The 21 Laws of Leadership

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell


Maxwell defines the Law of the Lid by saying “leadership ability is the lid that determines a person’s
level of effectiveness. The lower an individual’s ability to lead, the lower the lid on his potential.” This
idea is troubling for some people because it means that no matter how much you desire to be a 10
on the scale of leadership, there is a cap to your abilities based on a number of factors. Some of
these factors are your people skills, planning abilities, vision, dedication to success, and your past

The truth is, there are very few 10’s in the world; however, when you leverage the law of the lid and
assess your own leadership, then you will have a straightforward view of who your followers are,
where they might land on the leadership scale, and areas in which you can grow in to raise your
leadership lid. The reality is that if you are a 7 on the leadership scale, in most cases you won’t be
able to lead someone who is an 8, 9, or 10. Yet your skills can still offer invaluable leadership to
people who are at a level of a 5 or 6.

The good news is, the law of the lid has room for flexibility. It is unwise to think that where you are
today as a leader is as good as you will ever be. Every leader can grow, but it takes a dedication to
do so and a willingness to work for it.


Maxwell’s definition for the Law of Influence is that “the true measure of leadership is influence
nothing more, nothing less.” This, of course, is one of John Maxwell’s most famous quotes heard
around the world (and world-wide web). It’s a great quote, but how often do you take time to ask
yourself the big question: who are you influencing?

Maybe a bigger question for us to ask is, what type of influence are we offering those who follow us?
Insecure leaders often influence people in such a way that it keeps others down in order to protect
their own position of leadership in the group. This is a shame. The best leaders realize that
leadership is always about raising people up to their highest potential, even if it means they one day
become better leaders than themselves.

Leadership is not determined by having a title. It doesn’t matter if you are CEO, Pastor, Director,
Manager, or Man of the House, you are not a leader if people do not follow your lead. Maxwell says,
“True leadership cannot be awarded, appointed, or assigned. It comes only from influence, and that
cannot be mandated. It must be earned.” He goes on to say, “When it comes to identifying a real
leader… don’t listen to the claims of the person professing to be the leader. Don’t examine his
credentials. Don’t check his title. Check his influence. The proof of leadership is found in the
followers.” He ends the chapter with a famous leadership proverb, “He who thinks he leads, but has
no followers, is only taking a walk.”


The subtitle for this chapter is, “Leadership Develops Daily, Not in a Day.” This means that you can
tell where a person will end up by watching their daily habits and priorities. It means that as a leader,
we must have a personal plan for growth. Maxwell writes, “What can you see when you look at a
person’s daily agenda? Priorities, passion, abilities, relationships, attitude, personal disciplines,
vision, and influence” All of those things contribute to the destination you will arrive at later on in your
journey of life. Therefore, it doesn’t matter at all where you hope to end up, if you do not first
determine which road you ought to be traveling on to get there.

The law of process also comes into play as we set out to lead others. Maxwell says, “Just as you
need a growth plan to improve, so do those who work for you.” This means that as we lead others,
we have to set them on a course for success as well.


This law follows closely after the law of process. Once you have determined the process to get
where you are going personally, the next step is being able to navigate your business or
organization through the challenges and obstacles to reach to success. Maxwell quotes Jack Welch,
former CEO of General Electric, as saying, “A good leader remains focused… Controlling your
direction is better than being controlled by it.”

The Law of Navigation is where leadership differentiates itself from other voices wanting to be
heard. Leaders look back at past experiences, prior successes, and hurtful failures. They learn from
those things and then look ahead to see where conflict and challenge may arise. With all of these in
mind, leaders will preemptively respond according to those challenges as they move forward toward
the goal. This is more than vision-casting. This is determining what it will take to fulfill the vision.
Maxwell says it this way: “Anyone can steer the ship, but it takes a leader to chart the course.”


The Law of Addition law simply says, “Leaders add value by serving others.” Maxwell says that we
add value to others when we truly value them and intentionally make ourselves valuable to them. He
says, “90 percent of all people who add value to others do so intentionally.” The most helpful way we
do this is to actually get to know the people we are leading, find out their priorities, goals, hopes, and
dreams, and then figure out what we can do to assist them in getting where they need to go.
Maxwell says, “Inexperienced leaders are quick to lead before knowing anything about the people
they intend to lead. But mature leaders listen, learn, and then lead.”


