As a cutting-edge entrepreneur, best-selling author, and dynamic speaker, Dr. John C. Maxwell has cultivated an extensive following that includes the most highly respected and influential business leaders across the globe. Reaching more than 350,000 people a year through speaking engagements alone (and another million-plus through other media), Dr. Maxwell is committed to developing leaders of excellence and integrity by providing the finest resources and training for personal and professional growth.

Early in life, Maxwell developed a philosophy that “everything rises and falls on leadership.” That philosophy, driving a single-minded purpose—to help individuals reach their highest potential—has since motivated every aspect of his career. His passion caught on quickly. The ranks of organizations benefiting from Maxwell’s training and on-going support have included Books-a-Million, AFLAC, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Johnson Controls, Chick-fil-A, Advocare, Columbus Bank & Trust, First Southern Bancorp, Primerica, Auntie Anne’s, Amway, Mary Kay, Home Interiors, Salem Communications, and many more. Maxwell’s unique approach to coaching has proven effective for sports organizations, as well; he has spoken to and mentored such groups as the NCAA Coaches, NFL Coaches and Teams, Atlanta Hawks, San Diego Padres, USC Trojans and the Indianapolis 500 drivers.

Author of more than 30 books with over 3.2 million copies sold, he works diligently to make leadership tools easily accessible and convenient for the busy business leader. Some of Maxwell’s hottest titles include The 21 Most Powerful Minutes in a Leader’s Day, Failing Forward: Turning Your Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, and The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, all of which have landed on the bestseller list in noted publications such as The New York Times, Business Week, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and CBA Marketplace. — JMF

 

Dr. Maxwell, how and when did the notion of leadership first get your attention?

In my late 20s, I was pastoring a successful church. By the time I was 28, in fact, my church had grown to be one of the ten largest churches in America. Pastors were constantly asking me, “How do you grow a church?” and I didn’t have good answers for them. I honestly had not yet figured it out. It was frustrating: I knew they weren’t successfully growing their congregations, and I obviously knew how—but I didn’t know what I knew!

About 1975, I realized that in my world as a pastor I’d always been able to influence volunteers. I influenced people—and people followed me. So it hit me: this is really a leadership issue.

I immediately started teaching pastors how to lead, and their congregations began to thrive. I had found the key to success in life: being able to influence people.

In 1976, I became passionate about this. I decided that I would spend the rest of my life teaching people how to lead, because if I could do that, I would open up a door of opportunity for them that they would never have otherwise.

 

What qualities did you first begin to focus on, in terms of leadership?

I quickly saw that leadership is not a matter of position. All these pastors had a “leadership position”—being the pastor of a church automatically puts you in a leadership position—but many of them were not able to influence people. They had the position of a leader, but not the influence of a leader.

At that point, I came up with the first of my “21 laws of leadership,” which is The Law of Influence. Leadership is influence—nothing more, nothing less.

 

And what gives people the ability to influence others?

As I studied influential people, what they do and how they do it, I found that people who had the ability to influence others had four traits in common that made them attractive to others.

Number one: they had a positive attitude and outlook.

Number two: they were encouraging.

Number three: they had relational skills, the ability to connect with others.

Number four: they took an interest in others, placed others at the top of their agenda.

I realized, if I can teach people those four things, they’re going to become influential. And then, if I can add in the mechanics of leadership, such as the ability to cast vision, or the ability to take initiative in your life, then we’ll really be able to create leaders. That thinking led to books such as Becoming a Person of Influence, The Ten Things You Can Do to Influence People, and The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader.

 

A number of experts have said to me that interpersonal relationships is impossible to teach—yet it’s one of your cornerstones of influence.

If an expert told me that interpersonal relationships were impossible to teach, I would look at him and say, “For you, they are!” If you think something’s impossible, you probably can’t do it.

But I’ve found that you can teach people interpersonal relationship skills; it begins by going to some of the issues that keep a person from being relationally strong.

For example, people who are basically selfish are seldom good with relationships. They’re always saying, “What’s in this relationship for me?” To be relationally strong, you have to not be selfish. You’ve got to stop thinking “me” all the time.

 

And that can be taught?

Absolutely, although obviously, the person you’re teaching has to have a strong enough desire to become relationally strong.

Another very simple thing that can be taught to anybody is to look for the good in others and compliment them. Dale Carnegie said that the most important sound to a person’s ear is his name. Remembering and using a person’s name, looking for the positive and complimenting him on that, are the kinds of thing that make a person attractive.

