In the world of Leadership writing, John Maxwell is something of a phenomenon. 30 million books sold in fifty languages is nothing to be sniffed at, and his easy-to-read style is obviously hugely popular. This book follows much of the same pattern as previous ones: lots of stories and quotable quotes, exercises and thought-provoking questions.
If you haven’t heard of him, it’s probably because he sits in that intriguing but conflicted space of Christians writing for a secular audience, but with a big Christian following. So where does a bookshop place him? Sometimes he’s in the ‘Religious’ section (though he wears his faith lightly, yet clearly), sometimes in ‘Business’ (where he won’t be secular enough for most in the UK), sometimes in ‘Self-help’ (where he isn’t really a self-helper).
But track him online and you’ll find a ton of resources. My advice, especially if you don’t trust guys with big smiles, is to listen to an audio version of something. He will come across as humbler than he photographs.
This latest book is his newest thinking on Leadership. Now, let’s be honest: no-one gets to write this number of books on the same subject without a considerable degree of overlap. I first met his stuff when he was a pastor, and I’ve watched his progression to Christian-based business leader with interest, and caution. Caution, because anyone who gives up being a pastor to be something else always makes me raise an eyebrow: why would anyone do that?
In his case it does genuinely seem to be that it was a deep sense that God wanted him to do something different, and he’s very clear that it wasn’t for the money. I do park my cynicism.
So after all these books, what’s new?
Two things, I think. First, there’s a lot more about Maxwell himself this time. I don’t mean he’s bigging himself up – I mean he’s trying to learn to write with more transparency and honesty, and there are more stories of his failures as well as his successes here. He is working hard to embody the lessons, and I appreciated it. It doesn’t always map easily into a British mindset, and often seems just that little bit too slick and shiny, but he’s having a shot, and it’s a good one.
Second, and in consequence, this is really a book about how he’s changed his mind over the years. Each of the chapters is constructed around a ‘From X to Y’ journey of ideas, and in each case he honestly shows how he has shifted ‘from soloist to conductor’, ‘from positional authority to moral authority’, ‘from pleasing people to challenging people’, for instance.
I suspect that he’s going to pitching it as a summary of what he’s learnt over the years, so far. And it suits him.
Let’s cut to the first chase: there’s a lot here to like, wrapped in a style that lots of readers won’t like. The style, sometimes a bit reminiscent of Reader’s Digest, is a bit too folksy from time to time, at least to this British ear, and the poems he quotes are really, really bad. There’s cheese here, in case you’re allergic.
Having said that, he is an admirably good wordsmith, and I do envy the way he crafts his paragraphs. This is stuff which has obviously done the lecture circuit many times, and it has the easy readability which comes from that. This is highly polished, and easy to absorb.
When I see younger leaders stuck in the mud, it’s often because they haven’t learnt one of Maxwell’s lessons.
Which is good, because the eleven transitions he has made are important, and I found myself cheering along the way. When I see younger leaders stuck in the mud, it’s often because they haven’t learnt one of these lessons. Reading Maxwell would help – at least in identifying the problem, if not preventing it.
Thing two – for pastors?
Let’s cut to the second chase: does this stuff work for pastors?
Well, we have to get over the fact that he doesn’t quote the bible much. It’s not that kind of book, and if you only like that kind of book, you won’t like this one. Personally I’m happy with it because he is transparent about what he’s doing. I have a lot more trouble with books that do quote the Bible, but mangle it in the process. And I suspect that Maxwell and I might have some theological differences if we sat down over a coffee and chewed the cud.
Where I do have a problem – and I’ve had this before with Maxwell – is that it’s not embedded in any particular context at all. It talks about the character and interior elements of Leadership, without at any point getting stuck into the reality of what it is we are leading. By which I mean, the realities of leading a factory, or a law firm, or a school, or a church. Now, that makes his stuff highly transportable and transcultural, but feels curiously disengaged. So, when he draws on his own business experience in running his companies, you ask, ‘So what does your company do, John?’, he’d answer, ‘We train people in leadership.’ His business is leading a business, which teaches businesses to lead businesses…
See what I mean?
Now, I’m not knocking this: he is hugely successful, and his seminars are sell-out popular, and while that doesn’t prove that he’s right, it does make me pay attention. Particularly when it’s been sustained over decades. Particularly when people I respect enormously, like Michael Hyatt and Carly Fiorina rate him very highly,
He’s not selling snake oil.
My advice would be to buy this one, and read it very carefully. If you chuck out 10%, the 90% you keep is worth it, isn’t it? I’ve read lots of books which only contain one idea I can use! What have I chucked out? Stuff on career, significance, and money. But that’s Ok. It wasn’t written for me.
Read it as a masterclass in communicating. If you compare earlier Maxwell with this you’ll see that, along the way, he’s learnt to write.
And preachers – read it as a masterclass in communicating. If you compare earlier Maxwell with this you’ll see that, along the way, he’s learnt to write. Yes, we’re expositors, and this book is not doing that kind of thing at all. But learn from Maxwell how to tell a story, develop a metaphor, deliver a killer quote. See how honest and transparent he has become, and how he makes the words work. He has a formula for the construction each of these chapters (just like we do for most of our sermons) – bring it out into the open, and watch him make it dance. and try something similar.
Then put it back in the box, and learn a leadership lesson or two.
Leadershift: The 11 changes every leader must embrace, by John C. Maxwell (HarperCollins, 2019); available here