I started this book with some reservations. My previous experience with John Maxwell consisted solely of some negative impressions formed in the early 1990s. Consequently, I began reading this book with little expectation of liking it, let alone learning something from it. I was happily surprised to find that, with every page I turned, I became more and more impressed by Maxwell’s understanding of what true leadership should look like. Maxwell is very honest about the shortcomings of his style in his early years, even mentioning that a downside of one level of leadership is that it can become manipulative. Maxwell is clearly a man who has learned a lot about himself over the years and grown as a result.
Maxwell’s approach to leadership in this book is primarily aimed at those in the business world; however, leaders in the church will learn much from this book as well. The pastor of a church often has both staff and a full crew of volunteers to manage. The style of leadership one embraces can determine how effective one will be as a leader, and how willing volunteers are to participate.
In his book, Maxwell explores five levels of leadership, examining the strengths and weaknesses of each type, as well as how a leader may move from level to level. Although most leaders start with a certain amount of leadership potential, leadership is a skill that may be learned and must be nurtured. Very few leaders rise to the top without great effort, and at the same time, even the least skilled who find themselves in a leadership position can learn to be good leaders.
The first level, position, is the easiest to attain and typically the level at which most enter into leadership, although the second level can also be an entry into a formal leadership role. Anyone may be appointed to a position of leadership. At this level, such leaders tend to rely on their positions to inspire their followers. They expect others to follow them simply because they are the leaders.
Maxwell argues that this most basic level of leadership has the most pitfalls. People may follow because they have to, but they don’t do so out of any loyalty or respect for such leaders. In the workplace, they follow because if they do not, they will likely be fired. They will fill the job for which they were hired, but don’t expect them to do anything extra. In the church, such leaders may generate a few loyal followers who enjoy being in positions of power, but they cannot inspire widespread partnership in ministry.
If a leader is satisfied simply with having a position, he or she will never command the kind of followers who are capable of accomplishing the mission of the organization of which they are a part. More importantly, Maxwell argues, those who do follow will never learn to be leaders themselves. They will always be waiting for someone to tell them what to do, never striking out on their own to build a better, stronger organization.
The second level of leadership is based on permission. These leaders have influence because they care about people. They build strong relationships with their followers based on mutual respect. Such leaders inspire their followers to greater potential because they see potential in their followers, and they actively encourage them to grow, both as people and as future leaders.
In some ways, this second level is actually a parallel track to the first, rather than a step ahead. Leaders who lead through influence may or may not have a formal position. We’ve all seen people like this, the one everyone turns to when a decision needs to be made. These folks have a natural ability to lead that others instinctively respect. Yet, if influence is all one has, leadership can still fall short. An effective leader is able to help the group achieve the mission of the group. This takes more than good relationships with others; it requires ability.
This is the third level Maxwell discusses: production. These leaders have position, and they have permission, but they are also able to produce. It is at this point that the field begins to thin out. The first two levels take a certain amount of luck and natural ability. Many leaders stop at one of these two levels, mostly for lack of understanding that more is required, and production requires something more. One must have the authority that a position gives one, the authority to “call the shots,” and one must have influence to inspire others to give their best to the cause. To be an effective leader, however, one must be able to combine the two in order to get things done.
The final two levels are levels few will reach. Level four is people development, and level five is pinnacle. Maxwell urges leaders to move on to what he calls people development. These leaders look for those who have leadership potential and help them to develop into leaders themselves. Why is this important? Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter who is doing the leading. What is important is that the goals of the organization should be met. In the church, this is especially clear. The mission of the church is to reach unbelievers and share the good news of the gospel, to develop them into disciples, and to teach them to go out in their turn and do the same thing.
The church has not survived for 2,000 years with leaders who cared more about their own legacies than the Word of God. It has survived because leaders have realized that there is nothing more important than that Christ be preached. Paul was an excellent example of this. Everywhere he went, he chose men and women to train in leadership qualities, so that when he moved on to the next mission field, he would be leaving the fledgling congregations in good hands.
Finally, level five leaders, pinnacle leaders, are those who have trained up new leaders who, in turn, have learned to train new leaders as well. For Maxwell, this is the pinnacle; this is what has happened throughout Christian history. The apostles taught others to become leaders, who in turn taught more people to be leaders, who then taught more new leaders, and so on through the ages. Of course, God would still be glorified if only stones cried out, but God has given us this task. If Paul was an excellent example, Jesus is the perfect one: “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations’” (Matt. 28:18- 19, TNIV).
If this were all that one found in Maxwell’s book, it would be well worth reading; however, at the end of the introduction are a number of evaluation tools. Some of these are for self-evaluation, and some are meant to be given to the leader’s followers. The advantage of doing both is to give the leader a chance for some deep soul-searching, and to test one’s assumptions against the input from others. In addition, at the end of each chapter, Maxwell gives a series of questions designed to help the leader understand the importance of each level as well as giving tips for moving on to the next stage.
Everyone in leadership should seek to be the best leader possible; learning about leadership helps one to become a more effective leader.
JUDI KING is Editor of Illustrated Bible Life, a Bible background and commentary magazine from WordAction Publishing Company for adult Sunday School leaders
NOTE:The book is primarily directed toward business leaders. Grace and Peace Magazine is providing the following study guide that will help pastors and church leaders examine the material from the perspective of church leadership:
Download the Study Guide