Are some people more naturally relational than others? Of course. But if you teach the basic principles of interpersonal skills, and the people you’re teaching have the commitment to do it, then they can become relationally strong.

 

One of my favorite definitions of leadership is: “A leader has her attention on the other people—not on herself.”

That’s exactly how I define charisma. The difference between the person with charisma and the one without is not personality, it’s focus. People with charisma pay attention to others; they find out what other people’s interests are and dwell on those areas, not on their own interests. People who lack charisma are those who focus on themselves, on what they’re doing and thinking.

“Charisma” is simply an intentional process of paying attention to others and placing them at the top of your agenda.

 

What steps could one take to cultivate that?

The first step is to come to the realization that this is a weakness in your life, that you are not good with relationships.

I deal with people all the time, in network marketing and in other areas where people are in the position of leading volunteers. It always amazes me how many people there are in such positions and organizations who are not good with people!

This has led me to the conclusion that if you’re not relationally strong, chances are you don’t know it. I have sat down with people who were not strong in people skills and asked them, “Have your friends ever shared with you that interpersonal skills is not a strength in your life?” And they’ll give me a blank look and say, “What do you mean?”

The second step is to go find someone who is relationally strong as a model. Find a person who influences a lot of people, the sort of person who walks into a room and everybody gathers around him.

The third step is to observe that person’s behavior and analyze what is it that makes that person a high-influence individual. You’ll find exactly the things I’m describing: they have other people’s interests at the top of their agenda, they are encouraging, they have a positive outlook, they make an effort in relationships, they take initiative….

Come up with your own list, and practice these traits, one by one. Say, this week, I’m going to focus on giving attention to other people, or on making compliments, or on saying something encouraging. If you take one a week, it might take you three or four months to go through them all.

After three or four months, all of a sudden, you’ll find that your relationships are flourishing.

 

Do you think that leadership is critical no matter what the enterprise?

Absolutely: everything rises and falls on leadership, period.

Now, if that were true, but it was not true that people can learn to lead, then we would all be frustrated. We’d have to say, “Oh well, some people have it and some people don’t; if you’ve got it, lead—and if you don’t, get in line, there’s a drinking fountain at the end.”

But if it is true that people can be taught to lead, then the person who teaches people how to lead is going to add immeasurable value to them for the rest of their lives. That’s the commitment I have made. I have spent my life and will spend the rest of my life teaching people how to be better leaders—knowing that they’re going to influence more people, their business will grow and they will have more success.

If I just do what I’m good at doing, as a one-man effort, I can have a reasonable amount of success. But if I can teach others to do what I can do—if I can lead them—now I’m not just
successful, I’ve compounded my success. Leadership compounds success; that’s the value of leadership.

 

We’ve had situations recently where we’ve discovered that a number of our leaders are pretty flawed as people. Can you speak about the role of integrity in leadership?

I was being interviewed by the Wall Street Journal a few months ago, and they said, “John, we want you to talk about business ethics.” I said, “First of all, there’s no such thing as business ethics.” It got quiet on the other end of the line. They said, “What do mean?” I said, “There’s just ethics. You either have ethics, or you don’t. If you have ethics, that shows up in business, family, every aspect of your life—and if you don’t, that shows up in every aspect of your life.”

As a leader, the first person I need to lead is myself. Why should anyone follow me, if I wouldn’t follow me? Leadership starts not with you, but with me; you cannot export what you do not have. I wrote Twenty-One Qualities of a Leader based on the conviction that we need to build leaders from the inside out. Leadership is an inside job.

Now, just because you’re an ethical person, a person of good character, doesn’t mean you’re a leader. If you are a leader, those good character qualities will make you a better leader, and not having those good inner qualities will make you the kind of leader that causes suffering in the people you lead—because when a leader does something wrong, it compounds and hurts a lot of people. If a leader doesn’t have integrity, a lot of people get hurt.

 

How do we recognize a leader with integrity?

When I see a person in a leadership position, I ask myself, Does this person practice the Golden Rule—do unto others as you’d have them do unto you? If I’m not certain the answer is yes, then I begin to question their ethics and integrity. If I know the answer is yes, then I can be pretty sure they’re not going to damage the people they’re leading.

 

Are there common core values that you see in skilled leadership?

Yes. Leaders have different personalities and
different ways of leading, so you can’t put
leadership into a mold. But there are values that are usually in common.

