Book Review | The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership
By John Maxwell
Review by Erik Veker
First Published in 1998

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, initially published in 1998, is now on its 25th-anniversary edition. In its lifetime, it has sold over four million copies. In this review, my approach will include a brief summary of each law and thoughts about its application to the particular context of Addison Street Community Church.


Maxwell describes why he became an author, giving an important insight into his approach to the remainder of the book. He says, "I had a passion to add value to people that energized me to write" (xx). He introduces this idea of adding value that will come up frequently throughout his book and even receive its own law. This is an important concept that should be injected into the lifeblood of churches. Practically speaking, what value are we bringing to the members and attenders of this church? It's no exaggeration to say that the church, more than any other organization, has more to offer someone than any other organization. By extending the gospel, the church offers life to someone in exchange for death. She offers a community in exchange for isolation. We do well to think and speak about the value we bring to people.

Maxwell's introduction is also ironic. In the tenth anniversary edition (which I'm reviewing), several new laws are introduced, and others have been combined. So much for being irrefutable. But he validates the long list of laws by describing an encounter with a young man who was looking for only one law that was really, really important. He says, "The one thing you need to know about leadership is that there is more than one thing you need to know about leadership" (xx). This is the heart of this genre of literature. This is essential material and requires a special section in your library. "Each law is like a tool, ready to be picked up and used to help you achieve your dreams and add value to other people" (xxi). His value proposition is that in reading this book, you'll have more value to add to others.

Law 1. The Law of the Lid | Leadership ability determines a person's level of effectiveness.

This chapter sets the tone for leadership. It shows how leadership is inextricably tied to other people and to organizations. The very word 'leadership' assumes multiple people in the conversation. The bottom line is that we need to grow our leadership ability to become more effective. As a church, let’s be committed to both increasing the quantity and quality of our leaders.

Law 2. The Law of Influence | The true measure of leadership is influence–nothing more, nothing less.

Most people will never have ultimate power in an organization. Even if you're the senior leader of an organization, there are very few circumstances where you have veto power over all decisions. Therefore, this might be the most relevant law for the average congregation member. You only have one vote at the end of the day. So the question is, how do you lead by influence?

Of all the myths about leadership described in this chapter, the knowledge myth is particularly noteworthy for our context. The most intelligent person in the room isn't necessarily the leader. And they shouldn't necessarily be the leader. The law of influence can best be tested in a context flush with volunteers. "If you want to find out how good your leadership really is, then try leading volunteers as a volunteer in a nonprofit organization" (18). At our church, who's influencing the congregation? The answer to that question is the answer to the question, who's really leading?

Law 3. The Law of Process | Leadership develops daily, not in a day.

Don't wait until you're in a leadership role to start reading about leadership dynamics, thinking about leadership dynamics, and actually taking a stab at leading. This law is about patient, disciplined, and slow leadership development. It's never too soon to start working on these principles.

One of the book's most comforting lines is when Maxwell writes, "Leadership is complicated. It has many facets: respect, experience, emotional strength, people skills, discipline, vision, momentum, timing–the list goes on. As you can see, many factors that come into play in leadership are intangible. That's why leaders require so much seasoning to be effective. That's why I felt that only after reaching age fifty was I truly beginning to understand the many aspects of leadership with clarity" (25). This should both comfort and convict. There's a lot to learn, so be patient. There's a lot to learn, so get moving!

One of my critiques of this book is the standard necessary to say there is evidence for a law. The anecdotes often need to be more compelling, but it is a popular-level book, so I can't hold him to academic standards.

There's a key question in the application section of the law: "What is your personal plan for growth?" (34). Do you and I have an answer to this question ready?

Law 4. The Law of Navigation | Anyone can steer the ship, but it takes a leader to chart the course.

This is a chapter about vision. And one of the most robust illustrations in the book is found in this chapter. It contrasts two expeditions to the North Pole. Amundsen and Co carefully chart the course and succeed. Scott did not, and the incompetence to chart the course proved fatal. Leroy Eims says, "A leader is one who sees more than others see, who sees farther than others see, and who sees before others do."

Planning, strategy, vision, and reminding must be part of every leader's regular schedule. This could be a regular reminder or a calendar event that shows up every few weeks. The point is that this is a significant component of every leader's job description.

Where are we going as a church? Does everyone know where we are going? If someone asked us this question, how similar would our answers be?

