Summary of “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”

Reading Time: 14 Minutes

Have you ever found “leadership” somewhat… vague?

In his book, 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell set out to make leadership concrete by breaking the subject into tangible qualities that anyone could learn. He used the 21 laws to train tens of thousands of leaders, including executives at Fortune 500 companies, government officials, and students and faculty at universities.

We’ve prepared a summary of each of Maxwell’s laws to give you a jumpstart, refresher, or a reference guide — whatever you need today.

If you want to get the most out of our free training, bookmark this guide. Work on a different law every month. Each week reflect upon yourself using different reflection models on how you can become a stronger leader in regards to the law that you’re concentrating on. Over time, the small changes you make will add up.

Here are the 21 Laws we’ll be covering…

  1. Law of the Lid
  2. Law of Influence
  3. Law of Process
  4. Law of Navigation
  5. Law of Addition
  6. Law of Solid Ground
  7. Law of Respect
  8. Law of Intuition
  9. Law of Magnetism
  10. Law of Connection
  11. Law of the Inner Circle
  12. Law of Empowerment
  13. Law of Reproduction
  14. Law of Buy-In
  15. Law of Victory
  16. Law of Momentum
  17. Law of Priorities
  18. Law of Sacrifice
  19. Law of Timing
  20. Law of Explosive Growth
  21. Law of Legacy

1. Law of the Lid

As a leader, you’re the lid on your company’s growth. When you lift the lid by growing your leadership capabilities, you raise the entire potential of your company. On the other hand, if you stay in place, you’ll hold back your entire company. This is why it’s so important to invest in personal leadership development.

Maxwell once interviewed a resort owner. The owner said that when his company buys a resort, he immediately takes two actions. First, he trains the staff on excellent customer service. Second, he fires the resort’s president. According to the rest investor, if the president were any good, the resort would have been in better shape. John Maxwell summarizes: “Everything rises and falls with leadership.”

So how can you raise the “lid” on your organization?

  • Rate your leadership on a scale of 1 (poor) to 10 (excellent).
  • Rate the leadership of 4 or 5 key people who work with you.
  • Ask the everyone in your organization to rate you and your team as well.
  • Formulate a plan to raise the “lid number” for you and the key people on your team.

Once you assess your current leadership level, and that of your team’s key players, you’ll have a baseline on which to judge your team’s progress on your leadership development journey.

2. Law of Influence

Leadership is measured by influence. Your influence may or may not correspond with your title in a company. Instead, it’s simply based on when people choose to follow you. People choose who to follow by judging the leader’s character, experience, and knowledge — not by looking at their title.

There are 5 levels of influence.

  • Position level influence is when people follow you because they have to.
  • Permission level influence is when people follow you because they choose to.
  • Production level influence is when people follow you because of what you achieve.
  • People development level influence is when people follow you because of how you develop people.
  • Personhood level influence is when people follow you because you’ve developed so many leaders over so many years that you’ve become larger than life.

According to John Maxwell, when you develop people, “they’re yours for life.” They will continue to follow you even as they develop followers of their own. As this process continues, your influence can expand at an exponential rate.

Most leaders get to production level, but few reach the people development level.

What level of influence do you currently hold? What about the other leaders in your organization?

Influencers are the individuals in your organization who team members look to for direction. They are not always supervisors or managers, but their buy-in matters a great deal to your success in any endeavor. Do you influence the influencers at your company? If you do, you’ll be far more equipped to grow successfully.

3. Law of Process

You’re going to become a leader through a lifelong learning process.

A seminar or book can inspire you and instigate action, but it’s through daily effort that you’ll become a leader. The inspiration is easy. The ongoing process is far more challenging.

Maxwell says that companies often try to “microwave” leaders to fill a position. The problem with this is that you can’t turn someone into a leader overnight or even over a year.

Instead, Maxwell says we need to “crockpot” leaders. Don’t assume that someone is now “a leader” and you can stop helping them grow. Help your company’s leaders develop over the long-term by providing support and guidance year after year on a weekly basis.

Don’t become discouraged if you feel that you or your team are not developing quickly enough. The secret to your success will be what you do every day, not what you do on any particular day.

A leader is a navigator. As a leader, you should see the big picture, recognize opportunities, identify what you need and who you need, and guide your team toward a vision.

A great navigator sees ahead. This is a sign of intuitive leadership skill.

