Although published in 1998, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, written by internationally-recognized leadership expert and speaker John Maxwell, is still considered one of the greatest leadership books of all time. Over two decades later, the New York Times bestseller has sold over one million copies, influencing business owners, executives, managers, and other high performers worldwide.
If you’re in the business world, you’ve probably read this book or at least heard of it. In this summary of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You, revisit or learn actionable ways to gain followers as a leader.
What are The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership?
It’s important to note John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership isn’t a set of rules or guidelines for being a leader. What Maxwell means by “irrefutable laws” is that these laws remain true, whether or not you practice them. Think of it as learning about the universal law of gravitation. Even if you don’t act upon it—it’s still true, which is why it is pointless to argue with it. For this reason, readers should treat the content more like a study on unchanging truths about leadership.
Learn more about each of the 21 laws of leadership below.
1. The Law of the Lid
“The higher you want to climb, the more you need leadership. The greater the impact you want to make, the greater your influence needs to be.”
A person’s leadership ability determines where their success gets capped. In other words, leadership and effectiveness are interconnected. Maxwell uses Dick and Maurice McDonald, the brothers who started McDonald’s Hamburgers, as an example. While these brothers were mildly successful due to their leadership skills, they didn’t turn the company into what it is today. Ray Kroc, the infamous but greater-minded leader, made McDonald’s a franchisable business worth billions.
If your company’s ability to succeed is capped too low, Maxwell suggests:
- Finding a business partner or executive leader who complements your weaknesses (think the duo of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak).
- Firing ineffective leaders, as they are the ones hurting the business.
- Providing more training to the team on leadership and service.
- Assessing and increasing your own leadership abilities.
- Getting feedback from others on your leadership skills.
- Raising your goals.
- Working through years of leadership training.
2. The Law of Influence
“Leadership is influence—nothing more, nothing less.”
Would your employees follow you if they didn’t have to? With this law, Maxwell says real leaders develop followers, not because of their title but because they positively influence others’ lives, making people want to follow them.
He uses Mother Teresa as an example. Even in front of an audience of dissenters, she discussed her views on abortion without being escorted off stage. She wasn’t just a nobody rambling about her beliefs—her words meant something because she was highly respected for her life’s work and leadership abilities. Despite political beliefs and party lines, people listened to her thoughts and treated her respectfully due to her influence.
Aspects of your life to work and reflect on if you want to become more influential:
- Character—who you are
- Relationships—who you know
- Knowledge—what you know
- Intuition—what you feel
- Experience—where you’ve been
- Past Success—what you’ve done
- Ability—what you can do
Volunteering at organizations that support a cause you believe in is another good way to practice growing influence, too.
3. The Law of Process
“Becoming a leader is a lot like investing successfully in the stock market. If your hope is to make a fortune in a day, you’re not going to be successful.”
In this law, Maxwell refers to Anne Schieber, who gifted 22 million to Yeshiva University, despite only making $3,150 a year. She did this by developing a process where she picked stocks listed in the newspaper each day and reinvested the money she made back into the market.
Maxwell uses her example to demonstrate how important good habits and daily processes are for accruing compound interest in leadership abilities.
To develop great processes:
- Create a vision for your life. What goals do you need to set to make this vision a reality?
- Break these goals down into yearly, quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily goals. Doing so will help you see what habits you must develop. For example, Larry Bird became one of the best free-throw shooters in the NBA by practicing 500 shots each morning before school.
- Make investing in others a part of your process. You can do things like mentor employees, bring in outside experts to train them, or provide higher education.
- Develop a culture of growth. You want to create a momentous environment where everyone succeeds and takes their goals to the next level.
4. The Law of Navigation
“A leader is one who sees more than others see, who sees farther than others see, and who sees before others do.”Leroy eims
People follow leaders due to their confidence, positivity, and ability to communicate a greater portrait of the future. Additionally, they give followers purpose by letting them know how they can change the world for the better. Then, they call them to do so.
To lead the ship, Maxwell says use the acronym for “plan ahead”:
- Predetermine a course of action.
- Lay out your goals.
- Adjust your priorities.