Leaders truly want to add value to people; they lead because they want to improve other people’s lots in life.

Leaders place a high value on doing right; they think that if they do good things, then things will turn out better—both for themselves and for others.

Leaders place a high value on goal-setting, dream-building, and all such actions that create initiative in life.

Leaders place a high value on people; that’s what makes them leaders. If you place a high value on people, then you’ll motivate people. If you place a low value on people, then you’ll manipulate them—every chance you get.

Remember, though, that while these values make you a better leader, they do not in and of themselves make you a leader. I know a lot of people who value others, but still have never learned to influence others. Unless you learn to influence people, you’re not going to lead them.

 

Does being a leader require a pretty sizable ego?

I think anybody who accomplishes something has a strong ego; that’s part of the ability to take initiative. They feel good about themselves, want to accomplish something, and want people to know they’ve accomplished something. Ego is fine; we all have one.

When does ego cross the line? When the leader does something with his people that improves his situation, but not the people's situation. Do leaders have ego? Yes, of course they do. But the great leaders always put their people first.

 

Can you speak about the role of vision in leadership?

Vision is having a clear picture of tomorrow that gives you passion today. Showing people a clear picture of what tomorrow can look like is what makes them passionate about doing what they need to do today to accomplish that vision.

The difference between the leader with a few followers and the leader with many followers is the ability to declare a vision in a way that others begin to own it. A leader paints the first picture, but leaves room for others to add to it. Then suddenly it’s not my vision—it’s our vision. That’s the secret.

 

And a servant leader?

A servant leader has pure motives: he is truly in it to help people. Early in a leader’s life, you often cannot tell; it’s a matter of time. Over the years, it becomes clear as to whether that leader is self-serving or other-serving.

Servant leaders are those leaders whose influence lasts. They last because their motives are right, because the people know that their intention is to add value and bring others to a higher level. A servant leader endures, and in the end has not only the greatest following but also the greatest respect.

When people would tell me they wanted to become a leader, I used to say, “Oh, that’s great!” I don’t say that any more; instead, I say, “Why?” Then I listen very carefully to the answer.

If they say, “I want to lead because I think that I can add value to people’s lives, that I can help them become more successful and more fulfilled,” then I applaud their efforts: I know they probably have a servant’s heart.

If they say, “I believe it will help me be more successful…” or things that point more towards themselves, I suspect they may not have that servant leader quality.

Servant leadership is very easy to detect, easier than integrity. Integrity (or the lack thereof) is on the inside and may be hidden for a time. But within two or three hours of being with someone, you can tell whether or not he is a servant leader, just by how he treats people around him. Is he quick to give credit to others, and quick to admit his own weaknesses?

 

Do you see us today being more in a crisis of leadership or a golden age of leadership?

Leaders come forward most effectively and in greatest number when times are bad. The darker the day, the more leaders come forward.

If you look back at any time of great trouble, it always seems that great leaders emerge. During the Civil War we had Lincoln; at the time of the Revolutionary War, it seemed like we were loaded with extraordinary leaders—but it’s because we were struggling to gain our independence.

Winston Churchill is one of the classic examples. He was the greatest prime minister England ever had, and emerged during England’s darkest period. When the war was over, he was ousted, and never came back to his former influence level or strength. He was at his best during a crisis.

For the last 20 or 30 years in America, we were talking about a “leadership vacuum,” asking, “Where are the leaders?” In all fairness, I think we had a lot of leaders—but times were good. After 9-11, New York City suddenly realized they had a very good leader in Rudolph
Giuliani. America moved from being pretty ambivalent about President Bush to recognizing him as a leader.

It’s not so much that the crisis makes the leader, as that the crisis reveals the leader. A crisis reveals what’s inside the person. If you have the right stuff inside, then during a crisis you come forward as a strong leader. If you have the wrong stuff inside, you panic and you don’t help people.

 

Who are some of the leaders you admire most?

Most of the people I look to as great leaders are from the past, not because there are no great leaders today, but because I think it takes history to truly reveal a great leader. We realize today that the George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns were great leaders—but their contemporaries didn’t necessarily see them that way.

Winston Churchill is probably at the top of my list. Mother Teresa is another I greatly admire: here was a true servant leader who modeled the qualities all of us would want to have—and she had a wide influence.

When I look for a model of leadership, I ask two questions. Does this person have a great deal of influence? Does this person have a servant’s heart?

If the answer to both is yes, then I think, “Here is a leader who’s going to endure.”