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John C. Maxwell on Leadership

John C. Maxwell’s views on leadership are very conventional. His leaders hold positions of influence at a time when hierarchy is breaking down. Some of his “21 irrefutable laws of leadership” are questionable for a knowledge driven age.

Maxwell isn’t clear about how leadership influence works and he doesn’t effectively differentiate leadership from management. Like most leadership gurus, he identifies leadership with being a successful executive thereby excluding leadership that is not directed downward through a hierarchy, such as green leadership.

Looked at closely, Maxwell’s model breaks down; it is full of inconsistencies and omissions that make it unviable as a general account of leadership. To see this we need to discuss a selection of Maxwell’s 21 irrefutable laws.

The Law of Process

This law means that becoming a leader, for Maxwell, is a lengthy process. In his view, leaders can’t be fully effective without long experience, thus ruling out young people. He recognizes that he lacked the credibility to lead experienced people when he was young, but teenagers lead street gangs; even children can lead other children, so experience can’t be an “irrefutable” leadership law.

According to Maxwell, “Leadership doesn’t develop in a day. It takes a lifetime.” He compares being a leader with being a champion in sports – clearly not something to be achieved overnight. However, we can all beat someone in some sport, even if only our aged grandmother. Similarly, we can all show some leadership to some people. It is a mistake to identify leadership with being a great leader (a champion).

To be consistent, his claim that leadership is influence must force him to accept that, whenever people choose to follow, leadership happens. It may be that experience is necessary to lead similarly experienced people, but this is a situational requirement.

He rightly states that knowledge alone doesn’t make anyone a leader, but then nothing does offer any such guarantee. This is because influence is an impact, an outcome, not an input. Influence is in the eye of the beholder. Thus a young person can have a leadership impact on others with a good idea if it moves them to think or act differently.

The operative phrase here is “IF it moves them.” But this is true of all influence. Take sales, a different kind of influence. We can’t say for sure what it takes to sell to all people. The best sales person in the world might not be able to sell ice cubes to Eskimos. And we use the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute” to express our surprise at what some people will buy.

Those who choose to follow a leader decide what will influence them, not the leader. That is simply what influence means. We can’t therefore say that experience is universally necessary to lead if, as Maxwell claims, leadership really is influence. Experience may be necessary to get to the top of a large organization, but that role is a complex set of many functions, not just leadership.

When we think through the full implications of Maxwell’s view that leadership is influence we get a very different picture of how leadership works, one that explains how ALL people, even the very young can lead. It all depends on what it takes to influence their particular followers.

Is Leadership a Role?

Like most leadership gurus, Maxwell’s model is based on what it takes to run an organization. He rightly states that position alone doesn’t make anyone a leader, but he nevertheless views leadership as a role, one with at least informal authority over people.

But a focus on role ignores leading by example, something that all employees can do, even those with no talent or aspiration to obtain a leadership role. Further, his model can’t explain green leadership, the advocacy of policies that are followed by groups in which the green leader is not a member, thus not an authority figure within the groups that choose to follow.

It is arguable that innovation demands recognition of bottom-up leadership, which doesn’t fit Maxwell’s model.  Such leadership is a one off impact made by an outsider to the senior executive team.  It is clearly not a leadership role within that team. It has more in common with green leadership, by challenging the status quo, than it does with Maxwell’s positional leadership.

Further, he defines leadership as influence, but his leaders make sound decisions, which isn’t a form of influence.

The Law of Influence

The cornerstone of Maxwell’s account of leadership is his claim that it is all about influence. He seems to mean that simply holding a position, having formal authority, doesn’t make you a leader. Hence you can only be a leader if you have influence.

Unfortunately, Maxwell doesn’t discuss the difference between needing influence to become a leader and showing leadership through influence.

Some of his stories talk about a person having more influence than the formal leader. In these cases, leadership is shown through influence. But in other places, leadership for him is a role. He claims that it takes time to gain role-based influence over people. You need to win their trust over a period of proving yourself and gaining the trust of followers.

He is quite clear that effective leaders, once granted a leadership role, make sound decisions. This is confusing because, in some of his stories, he refers to leadership shown, not by making decisions, but by influencing people to think or act differently.

Politicians campaigning for election influence the electorate to get elected, but once in position, we judge them to be effective leaders provided they make sound decisions.

In power, political leaders need to influence their cabinet colleagues to accept new policies but, if the electorate is happy with the new policies, there is no influencing to be done here. Such leadership is therefore not shown to the electorate through a process of influence.

Furthermore, the influence it takes to gain a leadership position is selling influence rather than leadership influence. All candidates for any position, from waiters and assemblers to financial controllers and CEOs need to sell themselves to employers to obtain a position. Surely selling yourself to an employer isn’t leadership.

