Book Summary: The 21 Laws of Irrefutable Leadership by John Maxwell

A book summary by Jeff Abbott


Would you follow you? This is an important question, and the reason I am writing this summary. John Maxwell is a well-known Christian author who focuses on Leadership. He has written dozens of books on the subject and is forever writing another one because there are so many facets of leadership and we soon forget, failing to implement the principles. In the end, it is leadership that decides the success or failure of an organization. Weakness in any of the primary leadership laws can result in the failure of the plan, the project, the team, or the organization.

Simply stated, Leadership = Influence. Times change, technology marches on, knowledge increases, cultures vary from region to region, but the principles of leadership remain. They are “irrefutable.” I invite you to keep these handy and ask yourself daily how to be a better influencer based on these guidelines.

You CAN grow your leadership skills. Master even one of these, and you will grow as a leader.

The 21 Laws

1. The Law of the Lid

Any organization is limited in its growth by the growth of the leader. If the leader has capacity and is growing, the organization will follow. If the leader is limited and not growing, the organization will stagnate. People will only follow leaders greater than themselves. That’s how leaders grow. Is your organization “capped?”

2. The Law of Influence

Leadership is Influence. The author points out a story about how the Royal Family of England with all of its circumstance was unable to garner the attention that Princess Diana seemed to bask in naturally. She connected with the people. Having once been a kindergarten teacher, she obviously cared for the people and nurtured the masses as much as was in her power. She built relationships with politicians and heads of state and was a catalyst/spokesperson for fundraising on a number of humanitarian causes. AIDS research and leprosy were notable causes she heralded. She met with members of the Clinton administration to gain support for the Oslo conference banning land mines and put the issue on the world agenda. She lost her title, but her influence continued on while the royal family declined. Her funeral services were broadcast on television and the BBC radio and were translated into 44 languages to an audience of 2,500,000,000 people. No one really refers to her as a leader, yet that’s what she ultimately was.

The myths of leadership are Management, Entrepreneurialism, Knowledge, Pioneerism, and Position, but it’s really about influence. If you think you are a leader, yet no one is following you, you are merely out for a walk. Leadership is Influence.

3. The Law of Process

Leadership growth happens daily, not in a day. It’s a lot like long-term investment. If you continually invest in leadership, your skills will continue to increase. Build on the previous day/week/year’s progress.

The phases of leadership go as follows: 1) I don’t know what I don’t know; 2) I know what I don’t know; 3) I grow and know and it starts to show; and 4) I simply go because of what I know. You may not see progress tomorrow, but you will see progress as time goes on. After 20 years of investing, people will ask you how you became such a great leader. It’s a daily process of learning and practicing these laws.

4. The Law of Navigation

Leaders chart the course, managers steer the ship. The author points to the case study of the two adventure teams of Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott. Both had credentials, resources, and rugged teams but the planning and foresight of Roald Amundsen ensured he would meet his goals and preserve the safety of his team. He planned it, foresaw the dangers, designed a simple and robust plan, and executed it. Scott, on the other hand, failed to foresee the difficulties involved, over-engineered a complicated plan involving unsuitable machinery that could not handle the cold, and burdened his team with the task of hauling all of the cargo when systems broke down. The re-supply stations did not have enough stock to sustain them, they ran low on fuel, and ended up reaching their goal a miserable month late. The trip back was more horrifying. The last of them died with Scott 150 miles from their base camp, unable to go on.

The leader needs to research, plan, and consider risks, others’ experiences, wise counsel, and knowledge available in research. Exposing your team to the perils of failure is not excusable if you have failed to navigate with diligence. Do you anticipate what can go wrong? Do you leave things to chance? Do you get wise counsel? Good leaders do.

5. The Law of E.F. Hutton

Influential leaders have a built-in audience. People want to hear what they have to say. In many circumstances, it is not the “leader” to whom people are paying attention, but to another person who commands the respect of the group. We see this in board rooms, offices, factories, and shipping docks.