Law 5. The Law of Addition | Leaders add value by serving others.

This could be the first law. It should be the first law. Christ's most candid leadership lesson is this law. 'The greatest among you shall be your servant.'

"The whole idea of adding value to other people depends on the idea that you have something of value to add" (54). This is pertinent to church contexts where false humility often has total freedom to run rampant. By the grace of God, he has given you strengths and gifts to use for his glory. To deny those things and not steward them is sinful.

We need to keep asking ourselves, how are we serving individuals? How are we serving these neighborhoods?

Law 6. The Law of Solid Ground | Trust is the foundation of leadership.

Trust is gained in drops but lost in buckets. Unfortunately, trust in Christian churches and pastors has been significantly undermined by the violation of this law of leadership. This might be one of the most important laws to seek to obey without exception.

A question worth pondering is, 'how do we gauge the amount of trust individuals and the collective have in us?' Character matters. Every investment we make into our character is also an investment in our leadership ability.

Law 7. The Law of Respect | People naturally follow leaders stronger than themselves.

"Usually the more leadership ability a person has, the more quickly he recognizes leadership–or its lack–in others" (78). So, develop it, and identify it in others. Our church should not be afraid of strong leaders.

Law 8. The Law of Intuition | Leaders evaluate everything with a leadership bias.

This was the most helpful chapter in the book. Does this law register with you? If not, it's worth rereading. Despite the very trivial illustration Maxwell uses about his wife picking out his clothes, this chapter taps into some of the most intangible stuff in leadership. This law is about instincts and developing patterns in your leadership that are second nature. One way to cultivate this instinct is by reading leadership books. Leaders are readers. Leaders are readers of leadership books.

Law 9. The Law of Magnetism | Who you are is who you attract.

Maxwell means this in a diagnostic way, not as a claim on your ultimate identity. The diagnostic sounds like this: Why are we attracting the people that are here? There's something about the current DNA that answers that question. And the same applies to those we're not attracting. As a church, we must identify the traits we need to address to attract the people in this neighborhood. Our parish neighborhood is our mission field.

Maxwell, throughout this book, but especially in this chapter, is far too self-referential.

Law 10. The Law of Connection | Leaders touch a heart before they ask for a hand.

Bill Walsh is quoted to have said, "Nothing is more effective than sincere, accurate praise, and nothing is more lame than a cookie-cutter compliment" (117). Touching the heart comes by encouraging and inspiring. It comes by adding value before asking for value. This law reinforces the wisdom of having people serve only after becoming members. It's a crucial law to be mindful of as we think about the ongoing need to recruit, train and retain ministry partners.

As staff members, we also need to be clear when the hand we're asking for is a hand to help us or a hand that contributes to the work of God. We're all ultimately serving Christ.

Law 11. The Law of the Inner Circle | A leader's potential is determined by those closest to him.

Here are a few diagnostic questions: Who's in your inner circle? Are you investing significant time and prayer into this group? How do the people in your inner circle compliment you, really? Does everyone in your inner circle know what they bring to the table?

Law 12. The Law of Empowerment | Only secure leaders give power to others.

This is a marvelously paradoxical law. "The only way to make yourself indispensable is to make yourself dispensable" (147). This shows your inherent Christian value and the value you bring to an organization. The various barriers to empowerment were helpful. The second barrier is a great reminder. "Most people don't like change" (147). John Steinbeck says, "It is the nature of man as he grows older to protest against change, particularly change for the better" (147).

This law is congregationalism at its best. This is a picture of all of the saints equipped for the works of ministry and walking in them. So the question becomes, what does 'empowering' look like in a church? What is someone 'empowered' to do?

When you don't empower people, you're holding them down. And to hold people down, you too must shrink. It's a lose-lose.

Law 13. The Law of the Picture | People do what people see.

What's seen is repeated, and what's celebrated is repeated. So a leader needs to constantly repeat vision, mission, and values. Once people are saying, "I get it, I get it," you're probably close to the frequency these things should come up. I recently talked to a high-caliber leader who said he does a 'Mission minute' with his staff before weekly meetings to keep it on their minds. Why would he do this? Because he knows that "vision has a tendency to leak" (159). "Mission provides purpose–answer the question, Why? Vision provides a picture–answer the question, What? Strategy provides a plan–answering the question, How?" (159). John Wooden says, "Show me what you can do; don't tell me what you can do." (162). In our church context, what are people seeing and not seeing that they should be?

