130 Laws of Leadership


For many years John Maxwell has both exemplified and written about “leadership.”  Though his concern has always been the local church, having long pastored San Diego ‘s Skyline Wesleyan Church, his influence now includes the corporate world as well.  His The 12 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership:  Follow Them and People Will Follow You (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson Publishers, c. 1998) contains, he says, a “short list” of all he has learned.  The book became quite a “best seller,” garnering plaudits from diverse corners. 

Such plaudits include these words from Tom Landry, former coach of the Dallas Cowboys:  “John Maxwell understands what it takes to be a leader, and he puts it within reach with The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.  I recommend this to anyone who desire success at the highest level, whether on the ball field, in the boardroom, or from the pulpit.”  The founder of Promise Keepers, Coach Bill McCartney, agrees:  “In typical Maxwell style, filled with wisdom, wit, and passion, John provides a wealth of practical insights on what it takes to be a successful leader.”

            Let me simply list Maxwell’s “laws.”  1.  THE LID.  “Leadership Ability Determines a Person’s Level of Effectiveness.”  2.  INFLUENCE.  The True Measure of Leadership is Influence–Nothing More, Nothing Less.”  3.  PROCESS.  Leadership Develops Daily, Not in a Day.  4.  NAVIGATION.  Anyone Can Steer the Ship, But It Takes a Leader to Chart the Course.  5.  E.F. HUTTON.  When the Real Leader Speaks, People Listen.  6. SOLID GROUND.  Trust Is the Foundation of Leadership.  7.  RESPECT.  People Naturally Follow Leaders Stronger than Themselves.  8.  INTUITION.  Leaders Evaluate Everything with a Leadership Bias.  9.  MAGNETISM.  Who You Are Is Who You Attract.  10.  CONNECTION.  Leaders Touch a Heart Before They Ask for a Hand.  11.  INNER CIRCLE.  A Leader’s Potential Is Determined by Those Closest to Him.  12.  EMPOWERMENT.  Only Secure Leaders Give Power to Others.  13.  REPRODUCTION.  It Takes a Leader to Raise Up A Leader.  14.  BUY-IN.  People Buy Into the Leader, Then the Vision.  15.  VICTORY.  Leaders Find a Way for the Team to Win.  16.  BIG MO.  Momentum Is a Leader’s Best Friend.  17.  PRIORITIES.  Leaders Understand That Activity Is Not Necessarily Accomplishment.  18.  SACRIFICE.  A Leader Must Give Up to Go Up.  19.  TIMING.  When to Lead is as Important As What to Do and Where to Go.  20.  EXPLOSIVE GROWTH.  To Add Growth, Lead Followers–To Multiply, Lead Leaders.  21.  LEGACY.  A Leader’s Lasting Value is Measured by Succession. 

            Given the appeal of Maxwell’s work, the current pastor of Skyline Wesleyan, Jim Garlow, decided to illustrate its principles through a survey of historical leaders, titling his spin-off The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership Tested by Time:  Those Who Followed Them . . . And Those Who Didn’t (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson Publishers, c. 2002).  To help him with the research, Pastor Garlow asked me to join him in the project, and he graciously credits me, on the title page, for my assistance, so I confess a vested interest in the publication.

            Prior to his pastoral ministry, Garlow earned a M.Th. from PrincetonUniversity and a Ph.D. in church history from DrewUniversity.  He has an absorbing interest in history and believes that “history is a great teacher.  By looking at the successes and failures of those who have gone before us, we can hopefully avoid their errors and gain from their strengths” (p. 2).  During one’s lifetime critics and lapdogs easily err, but judicious historians more accurately appraise a man’s true worth.  To them it becomes clear that some folks sacrifice their lives for “things that do not retain value.”  Conversely, others loom large for wisely investing in those permanent things that matter most.  Looking to the past, we discern those “who understood the principles of leadership” as well as those who tragically failed. 

            Maxwell’s first law, “The Law of the Lid,” insists that “leadership ability determines a person’s level of effectiveness.”  This law stands revealed in men who had great talents, unusual potential, but failed for lack of leadership skills.  “Leadership skill,” notes Garlow, “is the difference between success and failure; it is the difference between creative vitality and mediocre maintenance” (p.2).   This is dramatically illustrated in one of the two father-son teams that served as presidents of the United States, John Adams and John Quincy Adams. 

            “The second and sixth presidents of the United States came to that position thoroughly gifted and prepared–or so it seemed” (p. 7).  When elected President in 1796, John Adams enjoyed great prestige.  He’d excelled in virtually every previous endeavor, serving as a leader in the Continental Congress and as George Washington’s Vice President.  Furthermore, he was widely respected for his integrity.  He was, however, somewhat egotistical and bullheaded, adept at alienating both friends and foes.  Benjamin Franklin, who knew him well, quipped that he was “always honest, often great, but sometimes mad.”

