John Maxwell: A Leader’s Greatest Things

UPDATED: February 19, 2010
PUBLISHED: February 19, 2010

In the last issue, we started discussing my subjective list of a leader’s “greatest things.” I got this idea from the great Earl Nightingale, who compiled a similar list in one of his books. And today we are going to finish off the list.

As you read along, I encourage you to do your own assessment because there is no right or wrong answer. So grab a notebook and a pen and let’s get started.

A Leader’s Greatest Liability: Insecurity Quoting my wonderful friend Wayne Schmidt, “No amount of personal competency compensates for personal insecurity.” In other words, no matter how confident you are, your competence can never outweigh and overcome your insecurity. It’s only a matter of time before your insecurity will sabotage your confidence.

In my book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, the first law I talk about is The Law of the Lid, where one’s leadership ability determines a person’s level of effectiveness. And I feel the greatest lid on a leader’s ability to lead is insecurity. Insecure leaders are always positioning themselves to look good in the eyes of others. As a leader, when you are more concerned about how you look than how your people look, when you are more concerned about your outcome than your people’s outcome, when you are more concerned with how you are presented than how your people are presented, you are in trouble.

When I see an insecure leader, I want to get away from that person as quickly as I can. Not too long ago, I was talking to a person who was thinking about joining a staff with an insecure leader at the helm. Wanting to help, I told him he may want to reconsider. I told him it would be like handcuffing himself to this person while walking through a minefield. It’s only a matter of time until he—the insecure leader—blows himself up. And if you are handcuffed to him, guess what? You get to go, too.

Insecure leaders handcuff their people and consistently have losses along the wayside of life because they are constantly thinking about themselves first. Insecurity is a huge liability.

A Leader’s Greatest Motivation: A Challenge Leaders love challenges. English historian Arnold Toynbee once said, “Appropriate response to challenge is the basis for the rise of any society or organization.”

I was doing a telephone interview with a magazine not too long ago, and one of the questions was how do I spot a leader. Once you understand what to look for, it’s not very complicated. Leaders love challenges. Anytime there is risk involved and a person backs up and doesn’t want to take the risk, they have already made a statement about their leadership ability.

Leaders love uncertainty. They love being on the edge where they don’t know if they are going to make or break it. They love not knowing how things are going to end up, but one thing is for sure: Good leaders bet on themselves. They will take the potential reward even though it could end up being a potential loss.

If you are looking for leaders in your company, give them a challenge, problem or issue that is way over their heads, add a little risk to it, and see if they are willing to put a little skin in the game.

I get very nervous when someone is about to launch or lead something who isn’t willing to take the risk that I’m willing to take. Because I know what will happen when it doesn’t go well. They will look to me for a parachute to save them. Leaders love a challenge.

A Leader’s Greatest Return: Developing People What does developing people mean? Developing people means I value them. Developing people means I commit time to them. Developing people means I mentor them. Developing people means I equip them. Developing people means I empower them.

A Leader’s Greatest Prayer: Wisdom I have prayed more for wisdom than for anything else. But why would a leader pray for wisdom? It’s very simple. There are many times when I don’t know what to do and am in over my head. And when you are in over your head, it doesn’t matter how deep you are, you are still in over your head. You can drown in 7 feet of water just as easy as 70 feet.

When I am in over my head, I pray to God to help me. Wisdom is knowing what to do next. What leader doesn’t need to know that? Skill is knowing how to do it. Virtue is doing it.

Dr. William J. Mayo said, “When knowledge is translated into proper action, we speak of it as wisdom.”

A Leader’s Greatest Recognition: Respect The highest level of leadership results in respect. And respect is not a personal right. There is a quote I love on respect that says, “Everyone has the right to speak, but you have to earn the right to be heard.” It simply means go ahead and speak, but it doesn’t mean I am going to listen to you. There is a big difference between having the right to speak and the right to be heard.

Respect is usually gained on difficult ground. In other words, people usually gain respect through their most difficult times. Leaders gain respect when they take companies through very troubling financial times. Presidents gain respect when they bring the country through difficult times. The reason Abraham Lincoln is the most revered president of the United States is because he successfully took America through its darkest hour.

John C. Maxwell is a leadership expert, speaker, author and founder of EQUIP, a nonprofit 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: The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Developing the Leader Within You, and The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader. His blog can be read at