ALL positions entail responsibilities, including lonely lighthouse keepers and store cashiers, hence they need to be trusted, and so all employees need to have this kind of influence.

Suppose a politician campaigns on a promise to give the electorate everything it wants. This is clearly a sales pitch to get a job, not leadership. We say that leaders influence people to do things they wouldn’t do otherwise, like a green leader persuading you to give up your gas guzzling SUV. In this case you are making personal sacrifices for the greater good, not buying something the leader is selling.

In general, selling and leading are both forms of influence but the former caters to self-interest while the latter emphasizes the greater good. Selling stresses what you will get if you buy, while leadership talks about benefits for the group or a higher cause.

The better you sell yourself to your employer over time, the more the employer will trust you to handle important decisions. Such selling influence, however, is not leadership.

Leadership isn’t really about influence in Maxwell’s model, contrary to his claims. For him, it is really an informal role that allows the occupant to make decisions for people and to direct their efforts. Of course they may influence people at times to act differently as well. But this means two separate processes: making decisions and influence.

Maxwell regards leading a voluntary organization as the purest form of leadership because it doesn’t rely on formal authority. While such leaders can’t dictate to people, their informal authority allows them to make decisions that will be accepted as long as they are reasonable and properly explained. Thus leadership, on this account, isn’t shown through influence.

Green leadership and leading by example are purer forms of leadership than being in charge of a voluntary organization because they are shown through influence, not by making decisions for people. Moreover, they are one-off impacts on followers, not ongoing roles.

Such leadership is even purer if an unknown person shows it with no contaminating forms of influence other than the arguments offered for the cause itself. However, when a media star promotes green actions, leadership is mixed in with other forms of influence such as admiration for the person.

Sometimes a CEO promotes a new vision and we get on board both because we agree with the vision and because we think it might help our career. This is a case of mixed influence: leadership and selling.

Maxwell cites Mother Teresa and Princess Diana as people who had enormous influence and were, therefore, leaders. The use of such examples is unfortunate because it reinforces the myth that you have a better chance of being a leader if you are a heroic type of person. Too bad about down-to-earth, everyday acts of leadership.

But surely not all non-coercive influence counts as leadership. We admire rock stars, even worship them. They could convince us to buy non-existent property or do other absurd things. Does this make them leaders? No, because such influence is more like selling than leadership.

The Law of Navigation

For Maxwell, leaders take followers on a journey, hence they need to chart a course. But is there no leadership in a crisis? Surely, leadership can be an immediate impact, such as in a meeting where you convince your colleagues to avoid taking a wrong course of action. In this case there is no journey to plot and leadership is pure influence.

Leading by example is also generally an immediate impact, not a journey, so again Maxwell’s model is at best situational. Further, what does navigating have to do with influence? Isn’t it a decision?

This confusion can be avoided by recognizing that an executive role is a mixture of at least two functions: leadership and management. If we want to stick to Maxwell’s claim that leadership is genuinely shown through influence and in no other way, then we need to say that ALL decision-making is managerial.

Maxwell claims that leaders “create positive change. Managers can maintain direction, but they can’t change it.”  But, with management properly understood, we can say that leaders influence a change in direction but managers can decide it or facilitate it by drawing ideas for new directions out of others. Hence both can bring about change using a different approach. This move preserves Maxwell’s claim that leadership works through influence and in no other way.

The Law of Connection

This law says “you first have to touch people’s hearts before you ask them for a hand.”  Further: “You can’t move people to action unless you first move them with emotion.” But this is simply not true, even if we accept everything else Maxwell says about leadership. It is possible to lead people in a technical domain without “touching people’s hearts.”  Where evidence-based decision making rules, hard facts can be enough to lead those people who strongly value factual evidence and who see an emotional appeal as an attempt to pull the wool over their eyes. 

Leading by example also may or may not “touch people’s hearts.” If it is just a matter of working smarter or serving customers better, others might follow the example because they see it as better for the business without any emotional connection. The truth is that this law, like many others, is situational. To be consistent in his claim that leadership is influence, Maxwell needs to say that it all depends on what it takes to influence particular people in specific contexts. Thus how you influence people is situational, not universal.

Conclusion

Without discussing all 21 of Maxwell’s laws, it is clear that he violates his own central thesis that leadership is influence and nothing else. To maintain this view, we need to upgrade management to take on more of what Maxwell claims that leaders do. He is right about leadership being influence. That is the only way to account for leading by example, outsider leadership as shown by green leaders and bottom-up leadership.

This is important because organizations that need faster innovation need to understand how front-line knowledge workers lead upwards by promoting new products to their bosses, even though they lack the experience Maxwell says is needed to be a senior executive.

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