            Taking up the reins of the presidency in 1797, Adams quickly showed how a gifted man fails as a leader.  Like many who personally perform well, he “was unable to delegate” (p. 8).   Like the Lone Ranger, “he tried to do most everything himself” (p. 8).  Compounding the problem, he frequently absented himself from his office!  “He loved his home in Quincy, Massachusetts, and was unusually unhappy in Philadelphia,” so he  “spent a shocking one-fourth of his presidency away from the nation’s capital, in Boston, in an era without phones, faxes, computers, or any other means of communication faster than horse travel!  He was an absentee president” (p. 8).  As is typical of highly intelligent men, Adams often saw too many sides of various issues and failed to act when crises demanded it.  Consequently, Adams lost the election of 1800.  “Inability to delegate, absenteeism, communication deficiencies, indecisiveness, and lack of discernment have one thing in common: lack of leadership skills,” Garlow says.  “Was he honest? Yes. Was he bright? Yes. Was he good?  Yes” (p. 10).   

            In 1824, John Adams’s son, John Quincy Adams, was elected the nation’s sixth president.  No one could ask for better parents!  “He had a loving father who guided him. His mother, Abigail Adams, was one of the most outstanding colonial women. Son John inherited much of his parents’ intellectual brilliance and Puritan ethic” (p. 10).   He was an unusually gifted man, obviously one of the most intelligent and most experienced of America’s presidents.  But despite his “uninterrupted success” in earlier assignments, he almost immediately failed.  Like his father, he had poor “relationship skills,” proving himself “exceptionally able to offend and alienate people.”  When he met Andrew Jackson, who had received more votes than Adams in the election, he refused to shake hands with the general,  “who graciously greeted him and offered his hand. Petulantly, Adams stood immobile, disdaining Jackson’s gesture, and replied in a manner designed to offend” (p. 11). 

            When he addressed the nation as President, Adams spoke apologetically, inviting criticism through his own lack of confidence in his abilities.  He was, without question, a good man, dedicated to his work.  “But he failed as a leader” (p. 12).  In Samuel Eliot Morison’s appraisal, he “‘was a lonely, inarticulate person unable to express his burning love of country in any manner to kindle the popular imagination.'”  As “John Maxwell so often says, “He who thinks he is a leader, but has no followers, is only taking a walk'” (p. 13).  “Much like his father,” Garlow says, “John Quincy Adams illustrates the ceiling principle. Utterly competent on one level, he failed to grow with his opportunities and failed to effectively serve as president. And that effectiveness hung on one thing: leadership” (p. 13).

            In contrast to the two Adams, another President, Theodore Roosevelt, provides a pattern for great leaders.  He illustrates the second “irrefutable law,” The Law of Influence.   “Leadership ultimately is influence” (p. 22).  “In 1910, at the Sorbonne in Paris, Roosevelt gave a speech that has been quoted by leaders ever since. It depicts his vigorous view of life and contains a profound challenge to everyone who reads the words today:

         “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena [italics the author’s], whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, now, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly [italics the author’s], so that his place will never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat” (p. 23).  

Garlow challenges readers to note TR’s “words: ‘the man who is actually in the arena,’ ‘at least he fails while daring greatly.’  Those words ignite human hearts. That is the language of a leader. Those are the concepts of an influencer” (p. 23).  

            Roosevelt’s exploits, from the Spanish-American War through his years as President, reveal his ability to influence others.  The men he recruited for his famous “Rough Riders” followed them because he inspired them.  He truly cared for them and they loved him for it.  “Leaders draw others to themselves and their causes, even when the cause is difficult,” Garlow notes.  “Roosevelt’s cause was one that demanded a tough love, which calls men to risk their very lives in serving a higher good. Only leaders can inspire others to that level. There’s a name for it: influence” (p. 27).  His influence streamed, in part from his infectious courage.  In his Autobiography, he confessed, “There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid” (27).  Whether leading soldiers or declaiming from the “bully pulpit” in the White House, TR inspired men by his courageous confidence. 

            Moving to the third “irrefutable law of leadership,” The Law of Process, we discover that “Leadership Develops Daily, Not in a Day.”  Here Pastor Garlow provides some personal background, saying:  “I am uniquely qualified to write this book. Of the six billion persons on earth, I am the only one who had to follow John Maxwell in a leadership position since he has become so knowledgeable on leadership.”  Maxwell pastored San Diego’s SkylineWesleyanChurch for 14 years, and when he resigned Jim Garlow was asked “to consider coming to Skyline as the new senior pastor.  I immediately declined, saying, ‘Anyone who tries to follow John Maxwell is a fool.’ (Several years have passed since I made that comment. I think the statement might still be true!) Four months later, I found myself accepting the senior pastoral role at SkylineChurch.  I did follow–or attempted to follow–Maxwell. And it has been a challenge” (p. 36).

