Book Review: The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (John Maxwell)

At the beginning of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You (10th Anniversary Edition) by John Maxwell, the author reminds us that any book is fixed at a moment in time. Maxwell’s first version of this book captured his best thinking as it was a decade ago.

But while the book has remained unchanged, its author has grown and matured. He has read more, worked with more people, and taught his principles over and over again. And so the book we get from this fifty-one-year-old author is a more mature and developed one than we got from John Maxwell when he was forty-one. That is a very good thing.

In the intervening decade Maxwell found that some laws needed to be combined. He also adds two new laws. The number of laws remains the same.

This book is better than the first version. You can count up the new stories and examples if you want, but the numbers aren’t the story. The story is that this man who wrote one of the best books on leadership has added the growth, maturity and insights of a decade and made it even better.

As Maxwell outlines it on page 245, there has been a trajectory to his thinking. In the beginning he understood leadership development as primarily a process of personal development. That’s still part of his thinking, but he’s added understanding of the importance of a leadership team, and, especially, the importance of developing other leaders.

There are two key questions to ask and answer about any book like this. First: “If I read this book and apply what I learn, will I be a better leader?”

The answer to that is a resounding “yes.” The content here is good and it’s practical. Leadership is an apprentice trade. You learn most of it on the job, by trying things out, observing how you do, and adjusting how you do things in the future based on results and feedback.

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership gives you a great starting point for learning. At the end of each chapter there’s a section on applying this lesson to your life. There’s also a law (number 3) called “The Law of Process” that reminds you that “Leadership develops daily, not in a day.”

There’s no promise of magic here. But you can count on improved results if you use the book to guide your actions.

The second question to ask and answer is: “Is the book written well enough that I can move through it easily and learn its lessons?”

The answer to that one is another “yes.” There’s excellent use of stories and examples, which will help you learn and understand. Key points are highlighted throughout the book. The writing is smooth and easy to read.

There are some things to quibble with. I think his description of how Robert E. Lee wound up with the generals he did is simply, historically wrong. But you can leave that example out of the book and the chapter where it appears and still get value from both.

There are also things that may trouble individual readers. Maxwell learned his leadership trade as a pastor and it’s obvious from several of his personal stories. That makes some people uncomfortable. Others think that you need to learn leadership in business or the military, because a church is a “soft” environment.

Don’t believe it. Maxwell learned is trade in one of the most demanding environments for a leader. Pastors and other nonprofit leaders don’t have many of the tools of reward that their business colleagues have. The lack the disciplinary tools that the military gives its leaders.

The result is that people who learn their trade in the nonprofit world develop skills of communication and persuasion that can escape leaders in other sectors. The lessons Maxwell learned will work anywhere.

If you’re just starting out as a leader, this book can provide you with a self-development roadmap to guide you as you work to master the leadership craft. If you’ve been practicing leadership for a while, this book will give you a refresher as well as new insights.

Credit: Wally Bock

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