Refuting the Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

September 18th, 2018 marked the twenty-year anniversary of a book that many have read or at least heard of: John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. If you haven’t heard of him, John Maxwell is a fairly famous former pastor and leadership expert. In 1998, I was a young youth pastor, eager to learn and grow in my calling, so when I heard that Maxwell was releasing a book on leadership, I bought it and read it quickly, hoping to find some nugget of truth that would take my leadership to another level.

The idea behind the book is that certain laws of leadership are irrefutable. The word “irrefutable” literally means “impossible to deny or refute.” His argument is that there are certain aspects of leadership that you can take to the bank—they’re true, all the time, every time, no matter what.

That is a pretty bold claim.

I remember reading about a particular law of leadership that Maxwell said was irrefutable and, personally, it was pretty discouraging. He called it “The Law of the Lid.” The idea is that an organization will only grow to the level of its senior leader. If, as a leader, you’re an “A,” you can lead your organization to an “A” level of effectiveness, but a “C” leader will only lead his/her origination to a “C” level, etc.

This “irrefutable” law was discouraging to me because I’m a decent leader, but I’m definitely not an “A level” leader. I can preach, but let’s be honest: my name is Matt Carter, not Matt Chandler. And folks, those are the things I’m decent at. There are several aspects of leadership (organization, systems, etc.) where I’m downright awful. I was discouraged because, according to John Maxwell’s irrefutable laws of leadership, whatever ministry God called me to lead was doomed to mediocrity, capped by “lid” that my ineffectual leadership placed upon it.

As I write this, it’s been twenty years since I’ve read the book and what I’ve discovered in those twenty years is that although there is some truth to the “law of the lid”, to say that it is “irrefutable” is a big stretch. I founded and pastor the Austin Stone Community Church and I can say with all honesty that she has far surpassed the effectiveness of the leadership level of her senior leader—and so can the organization you lead.

Here’s how to refute the irrefutable law of the lid:​

Lead in Plurality

Every leader has weaknesses. You can spend all your time trying to improve your area of weakness (there is some value here), or you can bring people around you who are gifted in ways you aren’t. This takes humility and a willingness to actually let others lead and receive credit for successes. Most leaders I’ve seen “cap” the effectiveness of their organization have been unwilling to truly delegate or, if they do, still require all decisions to be funneled through them. ​

Have Real Accountability

As you lead in plurality, give those leaders permission to honestly address your areas of weakness and failure. Receive that critique with grace and kindness, then change those things to the best of your ability. Most leaders I’ve seen who have placed a lid on their organization, never allowed themselves to be challenged or critiqued. This lead to a stagnation of their personal growth and their organizational growth was likewise hindered. Again, this takes real humility and Christ-likeness. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it in the long run.​

Surround Yourself With and Develop Young Leaders

The culture is changing rapidly. While there are things that are relevant for every culture (the Bible, the church, etc.), the way that people receive and process those things are radically different from generation to generation. Surrounding yourself with and developing young leaders allows us to change in appropriate ways with the changing tides of culture. This takes time, effort, and a whole lot of listening and learning, but it’s worth it. Too often, leaders refuse to do this and find themselves ineffective in reaching a changing culture.

If you’ll do these things, you’ll continue to grow as a leader in health and effectiveness, and your organization will grow right along with you.