Maxwell introduces the book by observing that leadership is mostly a developed skill, not an innate ability. People who have a “natural leadership ability” may have some natural ability, but most of it is because they have experienced good leadership and have learned from it. Although Maxwell does not directly develop this theme, he repeatedly stresses that leadership is about developing others, and anyone can learn to help others develop.

The theme of the book is that leadership is essentially about developing others. Bosses command people, but leaders develop people. Leadership is also very much about influence, indeed, “influence” is a succinct definition of leadership, but influence comes because you invest in people. Maxwell lists five level of leadership:
  1. Positional leadership: people follow you because you have the title, but do not have much commitment to you or your goals. If you stay here too long, you will probably end up using control techniques to motivate people.
  2. Permissional leadership: people follow you because they know you care about them. This is foundational; you cannot skip this step. Obviously, you need to actually care about your people or you will be manipulating them.
  3. Production: people follow you because of what you have done for the organization. At this level, people get together because they want to get things accomplished.
  4. People development: people follow you because of what you have done for them.
  5. Personhood: people follow you because of what you represent. The few that reach this level are larger-than-life.

When you change groups, you start over from level one.

Since leadership is about developing people, integrity is one of the key characters of a leader. If you do not have integrity, you cannot win the trust of your followers, and hence, cannot lead. Related to this is that the higher up in leadership you go, the more you exchange rights for responsibilities. John D. Rockefeller said, “I believe that every right implies a responsibility, every opportunity, an obligation, every possession, a duty.” (41)

Another key character of a leader is a positive attitude. Maxwell quotes several studies showing the effect of attitude. Three randomly selected teachers with randomly selected students were told that they students were the top students. The teachers and students loved the class, and the students did about 30% better than the others, even though neither the students nor the teachers were above-average. Similarly, when Maxwell asks people to name a characteristic of someone they admire, 95% give an attitude of that person. Since attitude is so important, you need to take steps to create a positive attitude in yourself first, and your followers second. You can do this by determining what thinking results in the problem feelings, and replacing it with different thinking. You can also change your attitude by changing your behavior. If you want to cultivate thankfulness, for example, give everyone a compliment once a day.

The difference between a leader and a follower is that leaders have vision. They see what is not yet as thought it were. Simply pursuing your dream merely makes you an achiever; persuading others to follow your dream is what makes you a leader. Maxwell gives three levels of vision:

  1. Seeing now through the lens of reality.
  2. Seeing what will be through discernment.
  3. Seeing what could be.

Leaders live on all three levels. However, when you cast vision to people, you have to start from level one. Some people are stuck at seeing only level one and Maxwell does not identify how to deal with that. He does say that you bring people to level two by painting a picture of what could be, as well as identifying how the organizations goals can help achieve the individual’s goals. Finally, you need to invest in quality people to bring the organization to level three.

One of the jobs of a leader is to lead the organization through change. Change is inevitable, and essential for continued success. In fact, Maxwell lists contentment with the current state as a negative leadership trait. However, the problem with bringing change is that most people do not want to change. The leader must first change himself, the leader must make sure that the change benefits the followers. Then, to change the organization the leader needs to get the people to own the idea. This takes several exposures to the idea, since we rarely own a new idea the first time we hear it. However, it also requires that people be involved in the process, so make sure to ask for key influencers’ input in implementing the change and make sure they are supportive. Also, announce the change well in advance, be open to feedback, let them know you are confident that they can implement the change, and celebrate along the way as people implement pieces of it.

Solving problems is another function of a leader. In fact, the higher up in leadership you are, the more difficult the problems will be; if the problem were easy, people below you would have figured it out. The good thing is that problems and success are related. The boll weevil destroyed cotton production in the South, but it forced the replacement of a cotton monoculture with a much more diverse agriculture that also created more wealth, so much so that there is a monument to the boll weevil in Enterprise, Alabama. In fact, many people’s problems caused their success: Abraham Lincoln (poverty), George Washington (Valley Forge), Booker T. Washington (discrimination). Generally when people come to you with a problem, you should not solve it for them. Instead, give them the tools to solve it. Be their coach and walk them through solving it.

Maxwell also notes a few other important characteristics of leaders. One is prioritizing the important things. 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort, so figure out what that 20% is and make sure you do it. Another important characteristic is self-discipline—many noted leaders have said that their greatest enemy is themselves.

Finally, leaders prioritize developing their followers. As noted before, it is essential for the leaders to truly care about their people, and to seek their benefit. Too many “leaders” seek their own benefit; this is not leading, this is using people. Since we have finite time, invest in the 20% of your people that are the key influencers. Make sure you know their personal goals and help them achieve those at the organization. Also, make sure that your people know that they will get guidance when they need it, that have the opportunity to perform, and that they will be rewarded accordingly.

This book can be quickly summarized: leadership is influence; influence comes from developing your followers. Although simple in outline, Maxwell gives a lot of concrete suggestions on how to implement this. The book assumes that the reader has a leadership role, but people without a leadership role can still change themselves first. Coming from a place of some small leadership experience but no current role, this book feels like a great resource for the future. Most importantly, though, is the idea that leadership is developing your followers; leadership is getting others to own your dream. My previous thoughts on leadership were something vaguely that leadership is about directing people for organizational success. That is not something I want to do or feel like I am good at. But bringing people into my blue-sky dreams and developing them sounds much more exciting and is something that is actionable now.

Review: 9
The book sometimes feels a little cliche. It makes heavy use of personal anecdotes in the way that everyone tells you to connect with your audience in public speaking, so they happen in predictable places and and sometimes act as a bit of a diversion. However, Maxwell also uses some quotes to great effect. The content is sometimes a bit general, or obvious at times, but as a whole provides a complete package of how to develop yourself as a leader. It feels a bit too much like a seminar and like it often does not get to the core, or does not express it succinctly, to be a hundred-year book, although it does have good potential. It is going strong after twenty years (as of this writing), so it obviously has staying power.