            The challenge came from trying to succeed (and then succeed) a highly gifted pastor.  Garlow had much to learn!  And learn he did, as the church’s continued growth and ministry testifies.  Learning “process” skills, however, stretched him.  He “underestimated” its importance.  In part this stemmed from the fact that he tends to be “event driven.”  As he confesses,  “I was an ‘event king.’  In fact, I can ‘out event’ anybody.  At ‘eventing,’ I’m good!  But leaders are not produced in events. They are made in process.  So I have been on a huge learning curve for the past few years.  I wish I could say that I have changed, and that I have conquered the process concept.  I haven’t. But I’m growing. I’m not where I want to be. But I’m not where I used to be. And while I see how far I have to go, I am thankful for the progress” (p. 37).  

            The importance of process appears in a careful study of the difference between the followers of two 18th century “exceptionally gifted” evangelists, George Whitefield and John Wesley.  “Both commanded enormous respect. Tens of thousands followed them” (p. 37).  They had “much in common, but they had one noticeable difference. As the years went by, Whitefield’s followers dissipated.  His organization faltered.  Wesley’s did not. What was the difference? Both men were brilliant. Both were winsome and compelling communicators. Both experienced phenomenal success in their lives. But Wesley understood process. Whitefield, it would appear, did not” (p. 38).  

            Whitefield was a powerful orator, probably the greatest of his generation.  He preached some 18,000 times, both in England and the American Colonies.  He helped ignite the Great Awakening in America.  “Thousands responded to his booming voice, which could be heard by a crowd of 20,000 (some have dared to say 40,000) without present-day public address systems” (p. 38).  He received generous financial support and established charitable foundations, especially orphanages.  Many gave of their finances to help support the orphanage that his wife operated in the Georgia Colony. 

            Wesley, like Whitefield, attended OxfordUniversity and became a priest in the Church of England.  Transformed by his Aldersgate experience in 1738, where his “heart was strangely warmed,” he joined his friend Whitefield in an innovative technique, preaching in open fields.   His preaching (some 40,000 times!) helped launch the “Evangelical Revival” which renewed religious life in England.  He continually traveled and preached.  “His energy level was amazing. He arose every morning at four o’clock, working eighteen-hour days. He rode on horseback a quarter of a million miles. He stopped riding a horse when he reached about seventy years of age, but he continued the rigorous travel schedule by horse and buggy. He traveled 4,000 to 5,000 miles a year, as many as 80 miles a day! It is believed that Wesley may have spent more time in the saddle that any other man who ever lived, including Bonaparte and Caesar. Equally amazing was his ability to convert the saddle to a library chair, reading literally hundreds of books while riding on horseback” (p. 40).

            In addition to preaching he wrote or edited some 233 books.  “At the time of his death in 1791, he led an enormous organization: 120,000 members in the Methodist movement, with some suggesting that the total adherents numbered one million” (p. 40).  More importantly, “Wesley’s Methodist movement flourished globally after Wesley’s death. Today there are scores of denominations that point to Wesley as their inspiration. There are millions of believers who see him as father of their denominations. In contrast, George Whitefield’s denomination, the Calvinist Methodists, had insignificant impact, eventually ceasing to exist. Why? What was the difference between Wesley’s leadership style and Whitefield’s leadership style?” (p. 40). 

            This happened because “Wesley understood the Law of Process.  He quickly saw that gaining followers was not the key issue; sustaining them was the real challenge. To that end, Wesley began to organize his new converts” (p. 41).   He organized “classes” and “bands” and “societies.”  Local leaders accepted responsibility for guiding, and holding accountable, fellow Methodists.  Lay preachers were encouraged to exercise their gifts.  Conversely, “Whitefield’s followers had no such structure to assist them in their personal growth.  Once converted, they were simply to gather in churches.  But that did not happen. What was lacking was a process, a system or device by which a person is enabled to go to the next level of growth” (p. 42).  Both men were gifted.  Both were devout.  But only one, Wesley, left a lasting imprint.  Wesley understood the importance of process!

            For purposes of illustration, I’ve focused on only three of the twenty-one “laws.”  Since I helped research and write the book I obviously recommend it!  And I think it’s worth perusing because I share Pastor Garlow’s conviction:  the study of the past reveals how significant leaders have responded to the challenges of their day, providing time-tested principles well worth heeding.