Law 14. The Law of Buy-In | People buy in to the leader, then to the vision.

The chart on p. 173 detailing the mixing and matching of leader and vision is excellent. What is our vision? What vision do people see from the leadership? How does a congregationalist church decide on vision?

Law 15. The Law of Victory | Leaders find a way for the team to win.

There are three components of victory. First, unity of vision. Second, diversity of skills. Third, a leader dedicated to victory and raising players to their potential. What is our win as a church? Are we sold out to achieve this win?

Law 16. The Law of the Big Mo | Momentum is a leader's best friend.
Pastor Will taps into this law when he talks about how we need to "strike while the iron is hot." We should constantly ask, "what momentum do we need to lean into? What slump do we need to stop?"

His Pixar illustration didn't make the point, but the Garfield High School teacher illustration was one of the strongest in the book.
Law 17. The Law of Priorities | Leaders understand that activity is not necessarily accomplishment.

This might be the most important law for pastors and churches to obey. It's very easy to confuse movement for progress. Why don't leaders prioritize? "First, when we are busy, we naturally believe that we are achieving. But busyness does not equal productivity. Activity is not necessarily accomplishment. Second, prioritizing requires leaders to continually think ahead, to know what's important, to know what's next, to see how everything relates to the overall vision. That's hard work. Third, prioritizing causes us to do things that are at the least uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful." (207).

What's the organization's wildly important goal? Tim Redmond is quoted saying, "There are many things that will catch my eye, but there are only a few things that will catch my heart" (211). We could save time and energy if everyone was locked into this dynamic.

Meetings are often primary abusers of this law. In meetings, you always need to know what the objective is. What do we want to accomplish in this meeting? Is it tangible?

One of the most probing questions in the book is found in the application section at the end. "Are you prepared to really shake up your life and get out of your comfort zone in order to live and work according to your priorities?" (216).

Law 18. The Law of Sacrifice | A leader must give up to go up.

What are you giving up for the vision? For the mission? Time? Money? Prestige? "Come, follow me."… "and they left everything and followed Jesus." The breaking of this law has contributed to the constant moral failures of (predominantly) megachurch pastors. "Effective leaders sacrifice much that is good in order to dedicate themselves to what is best" (223).

Law 19. The Law of Timing | When to lead is as important as what to do and where to go.

This law takes a slight nuance to the 'strike while the iron is hot' concept. We need to take the right actions at the right time. Some people need to act more quickly, and some need to act more slowly. But beware of a common trap. A slow decision is not always the right decision. Esther is an excellent example of this law. "For such a time as this…"

Law 20. The Law of Explosive Growth | To add growth, lead followers–to multiply, lead leaders.

I love this chapter. This is a header you could put on the book of Acts. The Leader of leaders led and empowered leaders. The apostles were leaders. They became leaders as they saw the Word made flesh, leading timid men who became Spirit-empowered leaders. "To attract leaders, what we're doing has to be more compelling than what they are already doing." So, we need to know what leaders currently find compelling. "The only way to lead leaders is to become a better leader yourself" (253). "Most organizations desire structure. Leaders want flexibility. Most organizations place a high value on following the rules. Leaders want to think outside the box. If you want to gather leaders, you must create a place where they can thrive" (253).

Law 21. The Law of Legacy | A leader's lasting value is measured by succession.

The emphasis on adding value is bookended nicely here. Whether or not you like the idea of legacy, if you use the basically synonymous word 'heritage' as its replacement, you'll find that this concept is all over the Scriptures. You're leaving a legacy one way or another. Everyone does. What will it be? "What do you want people to say at your funeral?" (257). Eleanor Roosevelt says, "Life is like a parachute jump; you've got to get it right the first time" (257).

Maxwell's life sentence is excellent: "I want to add value to leaders who will multiply value to others." (259). This is worth copying and claiming as your own until God births something a bit more personal. Given its importance, this could also be placed as the second law, but it also makes sense to conclude the laws with this one.


This book is worth reading, even if you're not compelled at every turn. If you're seeking to keep your mind on leadership principles, Maxwell has a daily reader that is accessible and practical. Consider filling out Appendix A at the end of the book. It would be enlightening to have a close friend or colleague complete it on your behalf. You can get your money's worth by refreshing yourself on the laws in the table of contents every so often. I leave you with two questions. What law will you focus on this week? And, what's the next leadership book on your bedside table?

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