Maxwell Was Wrong

I like John Maxwell. He is a brother in Christ, and I believe he has a good heart. He certainly has a heart for leaders, and has influenced hundreds of thousands of them in his lifetime. I also believe he is incredibly intuitive about leadership. The knock among academics is that his writing is purely anecdotal, but his observations are generally correct. (Not to mention, they’ve sold millions of books. “Popularism” is a harsh accusation—but perhaps a secret envy?!—in the scholarly community.)

I once quoted a Maxwell book in an article for Leadership Journal. A few weeks later, he sent me a handwritten, signed thank-you note, which I kept posted on the bulletin board next to my desk for years. It was a thoughtful, personal gesture from a very famous, very busy man. The man deserves respect, whether or not you always agree with him.

So I respect him. And I disagree with him.

In his Conclusion to The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership (yes, a title like that can certainly rankle), Maxwell asserts:

“Everything rises and falls on leadership.”

That phrase has almost become gospel among leaderphiles. I have heard it quoted by non-Christians and Christians alike. A quick Google search of “John Maxwell everything rises and falls on leadership” brought 412,000 results. Maxwell certainly touched a nerve.

The problem is that (about this at least) Maxwell is absolutely, positively, without a shadow of a doubt, 100 percent wrong.

Everything does not rise and fall on leadership. Not for non-Christians, and certainly not for Christians. Leadership is important, but it is not as important as we might like to think.

In his new book Leadership: Myth and Reality, retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal calls this “The Attribution Myth.”

We attribute too much to leaders, having a biased form of tunnel vision focused on leaders themselves, and neglecting the agency of the group that surrounds them. We’re led to believe that leadership is what the leader does, but in reality, outcomes are attributable to far more than the individual leader.

McChrystal is correct. Leaders are only one part of the leadership equation. What about followers? What about circumstances and context? And…for Christian leaders in Christian ministries…what about the Holy Spirit?!? Scripture says the Spirit blows wherever it wants. Do we dare think leaders can really control all these factors?

Don’t buy it. Don’t accept the Maxwellian Myth,. a.k.a. The Attribution Myth. We as leaders are not nearly as powerful as we think or as we would like. Accept the reality of your powerlessness, and you will find yourself on the path to true influence.