- Notify key personnel.
- Allow time for acceptance.
- Head into action.
- Expect problems.
- Always point to the successes.
- Daily review your plan.
5. The Law of Addition
“When you try to be top dog, you don’t create loyalty. If you can’t give credit (and take blame), you will drown in your inability to inspire.”Jim sinegal
Being a great leader means adding value to others’ lives by serving them. Maxwell uses Jim Sinegal, the co-founder and former CEO of Costco, as an example. During his time, he walked humbly alongside his employees. Sinegal wore the same name tags they did, visited each store once a year, and took meetings with anyone who requested one.
Although he didn’t have to, he raised employees’ wages to 42 percent above other rivals. He also slashed healthcare costs and provided benefits in an industry where they were normally excluded. Because of his leadership and belief in the Law of Addition, Costco had the lowest employee turnover of any retail store.
As Sinegal demonstrates, the function of leadership isn’t about being in charge or having authority over others.
The sign someone truly understands what it means to lead is when they are intentional about advancing those on their team.
We add value to others when we:
1. Recognize the best in people and do what we can to honor them.
2. Prove dissenters wrong by teaching them skills, providing insight, and investing in them.
3. Treat people as individuals and serve them in ways that speak to their uniqueness.
4. Act as God commands: love, respect, and actively serve people.
6. The Law of Solid Ground
“To build trust, a leader must exhibit competence, connection, and character.”
In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Maxwell says trust is the most crucial aspect of leadership. It is the foundation which all relationships are built upon. When you continuously break a person’s trust, your relationship with them will dissolve. Organizations that lack trust in leadership are full of dissent, unrest, and high turnover. However, companies with high levels of trust can drive impact and change the world for the better.
To grow more trust:
- Work on your character.
- Recognize your values and live them.
- Become more competent by increasing your skillset. Followers want to know they can trust you to lead in the right direction.
- Provide candid feedback and be honest. This means never avoiding the truth, even if the truth hurts.
- Apologize to those you’ve upset and do what you can to earn their trust back. Show them it is important you make things right.
7. The Law of Respect
“One measure of leadership is the caliber of people who choose to follow you.”Dennis A. peer
Maxwell says when it comes to leadership, there is a natural order. For example, if you threw a group of ten random professionals together, a pecking order would emerge. The best leader would be at the top (CEO). Below them, two good managers would fall below this person (COO and president). Another tier of people might develop under these executives (directors and managers), while a larger group of entry-level employees would follow them.
As Maxwell explains, people only follow leaders stronger than themselves. For instance, a level 7 leader wouldn’t follow a level 2 leader—we are naturally inclined to want guidance from those who have something to teach us.
To gain respect:
- Act like a natural leader: communicate a vision, live with integrity, and be excellent at what you do.
- Pour into others—invest in them, recognize the greatness within them, and show them respect.
- Inspire, motivate, be bold, and remain positive in the face of adversity.
- Produce great results. A strong track record of excellent outcomes is hard to argue with.
- Be loyal. This means never gossiping about your workers, having their back, and being willing to fight for them.
- Investing in others’ lives and careers.
8. The Law of Intuition
“A leader has to read the situation and know instinctively what play to call.”
One of the indispensable qualities all great leaders have is the intuition to make the right decisions. They do this through the gift of foresight, or the ability to think about how certain actions will affect the future. Other factors in decision-making include being aware of their environment, asking good questions, and being flexible in their behavior and thinking.
Maxwell points to Steve Jobs’ decision to ask Bill Gates to collaborate with him, despite a tense legal battle between Microsoft and Apple. Jobs inherited the mess caused by previous leaders, but still needed to find a solution. He read the situation, used his intuition, and made a firm choice to call Gates. The result of the call ended in a 150 million dollar investment in Apple and a 33 percent raise in the business’s stock value.
Become more intuitive by:
- Being aware of your environment.
- Asking good questions.
- Being flexible in your behavior and thinking.
- Trusting your gut. Start recognizing patterns of how you make good decisions without “knowing” something. Get curious about the conditions for instinctively good choices. When do these happen most often? When does your gut fail you?
