John C. Maxwell: Great Leaders Never Walk Alone

Maxwell served as the voice of experience using stories to explain his laws of leadership.

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Why does leadership matter? Because it ultimately defines the level of success that any company or organization will achieve. Leadership guru John C. Maxwell argues that what he calls a fundamental law is true of public, private or religious organizations in any country or culture. Maxwell offered a five-step roadmap to great leadership as he opened the sixth annual Nordic Business Forum in Helsinki.

“He that thinketh he leadeth when no one is following, is merely taking a walk.”

In an engaging address peppered with many anecdotes and witticisms, leadership wizard John C. Maxwell introduced participants at Nordic Business Forum 2015 to what he described as the five levels of leadership.

The proud grandfather and prolific bestselling author of more than 70 books by his own reckoning, Maxwell referenced one of his top movers, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and shared two commandments, which he described as the foundation laws of leadership.

The first is the law of the lid. According to Maxwell, the lid determines how well an individual will succeed as a leader. The concept essentially means that the level of leadership determines the heights to which leaders can build their business. Business success will go no further than the level of leadership, Maxwell explained. As an individual’s leadership lid rises however, it becomes possible to take the company upwards at the same time.

“All rises and falls with leadership, whether it be in business, government, or religion – it’s universal. History backs that up,” the blue-chip coach declared.

Maxwell’s second fundamental law of leadership is the law of process. Leaders develop daily, not in a day, he said, in one of the many aphorisms he used during his address. It takes time and effort to become a good leader – there are no quick fixes and is not the business of a single lecture or book.

Leadership sustains a company in difficult times

Having whetted the audience’s appetite for more with his selection of entrées, Maxwell then moved on to the main course – the five levels of leadership. These principles he said, help develop solid leaders and also provide a game plan for the company, because solid leadership sustains a company during difficult times.

The first level of leadership is based on position and has to do with rights. Maxwell defined the positional leader as an individual empowered by title or position that confers certain rights.

“At this level people follow you because they have to. This is where you start but you don’t want to stay here,” he quipped.

According to Maxwell leadership is not about title, but about what individuals do or become after receiving title or position.

“You won’t learn as a leader if you think that title or position makes you a leader. You will go further only if you see it as an opportunity to grow and learn,” he counseled.

Maxwell noted that level 1 leaders get little effort or energy from their teams. Instead people are usually only interested in the minimum effort required to get by. Positional leaders don’t get the best out of their people, he warned.

The second level of leadership is permission-based and is all about relationships.

“People follow you because they want to,” the global leadership trainer added.

Level two leaders can infuse their people with energy and usually have three key strengths.

  1. They listen. This provides leaders with cues and can create a virtuous cycle in which they listen, learn and lead continuously. It is also important to ask good questions and connect with people.
  2. They observe. They watch their people to get information from their behavior. This is why culture is greater than vision because culture determines what you are, and what you are determines where you go.
  3. They serve well. Servant leaders are the opposite of level one, positional leaders. A servant leader asks questions, whereas a positional leader gives instructions.

Leading by example and the multiplier effect

Level three leadership is based on production and is all about results. On this level people follow an individual because of what they’ve done for the company, earning them the credibility to lead and have others follow.

Level three leaders lead by example. People do what they see because leadership is visual, Maxwell stated.  He pointed to work by Stanford University researchers, who have determined that 89 percent of all we know is learned visually, 10 percent by hearing and one percent by other senses.

“If you are a non-producer in a leadership position you will produce more non-producers,” Maxwell warned.

According to Maxwell level three leaders create momentum, which ultimately amplifies that which is good. This momentum also makes it easier for an organization to solve problems. Leaders on this level of development are also able to attract better talent to the company.

Level four leadership is all about developing people. This level is where reproduction happens and people follow leaders because of what they’ve done for others, the coach explained.

Maxwell said that while leaders add to the company at level three, when they get to level four they are able to amplify their contributions by making wise recruitment choices. These leaders understand that the company’s fortunes rest on successful recruitment. However, he noted that advantageous recruitment requires a clear picture of the kind of person the company needs.

“If you don’t know what you’re looking for you won’t know when you’ve found it.”

Level four leaders are also able to position people where their strengths will be most valuable and are able to equip their people well. Maxwell explained that equipping recruits entailed five principles.

  1. You must do it well yourself because like begets like.
  2. I do it and you do it with me – this requires leaders to make themselves available to others.
  3. You do it and I’m with you – this is where you’ve got the ball and I follow and coach you.
  4. You go and do it yourself – this is where the addition kicks in as another person learns key skills.
  5. You do it and someone else is with you. You need a plan for replicating this process so that it has no end. This is about multiplication.

Maxwell described level five as the pinnacle of leadership, where the key word is respect. People respect these leaders because of who they are and what they represent.  He said that pinnacle leaders serve the organization in a number of ways.

They help lift the lid of the organization by facilitating growth for others and creating a pipeline of new leaders.  These new leaders are essential to maintain the growth and success of the organization.

They also create a legacy in the organization by ensuring continuity from one leader to another.

What good leadership is not

In addition to enlightening the audience about the characteristics of good leadership and how to achieve it, Maxwell also provided useful signposts to mark points at which leaders have strayed from the path.

  1. Leadership is not a quick process. What Maxwell calls “microwave leadership programs” only produce so-called “pop-tart leaders”
  2. Leadership is not a program. It’s a continuous process that starts with culture and requires intentional action
  3. Leadership is not about title or position. If you have to tell people you’re a leader you’re not one.
  4. Leadership doesn’t involve being “lonely at the top”. If you’re at the top of a mountain alone, you’re not a leader, you’re a hiker, Maxwell remarked.
  5. Leadership is not about telling people what to do, but about showing them and leading by example. Don’t aim to be a travel agent leader who sends people to places they’ve never been. Aim to be a tour guide leader who takes people to places they’re already visited themselves.
  6. Leadership is not about being insecure. Insecure leaders don’t hire people who are better than they are. A good leader wants to add to the value of the company by hiring the best.

Maxwell’s fundamental message is that leadership is an ongoing and iterative process in which people listen, observe, learn, produce and serve as they grow. The rewards are abundant on the personal and company-wide level, because great leaders are able to multiply the effects of their positive impact and ultimately take the company towards new levels of growth.


John C. Maxwell is a bestselling author, coach and speaker who has sold more than 24 million books in 50 languages. Maxwell was identified as the most popular leadership expert in the world by Inc. magazine in 2014.

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