John Maxwell: Are You Adding or Subtracting Value?

UPDATED: June 23, 2009
PUBLISHED: June 23, 2009

How would you rate your current performance in adding value and serving those around you? Are you requiring results from your people based on your authority and position? Or are you asking them to follow your example?

When I started writing books on leadership decades ago, I did so because I wanted to help people I would never meet. Now, my only frustration with writing books is that they do not change. They are frozen in time. So when Thomas Nelson, my publisher, asked me to go back and revise The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership for its 10th anniversary, I said I would be glad to do it because there were some things I wanted to revise and add to the book.

During those 10 years, I lectured on The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership hundreds of times in dozens of countries. And during that time, I also received a lot of feedback, and I came to the conclusion that if I were ever able to revise the book, there were two laws that I needed to put in. And those are the two laws that I want to share with you today.

New Law No. 1: The Law of Addition The first is the Law of Addition, which simply states that leaders add value by serving others. Here’s what I want you to ask yourself as a leader:

Since I’ve been leading my team, are things better for them or are things worse? Am I adding value to them, or am I subtracting value from them? Are my people better off because I’m a leader? Am I taking others to a higher level? Leadership isn’t how far we advance ourselves, but how far we advance others. Retired general Norman Schwarzkopf once said, “When you help others climb a hill, you will get closer to the top yourself.” You are either adding or subtracting. If you’re adding to others, it’s intentional; if you are subtracting from others, I think it’s unintentional.

In 1975, my life was changed. I was in Dayton, Ohio, at a coliseum listening to the great Zig Ziglar, who has now become a wonderful friend of mine. He said if you help other people get what they want, those people will help you get what you want. And with that simple, yet powerful, statement, my life was changed. Up until that moment, I was a leader who was constantly looking for people to help me. All of a sudden, Zig helped me understand that, as a leader, I had it turned upside down. I needed to turn it completely around so that my goal was to help people.

New Law No. 2: The Law of the Picture This is the second new law of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, which simply states that people do what people see. Leadership by example always has a powerful impact on followers. One of the leaders I admire is Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City. During his career, first as an attorney working for the U.S. government and then later as an elected official, Giuliani led by example.

In his book Leadership he says he is very aware that what he does sets the tone for those who follow him. “You cannot ask those who work for you to do something you’re unwilling to do yourself,” he states. “It is up to you to set a standard of behavior.”

That’s not to say that leaders have all the answers. Anyone who has led anything knows that. The leaders who make the greatest impact are often those who lead well in the midst of uncertainty. Andy Stanley, an excellent leader and communicator and wonderful friend, has addressed this issue. A few years ago at a conference for leaders, he said:

Uncertainty is not an indication of poor leadership… The temptation is to think, “If I were a good leader, I would know exactly what to do.” Increased responsibility means dealing with more and more intangibles and, therefore, more complex uncertainty. Leaders can afford to be uncertain, but we cannot afford to be unclear. People will not follow fuzzy leadership.

Followers are always watching what you do. That’s just part of leadership. But it’s often easier to teach what’s right than to do what’s right. Have you found this to be true? I sure have. Teaching it is easy, living it is the hard part. That’s one of the reasons why many parents (and bosses) say, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

In my early 20s as a young leader—and most of you know that for 25 years I was a pastor—I made a decision that I didn’t realize at the time would be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I decided I wouldn’t teach anything to people that I didn’t live myself.

Author Norman Vincent Peale said, “Nothing is more confusing than people who give good advice but set a bad example.” I would say a related thought is also true: Nothing is more convincing than people who give good advice and set a good example. You’ve got to do what I call double reinforcement. What you say and what you do have got to be congruent; they’ve got to match up.

Leadership isn’t how far we advance ourselves, but how far we advance others.

We should work on changing ourselves before trying to improve others. Leaders are responsible for the performance of their people. Accordingly, they monitor their people’s progress, give them direction and hold them accountable. And to improve the performance of their team, leaders must act as change agents. However, a great danger to good leadership is the temptation to try to change others without first making changes to yourself.

As a leader, the first person I need to lead is me. The first person that I should try to change is me. My standards of excellence should be higher for myself than those I set for others. To remain a credible leader, I must always work first, hardest and longest on changing myself. This is neither easy nor natural, but it is essential.

The most valuable gift a leader can give is being a good example. A survey conducted by Opinion Research Corporation for Ajilon Finance asked U.S. workers to select the one trait that was most important in a leader.

Here are the results:

 Rank  Leadership Characteristic   Percentage  1.  Leading by example  26  2.  Strong ethics or morals  19  3.  Knowledge of the business  17  4.  Fairness  14  5.  Overall intelligence and competence  13  6.  Recognition of employees  10






As you can see, more than anything, employees want leaders whose beliefs and actions line up. They want good models who lead from the front.

The Law of Addition says that leaders add value by serving others. Think how much more we would improve our team if we had a servant’s heart and attitude. And think how much we would improve our team if we just obeyed the Law of the Picture—people do what people see. This is my hope for you: I desire that by reading The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and living these two laws we talked about today, you will take your leadership to a whole-new level. And by serving others and being an example for others, you can truly improve and add value to your team.

John C. Maxwell is a leadership expert, speaker and New York best-selling author of more than 16 million books.

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