- Reading others. Maxwell suggests people-watching, increasing the conversations you have, and learning more about developing strong relationships.
9. The Law of Magnetism
“Who you are is not determined by what you want. It’s determined by who you are.”
Take a look at your employees, friends, and business associates. Are they high-quality people with huge dreams they’re actively accomplishing, or are they low-quality people who struggle with self-motivation, discipline, and follow through?
The Law of Magnetism says who you surround yourself with is a mirror to who you are.
To attract top-notch talent, clients, customers, friends, and partners:
- Make studying leadership a lifelong goal. The more you grow as a leader, the more you’ll attract leaders of your caliber.
- Write down the type of followers you want. Consider things like attitude, leadership ability, coachability, gratefulness, excellence, skill level, and life values.
- Notice whether or not the qualities you listed describe you. If not, you need to develop a game plan for working on the aspects you lack.
- Consult with a mentor or coach who is an expert in your weaknesses.
10. The Law of Connection
“The stronger the relationship and connection between individuals, the more likely the follower will want to help the leader.”
Out of all the 21 laws of leadership, the Law of Connection is one of the most important. Followers won’t move into action if they don’t feel emotionally connected to their leader.
Maxwell uses Frederick Douglass as an example. As a great leader and orator, he could make audiences feel (or vividly imagine) what it was like to be enslaved, which drove people to become abolitionists. Without this type of connection, people wouldn’t have become enraged enough to want to end American slavery.
For leaders who want to resonate with their followers emotionally:
- Be confident in your purpose and who you are.
- Don’t be false or phony—speak with sincerity and give genuine, specific praise.
- Connect with your audience by discussing what they care about.
- Avoid being a hypocrite and not practicing what you preach.
- Dissolve barriers in communication. Converse with people in a way that speaks their language and makes them feel like you understand them. Learning about their culture and background is one great way to do this.
- Take the focus off of you and put it onto the other person.
- Don’t be shy about speaking belief into your employees.
- Paint a picture of a brighter future and layout a strategy that makes it seem accomplishable.
11. The Law of the Inner Circle
“A leader’s potential is determined by the people closest to him.”
It is said you become the sum of the five people you spend the most time with. While most people don’t carefully select people to build relationships with, leaders do. It’s a part of their strategy to step into their full potential.
Ways to grow an inner circle with intention:
- Find people who are highly influential to others.
- Think about what gift, skill, or contributions each person brings to the table. How can you create more room to allow them to step into their strengths?
- Consider what strategic role they could play in your life or business.
- Write down the value they add to your life.
- List how you positively influence these people’s lives. This might include spending more time with them as a mentor, letting them take on more responsibilities, holding them accountable, or showing appreciation and recognition.
12. The Law of Empowerment
“Leading well is not about enriching yourself—it’s about empowering others.”
Another one of the most critical 21 laws of leadership to understand is the Law of Empowerment. Basically, it states leaders must find great leaders, grow them into even better leaders, provide them with any resources or authority they need to succeed, and get out of the way so they can do their jobs.
Those who empower rather than control gain respect, trust, and admiration from their followers.
To be a champion of others:
- Work on your own self-worth. Know your strengths, value, and what you offer that no one else does.
- Make a list of your top employees. Think about their greatest strengths and ways they can leverage them.
- Have confidence in providing others with more responsibility by offering the training and mentorship they need to do their jobs successfully. This will make you feel comfortable delegating work while also creating growth opportunities.
13. The Law of the Picture
“Followers may doubt what their leaders say, but they usually believe what they do.”
In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, one of the common themes of a leader versus a follower is that leaders continuously communicate a goal of a better future. They also outline their mission, or why followers should get involved. Finally, they are the ones who give people a strategy or a plan of action to achieve the vision.
To demonstrate top leadership qualities:
- Work on your character as a person. When do your values slip? Why? How can you change your attitude, actions, and thoughts to fully live your values?
- Have someone you trust help you make sure there’s no inconsistencies in what you preach versus what you practice. After a week of observation, meet with the person to discuss actionable ways you will change.
