Thursday, May 5, 2011

Book Review: The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

If you ask 10 people to recommend five books on leadership, one of John Maxwell's books will be on every list.  Of those books, most people cite "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership" as his best work.  It's certainly his most well known.  Concise, Maxwell dictates the 21 laws a leader must follow to get others to follow the leader. Using numerous examples drawn from a variety of people from Mother Teresa to the founders of McDonalds, Maxwell show how people have either used the laws successfully or ignored the laws and failed. 

Most of the laws are obvious, for example number 14, The Law of Buy In, states that people buy into the leader and only then do they buy into the vision.  That makes intuitive sense and has a practical application in the real world. Early stage technology investors often bet on the jockey, not the horse. 

Some readers have dismissed the book because the laws are easy to understand.  These critics miss two significant points about the power of the book:

  1. "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership" codifies and reinforces our thinking.  For example, Law Number 17, The Law of Priorities, cautions against equating activity with achievement.  Maxwell points out that we must constantly review our priorities to make sure that we are steering the ship in the right direction ( Law 4, The Law of Navigation).  Far beyond leaving it there and stating only the obvious, Maxwell adds that we must always evaluate our priorities with the 80/20 rule in mind.  Focus 80 percent of your time on the 20 percent of your priorities that will provide the largest return.  He notes that the rule is applies equally to developing strategic sales accounts as does it in developing people.
  2.  "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership" is a reminder that leadership is a daily commitment.  As Maxwell notes in Law Number 3, leadership is a process that "develops daily, not in a day." Reading Maxwell's book reinforces what many of us already know about leadership and reminds us to put those theories into practice every day. 


Many books on leadership are long on theory but don't help the reader understand how to put the theory into practice.  Maxwell does not fall into that trap.  At the end of every chapter, he lists three activities you can do to apply the law to your life.  For example, after Law 13, The Law of the Picture (people do what people see), Maxwell asks his readers to:

  1. Make a list of their own core values and compare them to their actions over that past month, noting which activities clash with their core values.
  2. Ask a colleague to watch you over a period of time and evaluate where your actions have clashed with your words.
  3. Make a list of what you wish you people did better and grade yourself on those skills.  With that self evaluation in hand, commit to improving your skills where your people are weakest and be a more visible role model in the areas where you are strongest.


Not every leader will have a proficiency in all 21 Laws. Maxwell admits that a few laws where he does not grade out perfectly.

In Appendix A, Maxwell presents a quick leadership test to help you understand your strengths and weakness as they relate to the laws.   Completing the evaluation will help you understand:

  • Skills that you can use to mentor of others,
  • Areas you need to target for growth and
  • Areas where you need to form strategic partnerships to achieve your goals. 


Even you don't read the entire book, filling out the evaluation and understanding your strengths and weaknesses will help you reach your potential as a leader and manager.

Because "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership" is well written and well organized, it can be read in three ways:

  • Cover to cover over a period of days.  Like most well-written business books, it's short, and to the point. 
  • As the book is well organized and each chapter contains a complete thought, the book can be read over a long period of time with no loss of comprehension. 
  • Finally, if you just want to know the laws, you can skip to Appendix B to read each law and its one sentence explanation. 


Books on leaderships are plentiful, often with competing visions because leadership is more of an art than a science.  But Maxwell notes that as with any art, leadership skills can and should be improved through practice.  Its evaluation guide in the appendix and chapter endings on applying the laws in your life will help you understand the state of your current skill set and help you plan for growth. 

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