Maxwell says that you don’t want to be a “travel agent” type of navigator. Instead you want to be a “tour guide.” Like a tour guide, you need to be realistic about the challenges you may face, and you need to be willing to journey alongside your team as they face these challenges.

Maxwell suggests an acronym (which frankly is more than a little difficult to remember, but nonetheless somewhat helpful). The acronym is: Plan Ahead.

  • Predetermine your course.
  • Lay out your goals.
  • Adjust your priorities.
  • Notify your team.
  • Allow time for acceptance.
  • Head into action.
  • Expect problems.
  • Always point to successes.
  • Daily review your progress.

Remember that motion causes friction and people change slowly. Just because you are ready to navigate through a change or a challenge doesn’t mean that your team will follow you immediately. Follow the Plan Ahead process and the other Laws of Leadership and you’ll win your team’s commitment.

5. Law of Addition

Look for where you can add value to others. If you see someone struggling with a task that you’ve mastered, go help the peson to learn it.

Constantly ask:

  • Am I making life better for people who follow me?
  • What can I do to help?

Adding value starts with valuing others. When someone comes into work, greet them. During the workday, show interest in their lives and the work they do by asking questions.

Learn what motivates each person on your team as well as what demotivates them. Then relate the goals you set to what your team members value. This will help you improve your team’s performance and lead them  toward your organization’s goals.

6. Law of Solid Ground

Trust is the glue that holds your company together. You need your team’s trust in order to win their support.

Every action you take is either a deposit or a withdrawal.

To earn trust, demonstrate consistent character and competence. When you show integrity, your life as a leader will consistently improve over time.

If you take an action to lose people’s trust, it will take a very long time to earn it back. In fact, you may never earn it back.

7. Law of Respect

People follow leaders who they respect.

People respect leaders who respect them, who make decisions in their best interest, who are successful, and who are dependable.

Therefore, to earn respect:

  • show respect
  • put others first
  • succeed at your endeavors
  • be consistent

Your customers, staff, and shareholders will follow you when they see you making decisions that serve them rather than decisions that serve you. Follow through is as is important as intentions. People want to follow a leader who is successful so that they can also become successful.

If you want to attract quality leaders in your organization, you’re going to have to be a quality leader yourself. If you find that people won’t fully commit to a project or goal, assess whether they truly respect you or the team’s leader. Usually when people won’t commit to an initiative, it’s because they don’t yet fully respect the person leading them.

8. Law of Intuition

Intuition gives you a head start. You don’t always have to be the fastest to finish first. Sometimes you can win the race just by entering early.

You are intuitive in the area of your giftedness. If you’re gifted in leadership, you may find yourself recognizing trends and opportunities, or finding outstanding people and resources, before your competition. You may also be naturally adept at timing projects, recognizing your team members’ motives, and organizing people and processes.

If you’re not an intuitive leader, find someone who is. Recruit them to your team or talk to them regularly. Get their insights on your organization and your industry.

Most importantly, consider finding what you are gifted in and try to spend as much time as you can doing that. For everything else, use your team!

9. Law of Magnetism

You attract people who are like you.

If you want better leaders at your company, practice being a better leader yourself.

Maxwell gives an example of a CEO who wanted to attract people of integrity to his company. The CEO gave new hires his personal phone number and told them to call him if anyone at the company ever asks them to do something that they believe might be wrong.

After you identify your company’s values and culture, take actions that repel people who don’t fit and attract people who do fit. The easiest way to start this process is by acting exactly the way your want your employees to act.

10. Law of Connection

You need to touch a heart before you ask for a hand.

Would an employee go on a long road trip with you? If they would, then they’ll likely follow you with enthusiasm when you lead them at work. If they would not go on a road trip with you, then they don’t feel enough connection with you to follow you wholeheartedly.

To build connection with your staff:

  • take time to connect personally with each individual
  • get to know your team members and what they care about
  • learn your team members’ strengths and weaknesses
  • ask team members how you can help them
  • share knowledge openly so that tasks that were once complicated to your team now seem simple
  • never ask people to do something you wouldn’t do yourself
  • smile and take care of your appearances
  • share how the company’s message and vision has touched you personally
  • offer direction and hope (Maxwell says that great leaders are “dealers in hope”)
  • give team leads time or a small budget to help them connect personally with their teams over lunch, volunteering, or fun activities

Herb Keller, co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, was gifted at connecting with his staff. Once an executive asked him for advice. Herb responded, “Stop spending so much time with other CEOs, spend more time with your people.”