- Rank your team’s strengths and weaknesses. Now rank yourself on the same lines. If you rank worse, fix the problems. If you rank higher, make sure your example is better seen.
14. The Law of Buy-In
“As a leader, your success is measured by your ability to actually take the people where they need to go. But you can do that only if the people first buy into you.”
Vision, while important, isn’t what creates buy-in. Who you are as a leader does. You must show people who you are and where you can take them before they want to follow you. Vision and great leadership must work hand in hand. Otherwise, followers will either find another leader or get another vision.
To create more buy-in:
- Know why you’ve chosen to lead. What great problem do you want to solve in the world? Why should people care? If you don’t have a strong enough purpose, you will not get the buy-in needed to instigate real change.
- Rank each person’s buy-in level. Why are certain levels lower than others might be, and what can you do to fix this? Maxwell suggests working on better relationships and trust, being a strong example, helping people do their jobs better, working with employees on their personal goals, and teaching them how to lead.
15. The Law of Victory
“Victorious leaders possess an unwillingness to accept defeat. The alternative to winning is totally unacceptable to them.”
Think of leaders like Winston Churchill or Michael Jordan. Despite facing an almost certain defeat in World War II, Churchill refused to accept this outcome. Michael Jordan, even when put on a scrimmage team full of B players, still ended up winning.
People with the most success have tenacity and passion, which is why they are winners. They’ll do whatever it takes not to lose.
To be victorious, you need to know the 3 Components of Victory:
- Unity of Vision: the leader must get everyone working together. No one can have a personal agenda.
- Diversity of Skills: Each person on the team is played in a way that creates synergy. When a leader fills positions, they think about how everyone will work together to produce the best outcome. They must consider each player’s strengths and weaknesses to reduce any gaps.
- A Leader Dedicated to Victory and Raising Players to Their Potential: You can have a group of great players, but without coaching, failure is entirely possible. Coaching is what takes people to championships by providing strategic insight, motivation, and guidance.
16. The Law of the Big Mo
“You cannot kindle a fire in any other heart until it is burning within your own.”Eleanor doan
Small wins create momentum toward achieving larger goals. Take a football game, for example. Rushing 20 yards in one play gets the team excited to get the touchdown they need. Players’ adrenaline starts pumping, their confidence increases, and they feel like they can tackle any challenges. Multiple successful plays like this are what wins games, and ultimately championships.
Multiple small losses have the reverse effect. It causes people to feel discouraged, sad, and insecure. The team starts to question if they have what it takes to achieve their big goals.
It’s a leader’s job to generate momentum and keep it flowing. This is done by evaluating what’s working, what needs to change, and what opportunities to capitalize on.
To increase momentum:
- Be passionate, show optimism, and serve as a motivating force.
- Show your team the character of a winner. How do winners think and act differently than people who aren’t focused on victory?
- Remove roadblocks of momentum. What seems to slow people down? Look for demotivating factors and seek to eliminate them.
- Show gratitude and give praise when someone achieves their goals (big or small). Find a way to celebrate each one of your team member’s contributions.
17. The Law of Priorities
“A leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, ‘Wrong jungle!’”Stephen covey
Leaders know that busyness doesn’t lead to accomplishment: setting top priorities does. In this chapter of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Maxwell uses famed basketball coach John Wooden as an example. Each practice was strategically planned by the minute to move the team in the right direction. This type of hyperfocus on making the team’s work count won 10 NCAA championships and resulted in four undefeated seasons.
Get clear on your priorities by:
- Knowing what is required of you. What work can only you do that no one else can?
- Pinpointing your top strengths. What jobs and tasks are in alignment with these? You only want to do jobs that produce the greatest return.
- Focusing on rewards. When do you feel happiest? What would you do for free? Which priorities are essential (such as spending time with family and friends)?
- Using the Pareto Principle, otherwise known as the 80/20 rule, focus most of your time doing the top 20 percent of your top priorities to get back an 80 percent return.
18. The Law of Sacrifice
“The heart of good leadership is sacrifice.”
Maxwell says in The 21 Laws of Irrefutable Leadership, too often, people glamourize the life of being a leader. They think being a top executive provides power, glory, and riches. However the author says, “A leader must give up to go up.”
