Book Review: How Successful People Think by John C. Maxwell

A Book Summary by Jeff Abbot

This book starts out with the statement, “The person who knows how will always have a job, but the person who knows why will always be his boss.” If you can change the way you think, you can change your life. Good thinkers rarely find themselves being victimized by the world’s dictators and connivers…they know what they think and are confident.

How do you think? How do the people you lead think? It stands to reason that right thinking models right thinking, so as you lead, your followers will learn how to think by watching how you think, and your organization will adopt that culture.

3 Considerations:

1. Changing your thinking will not be automatic

2. It will not be easy

3. It will be worth the investment

6 How Tos:

1. Expose yourself to good input

2. Expose yourself to good thinkers

3. Choose to think good thoughts

4. Act on your good thoughts

5. Allow your emotions to create another good thought

6. Repeat the process

Solomon pointed out many centuries ago that “There is nothing new under the sun,” so don’t enter into this thinking you have heard it all before. Consider the possibility that there are new and profound ideas waiting for you that have been “hidden in plain view.” I certainly learned myself and committed to do more of this thinking intentionally in the future. It will only make me more successful.

There are many ways to think and most of us practice them from time to time. At the same time, we tend not to be intentional about the ways we think. John Maxwell “unpacks” thinking for us and helps us to see the many elements successful people use to live their lives. These 11 make up most of these behaviors of successful leaders and help us to see with a right perspective or paradigm:

1. Big Picture Thinking

Most leaders are big picture thinkers

 They see the vision before others

 They size up situations and variables

 They sense where the team is going

 Connect the past and the future

 Seize the moment

It keeps you “in the right forest.” You see as others see. It leads to team thinking. It expands your horizons. Like the CEO Group setting, Maxwell encourages insights and input from those who care about you.

Learn continually by visiting new places, reading new books, meeting new people, learning new skills.

Become a listener. Try to get “outside yourself.” Take in other people’s thinking. Look for opportunities to learn.

2. Focused Thinking

Set aside time to focus. Focused thinking removes distractions. It clarifies the target. It gets you through this milestone and to the next step. Be selective and choose your priorities (Top Five, High Five). Do personality profile assessments and reflect on past successes. Focus on your strengths. 80/20…what brings the highest return?

You have to “Give up to Go up,” meaning you have to release some things in order to grasp others. You can’t know everything, pursue everything, or travel everywhere…in fact about 90% of what we will learn and know cannot be acted upon, so we have to focus. Releasing the incidental or urgent for what is important is not an easy lesson to implement.

3. Creative Thinking

“Creativity is being able to see what everybody else is has seen and think what nobody else has thought in order to do what nobody else has done.”–John Maxwell. Joy is in creating…not maintaining.

Creativity is the most valuable resource you bring to your organization. Few people figure out how to use this principle in abundance. Often, creative thinking is really dot connecting using a lot of previous learning. But you will not be able to create or connect those dots if you don’t understand the value of the thoughts.

Einstein held that “Imagination is more important than intelligence.” By keeping your options open for other ideas, you find the key to getting the best solution…not the only answer. There is a correlation between creative thinking and screwball thinking…suffer the screwball and his ideas. To foster creativity, tolerate a little oddness. Creativity is intelligence having fun.

“Creativity is especially expressed in the ability to make connections, to make associations, to turn things around and express them in a new way.” Tim Hansen. Creative thinkers are fearless. You don’t use up creativity…the more you use, the more you gain.

Eliminate thinking that kills creativity:

 I’m not a creative person

 Follow the rules

 Don’t ask questions

 Don’t be different

 Stay within the lines

 There is only one way to do it

 Don’t be foolish

 It’s not practical…Be practical

 Be serious

 Think of your image

 That’s not logical

 It’s never been done

 It didn’t work for them

 We tried that before

 It’s too much work

 We can’t afford a mistake

 It will be too hard to administer

 We don’t have the time

 Yes, but…

 Play is frivolous

 Failure is final

Create an environment that encourages creativity. Avoid “The Box”

4. Realistic Thinking

The leader must define reality. To minimize downside risk, it is imperative to plan for the best case, worst case, and probable case. Realistic thinking will protect your game plan. Staring at reality will be a healthy catalyst for change. After you have dealt with the worst case and come to terms with it, what’s the worst it could be? Harry S. Truman used to say of communicating with his staff: “I never give ‘em hell. I just tell them the truth and they think it’s hell.”