It is imperative that you gain control of things by managing the leaders under you in order to set the tone and culture of your organization or business. But you can’t start unless you realize this law is in effect.

The key factors that create this kind of respect are Character, Relationships, Knowledge, Intuition, Experience, Past Success, and Ability. It’s all about respect for the speaker. Remember the point, Leadership = Influence? Lose respect, lose influence, lose leadership. Simple.

6. The Law of Solid Ground

Before springing difficult news on your followers, consider their ability to trust you and your judgments regarding the issue. Most followers need to be walked through big decisions prior to hearing news. Gather the key leaders, cast the vision, answer questions, guide them through, get their ideas and buy-in. The reassurance that comes from allowing the followers to process with you can be the difference between success and failure. Be careful not to create a reason not to trust.

Character makes trust possible. It communicates to the follower a basis for trust. What is the history between you and your followers? Do you run roughshod over them? Do they get a say? Do you look out for #1? Do you apologize when you make mistakes? Have you built an “account” with their trust for them to draw from? Deplete that account and you’re done. Make lots of deposits. You’ll always be on “Solid Ground.”

7. The Law of Respect

No matter what your circumstances, you can increase your leadership potential. There are many stories of leaders of humble circumstances being followed by high-level people because of their leadership collateral: Harriet Tubman, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King. This is no random accident. It is due to leadership. Leaders in the ranks seek out a leader to follow. Strong leadership is a tractor beam for leaders under you in your organization. Weak leadership causes strong leaders to seek leadership elsewhere. Ever wonder where your best leaders went? They may not be candid when they leave, but chances are they left to find a stronger leader. We can keep stronger leaders if we invest in our leadership growth and avoid damaging our equity by failing to exhibit character when it really counts.

8. The Law of Intuition

A good leader has good intuition. Good instincts keep a leader out of trouble. Great leaders see what others cannot, “around corners”. They can make changes or take steps with little warning or evidence. The best kind of intuition is INFORMED INTUITION. A leader’s intuition can lead him to failure as well as success, so information and experience are priceless in this regard. A leader armed with intuition and information will be a great decision maker, both agile and confident.

A good leader leads with “leadership bias.” He sees things through the lens of a leader. He reads the situation, the trends, their resources, their key people, and their own abilities. Intuition is not innate in all leaders. You either naturally see it or you can be nurtured to see it. Otherwise, you’ll never see it.

Sometimes a leader may have good information and bad intuition. This will lead him to danger. Others have good intuition and bad information. This will cause him to under- or over-estimate a situation. But good intuition and good information will certainly lead to success one decision at a time. Always back up the way you feel with OBJECTIVITY, and then go with your gut.

9. The Law of Magnetism

You don’t attract the leaders you want….you attract the leader you are. When you feel compelled to complain about the leaders under you, think again. Perhaps your leadership needs shoring up as well. Beware also of the one-sided teams. Staff to your weaknesses so you can remain in your strengths. Make sure your team has plenty of variety and people who can express their differing views without fear.

If you have strong leadership characteristics, you will attract people with strong leadership characteristics. The author told the story of the Dallas Cowboys, America’s Team. Tom Landry and Roger Staubach combined to exhibit so much leadership that the team was unstoppable. The ranks of the Cowboys were full of followers with great character. But once Jerry Jones took over, he appointed Barry Switzer to lead the team. The story includes arrests of teammates and even the coach for attempting to carry a handgun on an airplane. So it trickles downhill. Jerry Jones the maverick, who is known for going outside the acceptable rules and guidelines, has a team of players who follow suit. If you want strong players with great character, be a strong example.

10. The Law of Connection

“A leader touches a heart before he asks for a hand.” You cannot lead people who don’t connect with you. Once a leader has a trust connection with his followers, they will do almost anything for him. Until that connection is made, followers will balk.

Consider the Dole/Clinton presidential campaign. Bob Dole was uninspiring, dull, and cold. By contrast, Bill Clinton appeared on Arsenio wearing sunglasses and played the saxophone for the nation to see. He appeared to be warm and normal, like us.

