feel their leader is safely guiding them to their shared goal, they can focus on their individual tasks in the effort without worry.

The Law of Addition states that if each follower can focus on their individual roles, the mission is more likely to succeed. Leaders can maintain individual focus by being the navigating and guiding force of their teams. By removing this pressure from followers or team members, they can focus on their specific talents and the entire team improves.

Sacrifice is a part of the job.

The greatest leaders made enormous sacrifices. Many sacrificed their reputations or even their lives. According to the Law of Sacrifice, the larger a leader’s responsibility, the more they will have to sacrifice. The great leaders in the world today have to sacrifice their privacy by being in the public eye and many hours of sleep in order to keep their operations running. Consider that this is part of a leader’s job, even if it’s to a smaller extent. Leadership involves compromising on sleep, family, and vacations in order to be present and engaged and for the greater good of the followers.

Consider your legacy. Who do you want to empower?

The Law of Legacy states that leaders understand they are leaving an impression on the world and they’re in a position to empower people. Great leaders create a lasting impression on others, leaving them more empowered. Leaders should try and consider how they want their legacy to look; can you describe in a sentence the effect you want to have on people? How do you want people to continue your mission after you’ve exhausted your time as a leader? This is the ultimate question for leaders looking for perspective on their work.

The Main Take-away

Leadership skills can make or break your mission. The way to successfully increase the success of your organization, you should develop and master your skills as a leader. Great leaders exhibit qualities of excellent strength and resolve, and are more importantly good and reliable people for their followers. To become a good leader, you should become like those you admire. People will voluntarily follow when they notice they are in good hands.

About the Author

John C. Maxwell is an American author, speaker, and pastor. He was born in Garden City, Michigan in 1947. He is an evangelical Christian who followed his father into the ministry. He graduated from Circleville Bible College in 1969 and from Azusa Pacific University with a Masters in Divinity. He obtained a Doctor of Ministry degree at Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in South Florida with his wife. He works as an ordained minister in the Wesleyan Church.

He speaks annually to Fortune 500 companies, international government leaders, and organizations such as the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Business Week best selling author and has sold over a million copies of his books.

He was named the No 1 leadership and management expert in the world by Inc Magazine in 2014.


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