The value of a good idea is in using it.

Winston Churchill said, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.”

Ted Koppel said, “Our society finds truth too strong a medicine to digest undiluted.”

When facing reality, why not learn all you can from those who have faced it before you? Some of your best thinking can be done by others.

Worst case scenario thinking is necessary to ready yourself:

 What if sales fall short? (Plan B)

 What if revenue hits rock bottom?

 What if we don’t get the contract?

 What happens if the client doesn’t pay up?

 What if we have to do the job shorthanded?

 What if our best player gets sick?

 What if all the best schools reject my application?

 What if the market tanks?

 What if all the volunteers quit?

 What if nobody shows up to the event?

5. Strategic Thinking

Most people spend more time planning their summer vacations than planning their lives.”–Anonymous

Strategic thinking can positively impact your life.

Strategic planning:

 Simplifies the difficult

 Prompts great questions

o What’s next?

o Who’s responsible?

o How much will it cost?

o How will we know we’re on target?

o Did we get there?

o What’s next?

 Helps fit the plan to the circumstances

 Prepares you for uncertainty

 Reduces Errors

 Increases your influence

Tips on how to do strategic planning

 Unpack the issue(s)

 Ask “Why?” before “How?”

 Get to the real issue (The issue is often not the issue)

 Assess your resources available in time, people, money, etc.

 Come up with the plan

 Put people in place (make your assignments carefully with respect to skills, strengths, trust)

 Repeat the process periodically

6. Possibility Thinking

“Nothing is so embarrassing as watching someone do something you said could not be done.”–Sam Ewing. It is often thought to be arrogant and mystical to be a possibility thinker. But there are many instances of great things being done by people who thought it could be done and endeavored to do it. Conversely there are many more stories of people NOT doing things because they believed it could not be done, so they did nothing.

Here are some reasons to think positively:

 It increases your possibilities

 You will draw opportunities and people to yourself

 It is contagious…it increases the possibilities of others

 Allows your dreams to live

 Allows you to soar above the average

 It energizes you

 It keeps you from giving up

Winston Churchill was a possibility thinker. In the hours after the World Trade Centers were attacked, Rudy Giuliani returned to his room at 2:30pm and instead of sleeping, he was inspired to read Churchill’s Biography on thoughts and actions taken in WWII. How did he keep the people going? It helped him see the possibilities and helped inspire the people not to give up.

How many truly successful people remain negative?

Here’s how to keep your positive energy up:

 Try not to focus on the impossibilities

 Stay away from the stodgy (inside the box) “experts”

 Seek possibilities in every situation

 Learn from other people’s positive leadership

 Dream just one size bigger…add a zero or one level up

 Question why things need to be as they are…the status quo

 Learn the thoughts and actions of great achievers

George Bernard Shaw said, “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’”

7. Reflective Thinking

One of the most overlooked types of thinking is reflection. We learn much over and over only to rush into the next thing to do or the next point to learn. We don’t give ideas time to simmer. Reflection is the “Crock Pot” of the mind.

Benefits of reflective thinking:

 True perspectives

 A check and balance for emotional thinking in the heat of the moment

 Higher confidence in decision making

 Clarifies the big picture

 Gives you the full value of an experience

How to think reflectively:

 Intentionally set aside some time….BLOCK it out

 Get away from distractions (Phones, people, TV, etc.)

 Review your calendar and journal

 Ask yourself the right profound questions

o Personal growth – What have I learned today?

o Add Value – Did I help someone? Did I add value?

o Leadership – Did I lead by example?

o Personal Faith – Did I represent God well today?

o Family – Did I impact my family positively today? Did they feel the love?

o Inner Circle – Have I invested in my key players lately?

o Discovery – What did I discover today/lately?

Put aside some time to reflect on your life. Create three columns on a sheet of paper. Label the columns, Year, Turning Point, and Impact. List the events that shaped your life by year, reflect on the turning points they represent and what the impact was on your journey. Record any reflections that come to mind. This is a meaningful exercise and should be added to periodically.