A long time later, Bob Dole appeared on Saturday Night Live and humorous commercials after he had lost the campaign. He finally let his hair down some and people saw the person inside. Too late – Bill Clinton had won the battle of connection.

The leader should ALWAYS use MBWA or W4C (Management by Wandering Around or Walk the 4 Corners) as a tool to become more aware of employees and their problems. It allows them to connect with you. Once connected, they will follow you much more readily. At Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher set the tone and culture by connecting with the team, giving them all the impression he knew them personally!

11. The Law of the Inner Circle

Every leader’s potential is affected by the people he keeps closest. When you have the right staff and team, your potential SKYROCKETS. There is no such thing as a great leader who is a lone ranger. Ronald Reagan surrounded himself with the best leaders and advisors available.

In order to gain the best payback for your investment in your company, first invest in your inner circle team. Use the 80/20 rule. Your investment in your team will create 80% of the results you want to see. Grow their leadership, and you will grow your success. Never stop improving your inner circle.

12. The Law of Empowerment

Henry Ford was not willing to empower his company’s leaders or share credit and ideas with them. He was so stuck on the 1903 design Model T, he would not allow anyone to suggest improvements. A design team once surprised him with a prototype and he proceeded to tear its doors off and destroy the car with his own hands. By the time he reluctantly introduced an upgrade model A in 1931, he had lost his market position to others who had made huge technological innovations.

As Henry became more eccentric, he promoted his son Edsel. Without him, The Ford Motor Company never would have made it. But Edsel died prior to becoming the successor, so his son Henry II returned from the Navy to save the day. Facing all kinds of internal resistance from Henry’s undermining, Henry II finally managed to gain control, so the company could move forward. After 15 years of unprofitability, Henry II finally turned the company around. Until others were empowered, Henry Ford’s company was headed for failure.

Barriers to Change cited in this chapter are: Desire for Job Security, Resistance to Change, and Lack of Self Worth. You have to believe in your leaders. The best results will appear when you lift others up, giving them credit. Find strong leaders and empower them, even if they are stronger than you.

13. The Law of Reproduction

In an informal poll, the author gathered data from his conference attendees about what prompted them to become leaders. The results: 10% thought they were natural leaders, 5% became leaders in a crisis, and 85% credited another leader mentor for their inspiration. The point is, you can and need to reproduce your leadership in others. It takes a leader to raise up a leader.

One of the finest NFL coaches of all time was Bill Walsh, coach of the 3-time Superbowl Champion SF 49ers. Check out the great leaders who can be traced to the staff of Bill Walsh: Mike Holmgren, George Seifert, Bruce Coslett, Steve Mariucci, Mike Shanahan, Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes, Pete Carroll, Jeff Fisher, Jon Gruden. Incredible! Not only were his own results fantastic, but they were the precursor to the successes of many teams yet to come. There is a similar but longer lineup of 30 Fortune 500 CEO winners who had once been on the staff at G.E. under Jack Welch, names such as Harry Stonecipher of McDonnell Douglas/Boeing. We teach what we know, we reproduce what we are. The ONLY WAY you will be able to develop other leaders is to become a better leader yourself.

14. The Law of Buy-In

The story of Mahatma (Great Soul) Gandhi is a great example of leadership buy-in. In the years previous to Gandhi’s becoming the leader in India, the country was in turmoil and violence, rioting for independence from British rule. It was remarkable that he was able to sell his vision that “Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.” Even in the aftermath of the Amritsar massacre in 1919, Gandhi called the people to stand. It was crazy and unheard of. But the nation had come to BUY IN to Gandhi as a leader, so they bought into his vision as well. He influenced the people to burn their foreign-made clothing and only wear homespun garments. After a slow and painful, but diligent, nonviolent battle, India gained home rule in 1947. People buy into the leader first, then the vision. Without leader credibility, the vision will die.