Maxwell defines The Law of Solid Ground by saying: “trust is the foundation of leadership” This is
perhaps the greatest challenge leaders face in the 21st century, especially those of us expressly
leading as Christians with the Kingdom of God in mind. Too many people are disillusioned with
leaders because it has been too-often abused by self-serving leaders. This is especially true of
politicians and television preachers. Trust, then, is the most important element in leadership. If you
do not have trust, you have nothing to offer.

Maxwell says that we build trust “by consistently exemplifying competence, connection, and
character,” and that we must “treat trust as our most precious asset.” He later writes, “How do
leaders earn respect? By making sound decisions, by admitting their mistakes, and by putting what’s
best for their followers and the organization ahead of their personal agendas.” This is because, “no
leader can break trust with his people and expect to keep influencing them,” and, as we already
know, “leadership is influence, nothing more.”


Similar to the high necessity of trust, is the necessity of respect. The Law of Respect reminds us
that “people naturally follow leaders stronger than themselves.” Maxwell says, “One of the greatest
potential pitfalls for natural leaders is relying on talent alone… good leaders rely on respect. They
understand that all leadership is voluntary.” He says that “when people respect you as a person,
they admire you. When they respect you as a friend, they love you. When they respect you as a
leader, they follow you.” The opposite is true as well. As soon as people lose respect for you, your
influence over them will disappear.


Maxwell says that “every person possesses intuition” and “people are intuitive in their area of
strength.” Therefore this law says that using intuition, “Leaders evaluate everything with a leadership
bias.” The Law of Intuition is based on facts and instinct as well as other ever-changing factors
such as “employee morale, organizational momentum, and relational dynamics.” Out of all of the
leadership skills one can develop over time, intuition may be the hardest because it relies on more
than just leadership experience. It has a lot to do with your natural aptitude for seeing all of these
factors at once and naturally discerning possible actions and probable outcomes. Maxwell says of
intuitive leaders, “they ‘tune in’ to leadership dynamics. Many leaders describe this as an ability to
‘smell’ things in their organization. They can sense people’s attitudes. They are able to detect the
chemistry of a team… They don’t need to sift through stats, read reports, or examine a balance
sheet. They know the situation before they have all the facts. That is the result of their leadership
intuition.” This ability is one that is either natural or must be nurtured, and for many people who
refuse to grow as a leader, it means they will never have this ability. Developing this intuition through
experience and growth is invaluable because, as Maxwell says, “whenever leaders face a problem,
they automatically measure it — and begin solving it — using the Law of Intuition.”


The Law of Magnetism states, “Who you are is who you attract,” or more simply, you will attract
people like yourself. This can be a good thing in many cases, but is also a call to action to know your
weaknesses and seek to grow out of them. Maxwell says, “Leaders help to shape the culture of their
organizations based on who they are and what they do,” and “not only do people attract others with
similar attitudes, but their attitudes tend to become alike.”

I have heard it said before that in five years, the things you won’t like about your organization is what
you don’t like about yourself today. Your personality, character traits, quirks, and mannerisms will
both attract people like yourself to your organization as well as rub off on the existing people within.
According to Maxwell, “Like attracts like. That may seem pretty obvious. Yet I’ve met many leaders
who expect highly talented people to follow them, even though they neither possess nor express
value for those people’s giftedness.” Therefore, “if you want to grow an organization, grow the
leader” and “if you want to attract better people, become the kind of person you desire to attract.”
Then, once you are attracting the people you want to have following you, then its time to take
yourself and those people to the next level together.


Maxwell summarizes The Law of Connection by saying, “leaders touch a heart before they ask for
a hand.” Another way to say this is that people will not follow you until they are emotionally bought
into the vision you are casting. There is also some tie in here with the famous quote, “people don’t
care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Maxwell says, “You develop
credibility with people when you connect with them and show that you genuinely care and want to
help them.”

To truly connect with people you have to value them, learn about them, and then adapt to who they
are. Do not expect people to change themselves in order to follow you. You must change yourself in
order to invite them in. Even the Apostle Paul understood this principle when, in his evangelistic
efforts, he declared, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might
win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I
became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under
the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God
but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I
might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1
Corinthians 9:19-22).

