John Maxwell: To Lead, Start with Yourself

UPDATED: December 22, 2009
PUBLISHED: December 22, 2009

As a leader I frequently get asked the question: What is my greatest accomplishment— the greatest thing I have ever seen happen as a leader? And after reading an Earl Nightingale article he titled “The Greatest Things,” I thought I would compile my own list of a leader’s greatest “things.”

The list I am going to share with you over the next few months is very subjective. I suggest that after I share them with you, you do your own assessment—because there is no right or wrong answer. What I am giving you is my own subjective and personal thinking on leadership. So let’s get started with the first one.

The Leader’s Greatest Victory—Victory over Self

My greatest victory every day is victory over self. I don’t want to put this in past tense because this is a daily battle I have to fight. Not a day goes by where I don’t have to work on myself and battle the temptations of self.

When people think of leadership, the common thought is a leader’s greatest victory is with others. That is a normal and understandable thought process. Because what do leaders do? They lead others. They are taking people someplace, right?

I have found that most of my problems in leadership are my problems. It’s like the guy who said, “If I could kick the person most responsible for my troubles, I wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week, because I would be kicking myself.”

Halfway though writing my book Leadership Gold, which is a compilation of 26 of the most important lessons I have learned as a leader, I realized I learned almost every lesson because I did it wrong. In other words, the lesson was learned not because I was smart or got it right, but because I messed up. I had to reverse and ask myself some questions, like, How did I get that wrong and what could I have done better?

When I work with leaders, many of the problems they have with people are their own problems. It reminds me of when I was doing a conference and a college student raised his hand and said to me, “John, I love all this leadership information, but I don’t have a team yet. So who should I start leading?” And my answer to him was start with himself. Because if you wouldn’t follow yourself, why should anyone else? The philosopher Plato said, “The first and best victory is to conquer self.”

Ralph Stayer, president of Johnsonville Foods, wrote: “In most situations, I am the problem. My mentalities, my pictures, my expectations form the biggest obstacles to my success.” I think Ralph was feeling what I felt many times. He found the enemy, and it was himself.

In my book Winning with People, there are some people principles that address victory over self. Let’s take a look at a couple.

The Lens Principle: Who we are determines how we see others.

This principle says once we get our own act together, we will be able to help others get their acts together. It’s impossible, if I am an unhealthy leader, to have healthy followers. I have to fi x myself. We don’t see others as they are; we see others as we are, because each of us has his or her own bent and that colors our view of everything.

What is around us doesn’t determine what we see. What is within us does. For example, if I am an untrusting person, how do you think I will see you? I will see you as untrustworthy. I am going to view you not as you are but as I am. I am going to look at you through the lens of John Maxwell. So anything that is unhealthy about me is going to spill onto you. This is what leaders have to understand.

As a leader, if I can get victory over myself, if I can fix John Maxwell, the odds are high I can help fix others. If I can’t fix myself, the odds are high I will never be able to add value to and help others.

The Mirror Principle: The first person we must examine is ourselves.

People unaware of who they are and what they do often damage relationships with others. The way to change that is to look in the mirror.

A leader’s tendency is to examine someone else, asking what is wrong with that person. Why aren’t they doing their job correctly?

Why don’t they ever come to work on time? Unfortunately this is how many leaders react. It’s easy to teach leadership; it’s difficult to model leadership.

Within the first six months of becoming a pastor, I came up against a real issue that I had to settle within my heart. It centered on the question, How do I teach my congregation a biblical passage I wasn’t living correctly or falling short of? What was I going to do with that teaching session?

I grew up in a culture that would say just fake it until you make it and just tell them how to live and move on. But I wasn’t comfortable with that. I remember sitting down with my wife, Margaret, and discussing this with her. And I made a determination early on as a young pastor that I would never teach what I didn’t live.

And I went to my congregation and told them I was very young and inexperienced, and there may be times when I bring in other pastors to teach certain principles. And if that happens I will come and sit with them in the pews and take notes alongside them. I have tried my whole life to live that principle of not trying to export something I don’t possess. That’s why victory over self is so essential for the leader.

Author Terry Felber in his book Am I Making Myself Clear? said the following: There’s something innate in us that looks out for our own interests before those of others. If I take a photograph of a group you are with, who is the first person you look for in the picture? Yourself, of course! You’ll think to yourself, look at my hair! It’s all messed up! And my eyes are half closed. Look at that crooked smile on my face. The most important person to you is yourself.

A key difference between followers and leaders is very simple. Followers think of themselves first, leaders think of others first. Putting others before yourself is a key victory for a leader.

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 more than 50 books, including 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