15. The Law of Victory

Leaders find a way for their teams to win. Good leaders are winners; they don’t accept defeat. They will use everything at their disposal to win. When they do lose, they examine their failures and use the learning to win next time. The book cites the contrasts between President Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Lincoln surrounded himself with the greatest leaders and strategists in order to gain the most advantage. Davis failed to make ultimate victory his highest priority. He should have been thinking like a revolutionary, yet he was more of a bureaucrat and cared more about being right than winning a war. This impeded his ability to leverage the knowledge of his advisors for the best results.

There is another great example in this chapter of Winston Churchill and FDR. They teamed together to deny Hitler his goal and would not allow the mindset to exist that compromise was an option. There is the example of Herb Kelleher, who fought the major airlines’ legal attacks and monopolistic practices to crush him until finally 11 years after launching, he was allowed to put his first fleet in the air. He was unwilling to give up. Herb Kelleher had no alternative plan. Win.

16. The Law of Big Mo

Momentum is the leader’s best friend. Both positive and negative momentum are powerful in an organization. The book cites “Stand and Deliver,” the story of Jaime Escalante of Garfield HS. The school was a mess, and the leadership even encouraged “Gang Pride” as a way to placate students. Escalante was unable to do much, until the leader was replaced. The new leader quickly set boundaries for students and disciplinary standards and stopped the negative momentum.

The next fall Escalante started with a small group in his Calculus class. Of the 3,500 students at Garfield, he could only find 14 to enroll. He began preparing them for the College AP test in May. Over half the class dropped out for one reason or another and, by May, there were only 5. Only 2 of them passed the exam. But Escalante was not stopped. He knew he needed to build positive momentum, and this was his start. The next year 8 took the test, 6 passed. Then fourteen. Finally 18 students took the test and amazingly, after being accused of cheating, were retested and passed 100% both times! By 1983, the number was 31; 85 in 1987. Eventually 27% of all Mexican Americans in the US passing the test were from Garfield High. Momentum is key.

17. The Law of Priorities

Leaders understand that ACTIVITY is not necessarily ACCOMPLISHMENT. When John Maxwell’s organization was located in San Diego, he had an assistant tally up the time he spent traveling in airports and discovered that he spent 27 days annually making connections. So in order to use his time in better priority, he moved the organization headquarters to Atlanta, where Delta Airlines had its hub and saved much of that time flying direct for him and his staff. Stephen Covey said, “A leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation and yells, ‘Wrong jungle!’”

Maxwell uses the 80/20 principle in everything he does. He spends 80% of his time with the top 10 staff members. The top 20% of your customers deliver 80% of your profits. 20% of your To Do list items will make 80% of the difference.

The 3R’s are Requirement, Return, and Reward. If it isn’t required that you do that duty, delegate it. Spend your time in activities that create the greatest return and delegate the rest. Things that you are passionate about that bring personal reward will energize you for your role.

Jack Welch decided to make all of his businesses achieve #1 or #2 in their markets or they would be divested. At that time, GE stock was worth $4 and the company value was $12 billion with 350 divisions. They sold off enough poor performers to amount to $10 billion, invested $18 billion in the winners, and made $17 billion in acquisitions. Afterwards, their stock split 4 times and traded at $80 per share. It became the most valuable company in the world at a value of $250 billion. Any questions?

18. The Law of Sacrifice

A leader must “Give Up to Go Up.” In the troubled times of the Chrysler Corporation, Lee Iacocca came in to save the day. He took a 50% haircut on his salary to take over and worked around the clock to turn Chrysler around. They lacked financial systems and controls; production and supply were out of control; quality was poor; and the team was fighting internally. Morale was dismal, and loyalty was the worst in the car industry. Needless to say, Chrysler was losing money badly. When oil prices soared and the stock fell to $8 per share, Iacocca kept on sacrificing.

He eventually went to the U.S. Government with his hat in his hand to ask for a bailout loan. He went against all he believed in to make the deal work. During committee hearings, all of the dirty laundry for the corporation and the whole team was exposed. It was very painful. Iacocca reduced his salary to $1 per year as an example for the others.