The law of connection means that we understand people’s self-identity, meet them where they are,
and build connection with them first before we try to get them to follow us or buy into the vision of
where we want to go.


The Law of the Inner Circle states that “a leader’s potential is determined by those closest to him.”
This is similar in effect to the law of magnetism, which says your followers will look like you, except
that this says you will begin to look like those with whom you surround yourself with . When I was in
high school, the guidance counselor would say, “you show me your friends, and I’ll show you your
future.” I hated that quote at the time since I wanted to be in control of my own destiny, yet because
this law is universal, time has proven that statement true every time.

To leverage the law of the inner circle then, we must surround ourselves continually with people we
admire and respect; people we want to become like as we grow. Unfortunately this is counterintuitive
to the leadership style of most. Insecure leaders feel threatened when they are not the
smartest and most talented people in the room, so they surround themselves with people weaker
than themselves. This, however, means that their potential for growth themselves is stunted by the
capacity of those they keep near.

Maxwell says in order to leverage the law of the inner circle and “to increase your capacity and
maximize your potential as a leader, your first step is always to become the best leader you can. The
next is to surround yourself with the best leaders you can find.”


Following closely behind the law of the inner circle is the Law of Empowerment. This law states
that “only secure leaders give power to others.” This means that secure leaders spend their time
“identifying leaders; building them up; giving them resources, authority, and responsibility; and then
turning them loose to achieve…” Insecure leaders, on the other hand, spend their time suspicious of
those around them, and do everything they can to undermine people’s potential and growth.

Former U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt said, “The best executive is the one who has sense
enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and the self-restraint enough to keep from
meddling with them while they do it.” Maxwell says this is because, “to keep others down, you have
to go down with them. And when you do that, you lose any power to lift others up.”

Maxwell says, “The truth is that empowerment is powerful-not only for the person being developed
but also for the mentor. Enlarging others makes you larger.” Therefore, to take advantage of this law
in our lives, we must come to understand that as we develop the leaders around us we not only
inadvertently raise our own value as a leader, but our organizations are benefitted in the process as


The Law of the Picture says that “people do what people see.” This may be one of the highest laws
in understanding that everything rises and falls on leadership. Character matters. Maxwell says,
“When the leaders show the way with the right actions, their followers copy them and succeed.”
Corrupt leaders will turn every leader around them into corrupt leaders because their own lives
demonstrate that it is good and acceptable.

From the Christian perspective as leaders, we must understand that integrity must come first in
everything we do, because other people are watching us, and they will follow our example. One
scripture that comes to mind here is the command in Hebrews 13:7, “Remember your leaders, those
who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”


The Law of Buy-In says, “People buy into the leader, then the vision.” Maxwell writes, “Many people
who approach the area of vision in leadership have it all backward. They believe that if the cause is
good enough, people will automatically buy into it and follow. But that’s not how leadership really
works. People don’t at first follow worthy causes. They follow worthy leaders who promote causes
they can believe in.” If we roll this back to the law of the picture, this means that if your credibility as
a leader is questionable at best, you are not going to have people willing to follow the vision you are
casting because they doubt you can get them there.

One of the biggest leadership lessons I took away from my own experiences in 2014 was that
leadership is inevitably connected to the opportunities they present. Sometimes saying “no” to a bad
leader means saying “no” to a good opportunity, and sometimes saying “no” to a bad opportunity
means saying “no” to a good leader. This was my personal realization of the law of buy-in. Maxwell
says it this way, “You cannot separate leaders from the causes they promote. It cannot be done, no
matter how hard you try. It’s not an either/or proposition. The two always go together.”

As a leader, you cannot just promote your vision and the good work you are doing through websites
and social media, and expect that people will jump on board to volunteer or give money. If they do
not trust you, it does not matter what opportunity you put in front of them. From my own observation
in global ministry, I think this may be the biggest issue those of us in the non-profit and humanitarian
world need to learn.


The Law of Victory states that leaders find a way for the team to win. Maxwell writes, “Every
leadership station is different. Every crisis has its own challenges. But I think that victorious leaders
have one thing in common: they share an unwillingness to accept defeat. The alternative to winning
is totally unacceptable to them. As a result, they figure out what must be done to achieve victory.”