He uses Martin Luther King, Jr., as an example. King was aware of the dangers of leading the Civil Rights Movement. Though he was beaten and imprisoned on multiple occasions, this was the sacrifice he chose to make to see his dream of a better future through. He could’ve backed out at any time, but he was willing to die for his cause and help transform the world.
Maxwell says the greater your vision and mission, the greater sacrifices you must make. In short, your rights decrease as your responsibilities increase.
Get clear on what you’re willing to sacrifice by:
- Making a list of the things you’re willing to give up versus what you’re not.
- Considering what tradeoffs you could make to create more value in your business and life.
- Curing yourself of “destination disease” by changing your mindset to think of leading as a lifelong growth practice. This will help you plan for the future with more big-picture goals that increase your leadership skills over time.
19. The Law of Timing
“When the right leader and the right timing come together, incredible things happen.”
As the adage goes, “Timing is everything.” Maxwell says when a leader acts, there are only four results.
- Wrong action + wrong time = disaster
- Right action + wrong time = resistance from your team
- Wrong action + right time = mistake
- Right action + right time = success
But, how does a person know what the right action and time are?
To execute a good decision at the right time, a person must:
- Have a firm understanding of the situation.
- Keep motives from being self-serving. For example, an immature leader might seek power or fame, which causes them to make stupid decisions at the wrong time.
- Be confident about the actions they take and the choices they make.
- Consult with others who have successfully navigated the waters they’re in.
- Trust their intuition and gut. Read into factors like growing morale and momentum.
- Consider how well-prepared their team is to handle the actions they choose. For example, if you decide to launch a new product in three months, do employees have everything they need to make this goal a reality?
20. The Law of Explosive Growth
“Leadership development compounds. The more you invest in people and the longer you do it, the greater the growth and the higher the return.”
Maxwell says the key to experiencing massive growth is not leading followers but leading other leaders. Great leadership has an infinite reach because once you’re a leader, your job is to multiply more leaders who keep the cycle going. This is how your influence spreads and starts to generate real momentum and impact.
Yet, finding (and keeping) leaders is easier said than done. To do this:
- Look for people who are consistently influential and push others to excel.
- Tell them your vision and show them your strategic plan to accomplish this portrait of a better future.
- Make sure you communicate you have created a flexible, exciting, creative environment for them to operate in.
- Keep growing your leadership abilities and stay ahead of the group so you can provide value in their lives. This is what keeps leaders at your business.
21. The Law of Legacy
“My life sentence is, ‘I want to add value to leaders who will multiply value to others.’”
The final chapter of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership touches on creating a legacy. Maxwell asks readers what they want people to say about them at their funeral. This will help the wheels start spinning when developing a clear mission statement to live life by.
How someone lives now is what ends up determining what they leave behind in the future. For example, if you spent your life pouring into six million leaders the way Maxwell has intentionally done, others will say you enriched millions of lives because you did.
To develop your leadership legacy:
- Know your purpose in life (think about what unique gifts and skills you were blessed with and where you drive the most impact). It should coincide with your legacy.
- Don’t wait until later in life to start living your legacy. Start now.
- Invest in leaders who will carry on your legacy. If you mentor and teach others to live as you did, your influence will have infinite reach.
- Create a succession plan that allows you to pass the baton to someone else smoothly. This could take decades, so go ahead and begin working on this today.
Putting the 21 Laws Into Action
Maxwell’s books provide the most value when leaders spend a week or two working on each chapter. As he advises: “If you want to be a leader, the good news is that you can do it. Everyone has the potential, but it isn’t accomplished overnight. It requires perseverance.”
If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by all the information covered, get started with these top key takeaways:
- Define your idea of the future and share it.
- Serve those you lead.
- Trust your instincts and intuition.
- Associate with and lead other leaders.
- Be humble and flexible.
- Prioritize what makes you happy and what moves the needle.
- Multiply leaders close to you.
Want more leadership insight? Read up on other John Maxwell leadership books or check out this review of his bestseller, 5 Levels of Leadership.