After returning home from a seminar, talk, or forum, list the items you thought were significant and “best Ideas.” Reflect on how you can integrate them into your life. Get the most out of your learning.

8. Popular Thinking

“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping the old ones.”–John Maynard Keynes. This entire book is contrary to popular thinking.

The problems with popular thinking are:

 Too average to understand good thinking

 Too inflexible

 Too lazy

 Too small

 Too satisfied/complacent

 Too traditional

 To naïve

 To undisciplined

 Too self limiting

 Too trendy

 Too shallow

 Too proud

 Too self-absorbed

 Too uncommitted

Why Question Popular Thinking:

1. It sometimes means not thinking at all

2. It offers hollow solutions, false hope

3. Embraces change slowly

4. Can only give average results/gains

5. People follow blindly

6. People think too much of how they think without questioning

7. It blocks new approaches

8. It gets way too comfortable

9. Shared Thinking

None of us is as smart as all of us.–Ken Blanchard

Benefits of Shared Thinking over Solo Thinking:

 It is faster moving

 It is more innovative

 It works around our blind spots

 Has more power

 Returns greater value

 Only path to consistent great thinking

To value the ideas of others, you must value the person. Do I place value on people? Or am I arrogant and self-absorbed?

If I value people:

 I want to spend time with them

 I listen to them

 I want to help them

 I am influenced by them

 I respect them

 I gain from them

If I do not value people:

 I don’t want to be around them

 I neglect to listen

 I don’t offer to help

 I ignore them

 I am indifferent

 I cannot gain from them

I need to value the interactive process. Once you learn some valuable lessons in learning about yourself from candid feedback in community, this lesson will sink in deeply. Make it a common practice…a strength.

Tips for Shared Thinking:

 Move away from competition and towards cooperation

 Always have an agenda when you get together to glean from others

 Get the right people

o Those who desire the success of others

o Those who understand adding value

o Those who can emotionally handle brainstorming

o Those who appreciate others’ strengths

o Those who understand their place

o Team-oriented people

o Those who bring out the best in the room

o Mature people

o Those who take ownership and responsibility

o Those who think “we,” not “me”

Recruit people for their collaboration and shared thinking skills and compensate them well.

10. Unselfish Thinking

Funny how Getters don’t usually get happiness. Givers get it. There is nothing more noble than helping another person succeed. Giving puts many things into perspective. It increases the quality of life of the giver. If you want to improve your world, learn how to be a giver. You will become a part of something greater. You will leave a legacy.

Giving Principles:

1. Put others first; it’s not about you.

2. Expose yourself to others who have needs (at home, in your community, in the world).

3. Give quietly; it’s not about you.

4. Have an intentional plan when you invest in others.

5. Four principles of Win/Win:

a. I win, you lose – I only win once

b. You win, I lose – you win only once

c. We both win – we win many times

d. We both lose – goodbye partnership!

6. Check your motives often.

11. Bottom Line Thinking

How do you figure what the bottom line is for your organization? Are dollars always the primary measure of success? Is that how you measure success of your family? By annual wages? Non-profits like the Girl/Boy Scouts have a different bottom line. But the mission has to establish what the aim is and it needs to be clear. What are we going after and when will we know that we are there? Knowing what our bottom line is (Mission), then our strategy becomes more clear.

What Bottom Line Thinking Can Do for You:

1. Provides clarity

2. Helps you assess the whole

3. Facilitates great decision making

4. Lifts morale

5. Ensures your future

Tips for Bottom Line Thinking:

1. Identify your organization’s actual bottom line

2. Make it all about the bottom line

3. Create a plan to get to the bottom line

4. Get alignment and ownership on your team as to what the bottom line really is

5. Stick with your targets and monitor results often

A Closing thought: As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. Proverbs 23:7 It is imperative to gain a handle on how you think. But even though Solomon instructs us soberly, we still spend too little time nurturing and developing our ability to think, and think successfully. The last phrase in the book is taken from Philippians 4:8, one of my favorite verses ever.

Paul encourages us to think differently:

“Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just…pure…lovely, and are of good report. If there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy; think on these things.” You’re gonna like the way you think.

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Learn more about the book How Successful People Think on

Want to read another great book review by Jeff Abbott? Try one on John C. Maxwell’s 21 Laws of Irrefutable Leadership.

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