Though not mentioned in the book, I think back to the 2009 movie (based on the 1960’s TV show)
Star Trek, and the always-inspiring Captain James T. Kirk. In every situation Kirk refuses to accept
defeat and always finds a way to accomplish the mission at hand. One of the storylines to build this
characteristic in Kirk was featured during his time at Starfleet Academy when he took a virtual reality
test which presented him with a “no-win” scenario. In order to beat the test scenario, Kirk
reprogrammed the simulation, and as he faced expulsion for cheating, he referred to the test itself as
a cheat since there was no way to successfully complete the challenge. His mindset would not allow
him to even accept the premise of a “no-win” scenario.

This is the way a leader thinks who embraces the law of victory. They take responsibility, get
creative, and throw all of their experience and passion into reaching success. There is a no-quit
attitude, and failure is not an option. These leaders are always inspiring to those behind them, even
when the challenge gets difficult.

Maxwell quotes Lou Holtz, former Notre Dame head football coach, as saying, “You’ve got to have
great athletes to win, I don’t care who the coach is. You can’t win without good athletes, but you can
lose with them. This is where coaching makes the difference.” Good leaders take responsibility for
the success of the team and do what it takes to lead the way to victory.


The Law of the Big Mo states that “momentum is a leader’s best friend.” Maxwell says this is
“because many times (momentum) is the only thing that makes the difference between losing and
winning. When you have no momentum, even the simplest tasks seem impossible… On the other
hand, when you have momentum on your side, the future looks bright, obstacles appear small, and
troubles seem inconsequential.”

This law comes into place when an organization is starting out. Everything is a challenge, and it
seems to take forever to get anything done. However, just like a train slowly gaining speed, once
that same organization gets moving, there is no stopping it. In physics this phenomenon is referred
to as the law of inertia, which states in part that “an object in motion continues in motion with the
same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.”

This truth is the same when it comes to leadership. An organization with forward momentum is hard
to slow down. The challenge is in getting that momentum built up in the first place (and making sure
the momentum is in the direction you want the organization to go). Maxwell says, “Creating
momentum requires someone who has vision, can assemble a good team, and motivates others. If
the leader is looking for someone to motivate him, then the organization is in trouble.”


For almost two years now, the background image on my computer desktop has challenged me with
the question, “Are you being productive, or just being busy?” This is at the heart of the Law of
Priorities, which says, “leaders understand that activity is not necessarily about accomplishment.”

Maxwell says, “When we are busy, we naturally believe that we are achieving. But business does
not equal productivity. Activity is not necessarily accomplishment.” This means prioritizing, which
“requires leaders to continually think ahead, to know what’s important, to see how everything relates
to the overall vision.” Sometimes what is highest on that priority list is not comfortable or easy.
Key to leveraging the law of priorities is called “the Pareto Principle” or more commonly “the 80/20
principle.” Maxwell says that if we will spend most of our time working on the things in the top 20% of
importance, it will give us 80% of the return we are looking for. This means things like giving 80% of
your time to your top 20% of employees.

The other factors Maxwell discusses in setting your priority list are his three R’s: Requirement,
Return, and Reward. These three things make us ask: “what must I do that nobody can or should do
for me?” Is there anyone I can delegate this task to capable of getting the same return as I can? And
what tasks will lead to the most satisfaction? “Life is too short to not do some things you love.” When
we properly prioritize how we spend our time, it will always set us on course for success. When we
don’t prioritize our time, we will often look back wondering where it all went.


The Law of Sacrifice gives us a glimpse into the heart of a leader: “a leader must give up to go up.”
Maxwell says, “There is a common misperception among people who aren’t leaders that leadership
is all about the position, perks, and power that come from rising in an organization… The life of a
leader can look glamorous to people on the outside. But the reality is that leadership requires

I have a friend who has invested thousands of hours of his time and thousands of dollars to receive
leadership training from the best teachers our generation has to offer. He owns and runs a
successful branch of the company for which he works, he has a healthy bank account, and is
capable of enjoying many comforts that life has to offer. What impresses me the most about this
friend, though, is not his success in the business world, but his willingness to put all of his success
on the line to take his leadership to the next level and share with others. He has recently taken on a
regional leadership position with his company that gives him the ability to take personal time to travel
around the region without pay to meet with others in the company and help them develop their own
branch of the business. He has also launched a community leadership networking group which is
costing him personal time and money to develop leaders in our city for which he will receive little to
no return. While many people see a white-collar business man and think, “that must be nice to not
have to work so hard,” what I see in my friend is someone who works twice as hard as most to give
other people a leg up in life and business.

