A Life of Leadership and Inspiration

UPDATED: March 3, 2009
PUBLISHED: March 3, 2009


In the history of mankind, there has never been a period in any generation when we didn't need good leaders. No one knows this better than John C. Maxwell, recognized around the world as an authority on leadership. His résumé includes more than 50 books on the topic, and his organization has trained more than 2 million leaders worldwide. Maxwell's story is that Maxwell says his incentive for writing books wasn’t that he felt compelled to write, rather, he wanted to influence as many people as possible whom he would never see or know otherwise. “I had writing within me,” he says, “as well as a strong desire to add value to people’s lives.”


His first book, Think on These Things, was released in 1979 and had 100 pages in 33 chapters. When someone approached him at a recent event and asked why he had so many chapters in the book, he admitted that’s all he could think of. “It was my first book, and for some of the chapters, one page was too many. If I didn’t have anything more to say, I just went on to the next chapter.”

John learned that people learn better when topics are separated into short and concise segments that are easy to digest—and this approach would become his trademark. Pick up any of his books, and you will see clearly defi ned chapter headings that give the reader a road map of what they will learn. Maxwell is a master storyteller, inserting short, insightful stories to help the reader understand the topic more completely.

Author and speaker Zig Ziglar, who wrote the foreword for Maxwell’s national best-seller The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, says, “Maxwell boils everything he’s learned about leadership down into such a usable form… that is easy to read, loaded with hope, direction, encouragement and clear-cut directions to provide you with the necessary tools to fulfill your leadership role.”

"Leaders are not looking for the easy way out; they love to be ‘over their heads.’"

Maxwell used this successful formula to write several national best-sellers. Three of his books, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Developing the Leader Within You, and The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, have sold more than 1 million copies each. He was also one of only 25 authors named to Amazon.com’s 10th Anniversary Hall of Fame.


So how did a minister become so famous for teaching leadership to the corporate community? In addition to being pastor of three churches, and with 25 years in the ministry, Maxwell has gained business experience by founding three companies.

In 1985, Maxwell founded INJOY® in San Diego with a mission to develop leaders of excellence and integrity. A few years later, he established Maximum Impact. Each of the businesses develops tens of thousands of leaders every year. This is accomplished primarily through large corporate training programs across the United States and Canada. In 2007, both companies were acquired by GiANT Impact.

Maxwell’s message of leadership couldn’t be more needed than it is today. “The demand for leadership always increases with diffi cult times,” Maxwell says. “And we are facing a very tough time.”

Working with some high-level executives in Washington, D.C., the week after Barack Obama was elected president, Maxwell recalls a participant’s comment about the turmoil President Obama would inherit: “I sure wouldn’t want to be the next president of the United States with all the economic problems facing the country.” Listening intently, Maxwell waited until the conversation ceased and turned the tables. “I told them I would love to be Barack Obama right now,” he says. “The reason is, you show me a person who is a great leader, and I will show you a person who loves a great challenge. That is the DNA of leadership. And leaders are not looking for the easy way out or quick exits; they love to be ‘over their heads.’ ”

Great leaders of this country were those who helped guide the nation through some of its darkest hours. And Maxwell thinks President Obama has a tremendous opportunity to go down as one of the great American presidents. Will he do that? Although his leadership is untested, Maxwell says what he has seen so far indicates Obama has tremendous potential to become a great leader and president. “He is bringing people around him who may even be a little diverse in their thinking; he is showing every sign of checking and listening and learning before he leads.”


Whether it’s Barack Obama leading our nation, a quarterback trying to lead his team to the conference championship or a parent trying to lead a family through these difficult economic times, Maxwell says there are three characteristics needed to become a successful leader.

1. Consensus building: Abraham Lincoln was such a phenomenal leader because he understood the importance of consensus building and bringing together the people around him to help make up for his weaknesses. “The fallacy of leadership is thinking that if you can lead in one area you can lead in all areas, and you know all the answers,” Maxwell says. “This is simply not true. The new generation of leaders needs to be consensus builders by walking slowly through the crowd and valuing the opinions of others before making any decision.”

"“The demand for leadership always increases with difficult times."

2. Humility: “All great leaders are humble,” Maxwell says. “Instead of talking about their own accomplishments, leaders are looking to give the team the credit.”

3. Risk taking: Leaders are not afraid to step out and say this is what needs to be done. Another of Maxwell’s favorite leaders was Winston Churchill, who stood alone against Parliament, maintaining Nazism’s threat to Europe when many people considered it a mere nuisance. “Churchill had the courage to go against the grain, against the trend, against the current,” Maxwell says. “He had the courage to do what he felt was right even in the midst of severe opposition.”


When people ask Maxwell who he thinks the great leaders are today, he’s careful giving his opinion. “There are many leaders who catapulted to success because of their leadership qualities, only to fall from grace when their egos got the best of them,” he says. “Ego and insecurity are the two greatest land mines of leadership. Ego creeps in when you start not to value other people—when you begin to look at people as what can they do for you instead of what can you do for them.”

What appalls Maxwell are corporate executives who have received extravagant bonuses when their companies are losing millions of dollars. “I’m not against executives getting bonuses, and I’m not against someone getting rich. I’m all for earning wealth,” Maxwell says. “But it seems to me that if your company does well, then the leadership should do well. But if the company doesn’t do well you should change the leadership, not give them a bonus.”

Maxwell says that at the end of the day, it’s important to ask: Is this organization doing better because I lead it or is it doing worse? And if it is doing worse, then you need to get out of the way and let someone else take over and lead. “That’s the kind of accountability that is missing in many companies today,” he says.

When Maxwell was pastor of a large church in San Diego, he would ask his board of directors and the other laypeople responsible for the body of church decisions to spend an evening reviewing the past year. He insisted they grade him on what he did well, what he didn’t do well and what he should change. “I don’t think I would trust a leader who is not accountable to somebody,” Maxwell says.


For all that Maxwell has written over the years, when he thinks of his legacy, it all comes back to the reason he started writing books in the first place: to add value to people’s lives. “I’ve been very blessed to do what I do,” he says. “I want to continue to add value to leaders who multiply value to others. That’s kind of my niche.”

Maxwell says he is living his dream. He still loves to write. His new book, Put Your Dream to the Test, came out in March 2009, and it is his first book about helping people achieve their dreams. “I’ve never been as excited about a book coming out,” he says. “I know a lot of wonderful people who have great desire and tremendous passion, but they don’t have the gifts or the people they need to pull off their dreams. So I wanted to write a book that was very realistic about dreams and how to reach them.”

Maxwell remains one of the most sought-after speakers by the Fortune 500 and around the globe. And in the last 12 years his organization has trained more than 3 million leaders in 47 languages in more than 100 countries. “When I die, I don’t want to be known as the leadership guru or the greatest leader that ever lived in my generation or whatever,” he says. “I want to be known as the person who trained more leaders than anyone else.”