11. Law of the Inner Circle

Your potential value is determined by those closest to you. Your team will either be your greatest asset or your greatest liability.

It’s hard to do anything significant on your own. If you want to grow a strong organization, you need to surround yourself with good people and then train and develop them so they can achieve their potential.

Constantly evaluate your leadership team and hold them accountable for meeting their goals. When you notice someone lifting themselves up and making great strides personally, you can bet they can do the same for others. Look for people like this when you’re ready to promote someone into a leadership position.

12. Law of Empowerment

Give your team members the resources and freedom they need to succeed.

Your staff’s capacity will be determined by how much you empower them. If you don’t give them room to solve problems, you can expect a lot of issues to go unresolved. If you don’t give your team room to think for themselves, you can expect a lack of innovation at your company.

Sometimes leaders will avoid empowering their staff due to ego, codependence, a bad experience, or insecurity.

Many leaders are afraid that empowering their team members will make their management positions unnecessary. Maxwell recommends that company owners tell their management teams that it is their responsibility to work themselves out of a job!

When a manager trains their team to function without them, they create enormous efficiencies and value for your company. After a manger works themselves out a job, you can promote a manager like this into a new position where they can create even more value.

Maxwell even recommends cautioning managers that if they can’t work themselves out of job, you’ll eventually take the one they have away from them.

For Maxwell’s strategy to be effective, your team has to trust you. To earn your staff’s trust, build a personal connection with each team member and always follow through on your promises.

13. Law of Reproduction

There’s no question that developing leaders in your company will grow your longterm profits, and the most effective way to develop leaders is to mentor them.

John Maxwell conducted a survey where he asked respondents to share how they became a leader.

  • 5% said they became a leader because of a crisis.
  • 10% said they became a leader because of natural leadership gifts.
  • 85% said they became a leader because another leader put them under their wing and mentored them.

Despite this, it’s relatively rare for people to undertake the ongoing work of mentoring someone else. Many leaders fear helping someone become greater than them. So rather than mentor rising leaders, they prefer to spend their time helping followers. (Followers provide an ego boost without requiring nearly as much attention.)

If you want to develop leaders at your company, find someone who is already excelling at their job.

If you’re interviewing candidates for a position, you can identify people with leadership potential based on the questions they ask. They’ll usually ask you questions about where you’re going, when you’re getting there, and how they can help you get there. These individuals tend to make good employees and mentees.

14. Law of Buy-In

People buy into the leader, then the vision.

When you started a company or project, you probably started with the dream or vision first, then you found the people to make the dream a reality. Many leaders assume that this is the case for employees as well, so they work to sell their employees on their vision.

It’s good to share your vision, but you first need to sell yourself. Employees will only accept the vision if they like the person sharing it. If people don’t connect with the leader, they won’t connect with the leader’s vision.

15. Law of Victory

Leaders find a way to win. They simply find losing unacceptable.

Winston Churchill exemplified the law of victory. He said, “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.”

To be victorious, you need to have unity of vision — a strong “why” to motivate you and your team. When your team members have their own personal agendas, this can sabotage the unity your team needs to win.

You also need a diversity of skills. If your team only has a few skills, you’re going to have a hard time assuring success. This is why it’s so important to pick cofounders or team members with skills that compliment your own.

Finally, you need a leader who is committed to winning and patient enough to guide all their players to achieve their potential. Maxwell writes that for a winning leader, “Passion is unquenchable. Creativity is essential. Quitting is unthinkable. Commitment is unquestionable. Victory is inevitable.”

16. Law of Momentum

Momentum can be your best friend. Often the difference between winning and losing is momentum.

Momentum makes problems smaller and achievements easier. With momentum, a train can blast through a brick wall. Without momentum, a train can’t even get over a one inch rock resting on the track.

The key with momentum is that it allows you to use less energy to solve problems. Managers may work on problems, but a good leader works on momentum so that the managers can solve problems more easily.

Maxwell believes that if you worry about all the problems in your organization, you’ll never find the time to consider how to make your organization more efficient and thus build momentum for your team.

To build momentum, take the following steps.

  • Identify what motivates your team. Ask team members what gives them energy and makes them excited.
  • Identify what demotivates your team. Ask them what drains their energy at work.
  • Find opportunities to motivate your team based on the input they share.
  • Remove demotivating factors. For example, if team members complain that it takes too long to get answers, find ways to shortcut or remove approval processes so that your team doesn’t lose momentum by waiting.
  • Identify “wins” and hold parties or events to celebrate.
  • When you celebrate, always make sure to give your team direction for the next step during the celebration. This is key to building momentum!
  • Always show enthusiasm and hope. Put your losses behind you and move on. Concentrate on what you can achieve next.