Maxwell says, “There is no success without sacrifice. Every person who has achieved any success
in life has made sacrifices to do so.” He adds, “the heart of leadership is putting others ahead of
yourself. It’s doing what is best for the team.” If you are pursuing leadership for personal gain or
recognition, then you are not, in reality, a quality leader.


For natural leaders, many of the principles discussed up to this point can be fairly easy to live by.
Even those who may not be born-leaders, but who have invested time and effort to grow in this area,
may have a lot of success with them. Yet, when we come to the Law of Timing, I believe this is
where many leaders can begin to struggle. This law teaches us that “when to lead is as important as
what to do and where to go.”

Maxwell gives a few summary statements. He says, “the wrong action at the wrong time leads to
disaster.” “The right action at the wrong time brings resistance.” “The wrong action at the right time is
a mistake.” However, “the right action at the right time results in success.”
As we develop our leadership abilities, we have to go beyond simply knowing how to lead. We must
also learn to discern when it is the right time to do so.


At this stage in the book, Maxwell takes a turn from simply sharing laws vital to good leadership, and
begins to teach how to take our leadership higher. The Law of Explosive Growth says, “To add
growth, lead followers,” but, “to multiply, lead leaders.” Maxwell further explains this distinction by
saying, “if you develop yourself, you can experience personal success. If you develop a team, your
organization can experience growth. (But) if you develop leaders, your organization can achieve
explosive growth.” He adds, “You can grow by leading followers. But if you want to maximize your
leadership and help your organization reach its potential, you need to develop leaders.”
Some of the practical advice for leading leaders includes development of the top 20% of people
around you, rather than spending your time playing catch up with the bottom 20%; focusing on
strengths instead of weaknesses, and treating everyone differently, rather than acting like everyone
must be treated the same. Determine what it takes to actually invest quality time into others rather
than just spending time together.

To live by the law of explosive growth is definitely harder and takes more time and energy to do, yet
when we do so the trickle-down effect of those leaders investing in those under them, and so forth,
will lead to exponential multiplication. Maxwell summarizes this law by saying, “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, improving
systems, implementing quality procedures, or doing anything else.”


The final law in the book is the Law of Legacy which states, “A leader’s lasting value is measured by
succession.” The chapter starts by asking, “What do you want people to say at your funeral? That
may seem like an odd question, but it may be the most important thing you can ask yourself as a

A couple of years ago, I went through a practice in setting what Andy Stanley calls “Be-goals,” which
are character qualities a person wants to be known for in life. Maybe goals are things like, Godseeking,
holy (set apart for God/fighting sin and temptation), and humble. In walking through this
practice, determining these be-goals, which are the things I want said of me at my funeral, is in effect
determining what success in life looks like for myself. However, this is an activity most people will
never engage in. Maxwell says, “most people simply accept their lives — they don’t lead them.” To
be sure, my favorite statement made in this chapter, if not the entire book is, “someday people will
summarize your life in a single sentence. My advice: pick it now!”

One day we will all be gone, and what remains of us will be the examples we set with our lives and
the people we leave behind empowered to continue on. Maxwell summarizes the life of a leader by
saying that “achievement comes when they do big things by themselves. Success comes when they
empower followers to do big things for them. Significance comes when they develop leaders to do
great things with them. Legacy comes when they put leaders in position to do great things without
them.” He ends the chapter with the thought, “our abilities as leaders will not be measured by the
buildings we built, the institutions we established, or what our team accomplished during our tenure.
You and I will be judged by how well the people we invested in carried on after we are gone.” This is
the greatest challenge a lifelong pursuit of leadership will face, but it is also the only thing that will
matter in the end.