“Leadership is influence nothing more nothing less.” – John C. Maxwell
I’m a big fan of John Maxwell and his philosophy, but when I ran across this quote from his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, I found myself shaking my head. It may serve as a good soundbite, but leadership is much more than just influence—whether you gain it, possess it, or exert it, influence is a collateral effect. While it may not be a universal view, I believe the best leaders approach it that way.
This week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Governor Tom Ridge, and during our conversation, he said something that resonated: “If you depend on your rank or title, you’ll get compliance,” he said. “But if your people know you care about them and see you working hard alongside them, you get commitment.”
As leaders, our goal should always be commitment over compliance, shouldn’t it?
In fairness to John Maxwell, I think he would agree. The full context of his quote indicates as much: “True leadership cannot be awarded, appointed, or assigned. It comes only from influence, and that cannot be mandated. It must be earned.”
He goes on to say, “When it comes to identifying a real leader… don’t listen to the claims of the person professing to be the leader. Don’t examine his credentials. Don’t check his title. Check his influence. The proof of leadership is found in the followers.”
He ends the chapter with a famous leadership proverb, “He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk.”
I respect John Maxwell, but in trying to synthesize the concept of leadership, he got this “rule” wrong. Leadership is about much more than influence, and it’s not derived from influence alone. It comes from the core values that define us—setting the right example, and being the best we can possibly be as individuals, and as members of a team. These are the foundational underpinnings of leadership. Once you develop those, everything else follows—to include influence.