The loan went through and Chrysler bounced back. By 1982, they generated a record profit of $925 million, and by 1983 repaid the whole amount, all due to Iacocca’s willingness to sacrifice.

As you rise higher as a leader, you lose your right to insist upon perks. You have to give up to go up.

19. The Law of Timing

Knowing when to step up as a leader is as important as knowing what to do and where to go. The book used the example of Jimmy Carter, the soft–spoken, quiet Christian leader with a combined political experience of only one term as state senator and one term as governor when he ran for President. Virtually unknown to the rest of the nation, people were indifferent when the announcement was made. But while all of that would normally work against him, it was what exactly what the American people needed: someone they could trust…and the timing was right. He won decidedly.

The Law of Timing was just as UNKIND to Jimmy Carter over his term in office. Numerous foreign policy problems, the Iran hostage crisis and the blown attempt to rescue the captives, record high oil prices, record high inflation, mortgage rates approaching 20%, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had shaken America’s confidence. In the next election, Carter was only able to garner 49 electoral votes to 489 for Ronald Reagan. It is a two-edged sword. Be careful; beware. Take the right actions at the right times. It is critical to pay close attention to the Law of Timing.

20. The Law of Explosive Growth

If you want to add growth, lead followers. If you want your growth to explode, lead leaders. Leaders who develop followers add growth. Leaders who lead leaders MULTIPLY. Leaders who lead leaders want to be successful. They focus on the strengths of their top 20% leaders.

They treat their leaders as individuals. They give power and responsibility away. They invest in others. They multiply. They impact people and organizations far beyond their own.

The author told the story about Indian pastor David Mohan. Maxwell had traveled to India to teach 2,000 leaders the principles in his book and met this pastor. Seven years earlier, Mohan had built his church to about 700 people, a respectable size for an Indian congregation. But after teaching his leaders the principles of leadership over that time, his church became the largest church in India. He did it by investing in his leaders and the principle took hold. There is no other way to grow your organization in this way. Not by fancy management methods, financial growth, sales, resources, consultants, analysis or the initiative of the month. You must invest in your leaders. It’s the fuel for Explosive Growth.

21. The Law of Legacy

A leader’s lasting value is measured by succession. What happens while you are there is important, but the real value of your effectiveness appears when you are gone from the organization. Can it thrive without you? It needs to.

The story of Roberto Goizueta of Coca Cola illustrates this Law. He once gave a speech to illustrate the size of the number 1 billion. “A billion minutes ago, Christianity emerged. A billion seconds ago, the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. A billion Coca Colas ago, it was yesterday morning.” Phew! Goizueta was a fantastic leader. He was cruising his way towards leading the best corporation in the world. He was questioned about his retirement plans, but answered that he was having way too much fun to retire. But he was diagnosed with cancer and died six months later. The stock market did not panic at the announcement of his death. A Paine Webber analyst reported that he had “prepared the company for his not being there as well as any executive I’ve ever seen.” Goizueta had groomed Douglas Ivester for the role. A financial professional, he was named CFO shortly after joining Coke. Recognizing his talent, Goizueta sent him to Europe to gain operational experience and brought him back a year later to become President of Coca Cola USA and eventually CEO. Goizueta had done what few leaders do. He prepared his replacement. Legacy is created when a person puts his organization into the position to do great things without him. He will be measured by The Law of Legacy.


Leaders are born with more or less charisma and some seem more naturally equipped than others. But Jim Collin’s book “Good to Great” points out that HUMILITY is more important than any other factor for an effective leader. Humility can be learned. Trust can be built. Mistakes can be avoided. These Laws can be learned. You CAN become a great leader, but it will take a significant investment in yourself, in your leadership. If you are able to increase your skills according to these principles, you will increase your leadership and your organization accordingly. Leadership skills will help you accomplish your dream without leaving your potential “on the table.” Be all you can be…and take some others with you.

Having trouble making a good hire? Perhaps you’re sabotaging your own recruitment process.

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