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.



Doctrine and Discipline for Leadership Development

Innumerable resources are available to leaders wanting to invest in their personal development. Many books have been written for leaders, from classic books, such as Blanchard’s One Minute Manager and Drucker’s The Effective Executive, to newer works such as Brown’s Daring Greatly and Scott’s Radical Candor. Commutes to and from work and appointments can be turned into leadership seminars by listening to TED talks or podcasts from leaders like Micheal Hyatt and Carey Nieuwhof. Even web surfing can be redeemed for personal development by pointing the address bar to Seth Godin’s blog or Harvard Business Review.

All of these resources help a leader grow. Christan leaders, however, should take care not to be so inundated with leadership books, podcasts, and blogs that they fail to focus on two important ways they can grow in leadership: the study of Christian doctrine and the practice of spiritual disciplines.

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Book Review: Rosaria Butterfield’s “The Gospel Comes with a House Key”

In anticipation of Rosaria Butterfield’s hospitality seminar on June 1, we read her book The Gospel Comes with a House Key.

“The gospel comes with a house key,” (11) begins Rosaria Butterfield in her book by the same name. She says the phrase is more of a process. By viewing one’s home as a key to sharing the gospel, strangers can become friends, and friends can become family members of God.

Butterfield explores that idea throughout The Gospel Comes with a House Key, using her life as an illustration. At the same time, she weaves in the gospel that undergirds and informs her family’s daily rhythms of hospitality. She intertwines the two on purpose, for Christian hospitality must always point to Jesus. Without that upward direction, hospitality becomes counterfeit and incapable of welcoming diverse worldviews, suffering with the brokenhearted, and inviting people to experience the healing found only in Christ.

Butterfield’s exploration of hospitality happens organically, meaning people glean principles and insights as they read the book. Some of those principles receive mention here. Butterfield’s book, however, contains many more.

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Training Writers to Lead

Writers who follow Jesus believe that God has given us life-changing truth to share and a dynamic medium through which to communicate that truth to a broken and hurting world: the written word.

Countless leaders throughout history have pointed to famous books, letters, and writings that have significantly impacted their lives and missions. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, cites Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day as an “impossibly perfect” literary work that influenced Bezos to push himself to achieve. Pharrell Williams, a prolific performer and producer, describes Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist as an epiphany that sparked intense reflection on his chosen life path and community. J.K. Rowling, author of one of the most beloved children’s series of all-time, credits Jane Austen’s Emma with making her a better thinker and writer.

Talk to anyone on the street, and they will likely have at least one book, essay, or treatise that profoundly influenced their worldview. The power to affect lives when a creator pours time, attention, and creativity into their work can create echoes of impact that will only be fully understood in eternity.

As believers in Christ, we have the greatest source from which to draw inspiration and understanding. We have the greatest model of humility, intentionality, and creativity. We have the greatest message to share!

We have the ability to make an eternal impact through our words. What an incredible gift and weighty call we’ve been given in Christ.

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Three Components of Biblical Leadership

To lead people effectively, a leader needs to understand how the gospel should inform their leadership. A primary element of such leadership involves listening to where a person is and communicating where Jesus wants them to go in a gracious yet challenging way. Leaders listen and speak. A biblical leader helps people process through the appetites and affections of their hearts, provides doctrinal and biblical content, and gives tangible steps of forward obedience. As this happens, the leader takes on three roles: teacher, shepherd, and coach. They instruct in doctrine, help shape character, and offer practical wisdom regarding action.

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Are Writers Leaders?

“Are writers leaders?” My instinct says, “Yes.” Writers can lead people for good or ill, and Christian writers can lead people either to or away from God. But instinct isn’t enough to validate an opinion. Opinions require some foundation for them to be not only believable but also arguable, defensible. I can say writers are leaders, but if I can’t point to reasons why that is, I’d be better off lapsing into silence.

Fortunately, I’ve done some thinking on the question and devised two ways to approach it, particularly as the question relates to Christian leadership. Other avenues exist, of course, but I’ve chosen two to keep things simple and to prevent rambling for an age. The first perspective comes from examining a biblical figure; the second, from literature itself.

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The Fear of Avoiding Failure

Most leaders have, at one point or another, experienced the fear of failure. Ed Catmull, the recently-retired president of Pixar and Disney Animation, says that we should have an even greater fear of being a leader who avoids failure at all costs. In his wonderful book on creative leadership, titled Creativity, Inc., Catmull states that “mistakes are an inevitable consequence of doing something new.”

Avoiding failure inevitably results in stagnation. We do the same old thing over and over again because it has proven to work. But innovation and growth require a degree of risk. The most successful leaders experience and learn from failure on a regular basis. To quote Catmull again, “If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: you are being driven by the desire to avoid it. And, for leaders especially, this strategy … dooms you to fail.”

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