17. Law of Priorities

Activity is not accomplishment. If you work hard but you don’t work smart, then you’re just wasting time.

When you excel, you’re excelling because your prioritized correctly.

The 80/20 rule states that you’ll get 80% of your returns from only 20% of your activities. Use this rule to your advantage!

Figure out your priorities based on:

  • what is required of you
  • what gives you the best return
  • what gives you the best personal reward

Maxwell says that he only does 4 activities. He leads, communicates, writes, and networks. His business requires other activities, so he’s built a team around him to handle these other tasks for him.

“People don’t pay for average,” he says, so quit trying to be average. Play to your strengths, and build a team around you who will play to their strengths.

If you don’t organize and prioritize, then eventually someone else will do it for you based on their priorities rather than yours.

Lastly, remember to apply the law of priorities to your staff. If the top 20% of your staff gives you 80% of your results, then you should spend a large portion of your time helping these top players to excel. Spend more time as an “equipper” working on people’s strengths rather than a “counselor” working on people’s weaknesses.

18. Law of Sacrifice

You have to give up to go up. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “For everything you gain, you lose something else.”

Sacrificing begins with getting out of bed, taking initiative, and growing a team.

As you take your organization to new heights, you’ll earn more, which means you’ll have to sacrifice more to keep going higher. You may have to sacrifice security, acceptance, or even financial gain. This is why many people get 2/3’s way up but choose not to go any higher.

You can’t reproduce yourself and create future leaders in your organization by just telling your story. You need to invest time in growing your people. For this reason, the best companies are often run by servant leaders. They lead to help their people succeed more than they lead for their own success.

19. Law of Timing

Timing is required for success.

  • The wrong action at the wrong time is a disaster.
  • The wrong action at the right time is a mistake.
  • The right action at the wrong time leads to your team’s resistance.
  • The right action at the right time leads to success.

To have good timing, you need to understand the big picture and you need to be confident and decisive. Timing is difficult to learn, but experience, intuition, and preparation will all help.

To prepare for a change:

  • Identify the issues you need to overcome.
  • Define reality — what you know about your company and your industry.
  • Communicate your proposed solution to influencers on your team.
  • Resolve any differences with your influencers. You need their buy-in to be successful.
  • Once you’ve made your decision, share your vision with your team and make sure the influencers you’ve talked to are in the room. When your staff looks to the influencers and sees that they approve of the plan, you’ll be very likely to win your full team’s support.

20. Law of Explosive Growth

If you want explosive growth, then you need to develop leaders in your company. Leaders are not the same as followers. Followers may add to your success, but leaders multiply your success.

There are a couple key differences between developing a leader and developing a follower.

  • When you develop a leader, you’ll need to ask for far more commitment than you would from a follower.
  • When you develop a leader, you should focus on developing their strengths more than improving their weaknesses.

John Maxwell said, “Our whole culture taught us to work on our weaknesses. Our whole culture is wrong.” If you want to get paid well for your services, you need to find something you’re really good at and exploit that. So play to your strengths. Then encourage and enable the people on your team to do the same.

When you develop great leaders, you’ll leave a lasting impact on the next generation as well as the future of your company.

21. Law of Legacy

To build a successful business and leave a legacy, you’ll need to grow your people so that they can achieve great things without you. To do this, commit to adding value to your team members and handing the baton to the next generation of leaders.

Your biggest joy should not be getting to the top, but rather getting others to the top. You’ll know you have an amazing team when you lead them to a goal, and they deliver results to you at a higher level than you imagined.

After you develop your successors, know when to walk away and allow them to flourish.

Part of leaving a lasting legacy is recognizing and celebrating the successes along the way. Expressing appreciation and affirmation and providing tangible tokens of recognition like challenge coins can help instill a sense of pride and accomplishment. Challenge coins are often used in the military and enterprises to recognize outstanding soldiers and employees. This prize can represent honor and your recognition of them. 

Lead Today

John Maxwell says that a lot of people wait until they feel good to lead. He advises: Don’t wait to feel good. Lead anyway.

We hope this summary has inspired you to invest in growing leaders in your organization. If you’d like to learn more about the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, you can find John Maxwell’s book on Amazon.

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I'm Allison Dunn,

Your Business Executive Coach

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