John C. Maxwell: Coaching You to Better Leadership

UPDATED: January 13, 2020
PUBLISHED: August 3, 2015

Our journeys may look very different, but we all end up grappling with similar issues, don’t we?

When I received these questions from SUCCESS readers, I smiled as I thought about all of the times I’ve wrestled with related situations. This stuff can keep you up at night. But fear not—you are not alone.

Q: In my company, we’re looking at a series of rolling layoffs and executive shakeups. How can I keep people from becoming demoralized?

Lea S., Hartford, Conn.

A: You’re describing a difficult situation. You need to be the strong leader in challenging times and offer a sense of security. At the same time, resist the temptation to sugarcoat things. Your team members want you to be honest and authentic with them—not pretend everything is OK when they know it really isn’t.

The best thing for you to do is encourage them to pour their energy into what they can control—not into what they can’t.

They can’t control the economy. They can’t control their industry or competitors. They don’t have the authority to make the big-picture decisions that govern the organization. Steer them away from fretting over those things. They are wasting their energy.

They can control their attitudes. They can choose to wake up and meet the day with positive expectations. They can treat their co-workers with respect and dignity. And they can give their best to their work, which, incidentally, might help dig the organization out of its hole. By the way, that advice also applies to you as their leader.

Meanwhile, you must commit to doing whatever is within your power to help your employees. That could mean advising them on how to preserve their jobs, looking for other areas within the organization where they might work or assisting them in finding their next places of employment. If they know you are on their side and doing what you can, they at least know you believe in and care about them regardless of how things turn out.

Q: How much effort and time should I put into people who have potential but just don’t seem to improve? Is it something I’m doing wrong as a leader?

Maddy Dowler, Dallas

A: I have to be candid: I hire based on talent and potential, but I don’t put a lot of effort into those who don’t grow in spite of efforts to nurture them.

So let’s look at this question a slightly different way. Let’s consider whom you should develop.

I like to start with the people with the most potential, not the ones who are easiest. Aim high and focus on the top 20 percent. Setting expectations is essential. Define what you want to see them achieve, and ask for a commitment from them to follow through. If you haven’t done those things, you’ve started off on the wrong foot. People can’t meet your expectations if you’ve never clearly defined what they are. Backtrack and have those conversations.

But if you’ve been clear and your employee hasn’t followed through, it’s time for a meeting and a firm message to step up. Offer a second chance and a new deadline. If he or she still doesn’t improve, move on. Someone else deserves your attention.

Q: I’m a high school basketball coach. What is the best practice for getting a group of individuals who are competitive among themselves for playing time to buy into collaborating with a team plan?

Kory Keys, Milton, Ga.

A: It’s interesting that you ask that question. I played basketball in high school, and our team found itself in a difficult situation like that.

When I was in 11th grade, my team was so talented that area basketball fans predicted we would win the Ohio state championship for our division.

But there was a problem.

At first the starters included two juniors and three seniors. But the seniors wouldn’t pass the ball to the juniors, and the juniors wouldn’t pass the ball to the seniors. As a result, it was like playing with half a team anytime we were on the court together.

Our coach became so frustrated with us that he began starting five seniors, and when he needed to make a substitution, he didn’t put in one junior at a time—he put in five at once. He platooned us.

Needless to say, we never reached our potential, and we did not win the state championship.

Back then I thought the best solution to our problem would have been to play all of us juniors! Now with the benefit of 50 years of leadership experience, I realize that all members of the team needed to be more dedicated to a common goal instead of our own agendas. We needed to be encouraged to buy into a bigger vision—the potential for winning a state championship. We needed to be shown that the only way we could win was if we worked together. And we needed to be made to work together.

I had the privilege of being mentored by the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden toward the end of his life. No coach was better at promoting team play. In fact, Wooden used to consider his equipment managers as vital to the team as his star players. His measure of excellence was whether a player made his fellow athletes and team better. And if a player didn’t conduct himself according to his standards, the player sat.

As a leader, you need to be creative in finding ways to both articulate a vision and secure buy-in, whether you’re coaching a basketball team, a sales team or a design team. Competition is good as long as it’s making players and the team better, but as soon as that competitive nature undermines the group, the leader needs to shake things up. 

Make sure you know the 7 things great leaders never do again—and avoid doing them, too.


Editor’s note: This article appears in the September 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine. We gave you, the reader, the opportunity to ask the SUCCESS columnists anything—and these are some of your best questions answered.

John C. Maxwell, an internationally respected leadership expert, speaker, and author who has sold more than 18 million books, has been named an inaugural SUCCESS Ambassador. Dr. Maxwell is the founder of EQUIP, a non-profit organization that has trained more than 5 million leaders in 126 countries worldwide. A New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek; best-selling author, Maxwell has written three books that have sold more than a million copies.