John C. Maxwell: People Do What People See

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: May 29, 2013

Two men, down on their luck, sit on a park bench in shabby clothes watching businesspeople in crisp suits rushing to their offices. The first man says, “The reason I’m here is because I refused to listen to anybody.”

“That so?” replies the second fella. “I’m here because I listened to everybody.”

Both practices are recipes for disaster. Successful people don’t take the advice of everyone, nor do they try to do everything on their own. Instead, they find successful models who exemplify the values, skills and qualities they desire to possess.

If you’re a leader, I hope you have already found models to follow, but that’s not what I want to discuss. I want to ask you this simple question: Are you worthy of followers?

One of the most important leadership principles I’ve discovered is this: People do what people see. When your team looks at you, when they watch what you do day in and day out, what do they see? If they were to emulate you, how would you rate them?

I base my leadership primarily on my values and a pragmatic approach. I do what I know works. But I’m also very conscious of the fact that others are watching me and following my lead.

What I do, they will do. How I work, they will work. What I value, they will value. So I ask myself: What kinds of traits do I want to model?

1. A Passion for Personal Growth

I know too many people who suffer from what I call “Destination Disease.” They’ve identified a certain career position or financial goal they want to reach, and then they work very hard to achieve that goal. But once they get there, they stop working hard and growing.

This mindset creates two problems for leaders. First, it causes them to stall. You’ll stop improving the moment you lose the tension between where you are and where you have the potential to be. Second, it sets a bad example for their followers. Think about it: How many people in your current circle didn’t see your former self, the one who fought hard to achieve? If you’re resting on your laurels, they’ll assume you are doing what you’ve always done and follow suit.

If you feel yourself slowing down, it’s time for a self-assessment. If you’re done working, retire and get out of the way of your business. But if you stay, you must keep striving. If you slacken, your people will do the same—Destination Disease is highly contagious. To keep it from taking hold, set new, higher goals for yourself and make sure your people see you pursuing them. It’s a surefire way to keep your organization humming.

2. A Heart for People

If you’ve ever seen me in person, you know I don’t blitz through a crowd. Instead, I stroll across a room, shaking hands, saying hello, offering smiles. It’s my way of showing that I care.

I’m a busy guy, but these moments are worth the pause. People want to know that the leaders they follow can be trusted. They want to know that the leader cares about them as people, not just as tools to help realize a vision.

Taking this extra time also forces me to stop and listen. How can you add value to people if you don’t know them and understand what they want? So slow down. Talk. Listen. Connect. This practice will not only help you grow as a leader, it will also establish a caring culture across all levels of your organization.

3. An Ability to Coach Others to Reach Their Potential

“The only difference between a rich person and a poor person,” says Rich Dad Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki, “is how they use their time.”

Boy—is that statement ever true of successful people! This is one principle I really try to model for my team. You won’t catch me idling. You will see me trying to wring the most out of every day.

Here’s a good place to segue into another way I like to cultivate leaders: by mentoring them. You can model all sorts of valuable traits, but sometimes people need hands-on help, too.

One of the best things I did for a member of my leadership team years ago was to meet with her every few months to talk about her priorities. She was a good leader and got a lot done, but she sometimes lost sight of the big picture. Our regular meetings helped her to stay on track.

If you can learn to coach people, you’ll help them, your organization and yourself. By coaching, I don’t just mean giving people the skills to do a job. That’s training, which does have value. But coaching—that long-term, guiding relationship—is even more impactful. According to the International Personnel Management Association, training increases productivity by 22 percent, while a combination of training and coaching increases it by 88 to 400 percent!

This is a message I practice as much as I preach. Early in my career I offered experienced leaders $100 for 30 minutes of their time, just so I could ask questions of them. That would work out to around $1,000 in today’s dollars. I really couldn’t afford it back then, but it was the best way to learn. Even today, I look for guidance from other leaders I admire.

“You will never maximize your potential in any area without coaching,” my friend Andy Stanley writes in his book Next Generation Leader . “You may be good. You may even be better than everyone else. But without outside input you will never be as good as you could be. Self-evaluation is helpful, but evaluation from someone else is essential.”

So mentor your people. Show them how you seek guidance on your own endless quest for self-improvement. And remember these words by Andrew Carnegie: “As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.”

Are you doing what you want your team to do?