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Leadership is not Influence

Leadership is more than influence!

I was 15 years old when someone handed me my first leadership book.  Boldly embossed on the deep black cover were these words written in gold: The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.  So many of the lessons John Maxwell taught in that book have guided me on life’s journey.  From the dish room at a Christian camp to the pulpit in a Las Vegas church I’ve seen these laws of leadership never fail.  Arguably the most famous quote from John Maxwell is, “Leadership is influence.  Nothing more, nothing less.”  I disagree with John Maxwell.  There, I said it!  I’m actually a little surprised that I actually just typed those words.  Seriously, this man and his incomparable writing have helped me more that I could ever say.  But again – I have to disagree with this major point.  Okay… let me make my case…

Influence = Leadership?

If someone were to ask a student of John Maxwell to define leadership they would give a one word answer – influence.  According to Maxwell, “When it comes to identifying a real leader… The proof is found in the followers.”[1]  In other words, if you believe yourself to be a leader and turn around to find no one following, you are not truly a leader.  This principle is taught so that the potential leader doesn’t place too much value on a title.  Maxwell continues, “True leadership cannot be awarded, appointed, or assigned.  It comes only from influence, and that cannot be mandated.  It must be earned.  The only thing a title can buy is a little time – either to increase your level of influence with others or to undermine it.”[2]  All of these truths are undeniable and, as Maxwell confidently declares, irrefutable.


I propose that initiative is the prerequisite to influence.  Initiative is the act of stepping out first.  A decision to stand out from the crowd.  A willingness to move forward even if no one else is expected to follow.  Leadership is demonstrated by the 12-year-old girl who, though being the third of six children, determines to ride the bus to church, trust Christ, and get baptized.  She took the initiative without looking behind to see if anyone was following.  Leadership is demonstrated by the 14-year-old outfielder who, though his coaches and teammates find themselves frustrated and reeling from a devastating loss, is the first to walk over to the winning team with a congratulatory handshake.  He took the initiative without looking behind to see if anyone was following.  Leadership is demonstrated by the 40-year-old David Livingstone who famously ventured into the heart of Africa to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ, effectively paving the way for other missionary endeavors for the next 200 years.  He took the initiative without concerning himself with a following.  This type of risk taking is courageous and is at the heart of true leadership.

The Danger of Chasing Influence

If we only define leadership as influence isn’t it likely that we will be perpetually looking behind us to see if anyone is following?  If this be the case – it is not the crowd who is taking their cues from the leader but the leader who is taking his cue from the crowd.  This “leader” will find himself in a perpetual state of anxiety both fearing the loss of influence while continually taking the a poll from the crowd to see where he ought “lead” them next.  Essentially, this former leader has moved from leading the group to pleasing the group.  This is the danger of valuing influence over initiative.

Several times in my life I have had to ask myself some difficult questions.  Am I willing to limit my influence in order to lead my church in an unpopular direction?  Would I rather be influential in a crowd that is telling me where to go and what to do or would I rather take the initiative to follow God regardless of how many choose to follow?  I’ve come to the conclusion that decisions should not be made based upon how many followers I might lose.  This is what the historic fundamentalists of the early 20th century understood.  They knew that they will lose influence in their respective denominations if they continued to preach about the inerrancy of Scripture and the blood atonement.  But they took the initiative to lead rather than focus on the potential of dwindling influence.

Taking Initiative is Risky

It’s never easy to be the first one to challenge the status quo.  It takes boldness and a keen sense of leadership to be a pastor who initiates Biblical change in a church that is desperately in need of revival.  It takes courage to be the first missionary to try an unproven method of evangelism.  It’s a little audacious to be the first of the siblings to apply for college a dream of a degree.  It takes guts to be the only one you know to leave your job and start a new business.  But is this not the very definition of leadership?  Yes – influence is the result of leadership.  But the moment a leader stops taking initiative is the moment the leader stops leading and is now only caretaking.

What are we risking?  We risk community.  To step out of the pack means that you are no longer in the pack.  This can be extremely scary because we are created to exist in community with others.  It is absolutely amazing what human beings are willing to sacrifice as not to disrupt their sense of community.  The average German citizen who was neither a Nazi nor part of the German Resistance simply wanted to keep the status quo and ignore the smoke coming from over the hill.  The average politician who sees corruption but says nothing.  The Hollywood executive who knows of sexual abuse but doesn’t want to become an outsider.  All of these people desire to retain their community and whatever influence they have among their “followers”.  We risk embarrassment.  When someone steps out and says, “Hey!  We might be going the wrong way.”  That person has now made himself the center of everyone’s attention.  And when you look closely at any leader you will begin to see major human flaws.  Since no one wants their flaws to be on display and discussed by those with influence we often sit back and choose to not take the initiative.

Taking Initiative is Worth It

God is looking for men and women who are not afraid to lead.  Men like Peter who will boldly declare the Messiahship of Jesus while everyone else were still taking stock.  Women like Esther who dared to risk her very life in order to save an entire nation.  Young people like Daniel who stood out like a sore thumb in the midst of the thousands who gave in to Nebuchadnezzar.  The crazy thing is – when Daniel took the initiative to reject the king’s offering of meat – he only had 3 other men join him on this spiritual journey.  Daniel was willing to sacrifice all of his influence in order to take the initiative and do the right thing.  This is true leadership.

What is it that God is leading you to do?  What bold move are you wanting to take that will totally be misunderstood and criticized by others?  What big step is the one that brings excitement to your heart and fear to your soul?  Remember the word of the Lord:

II Timothy 1:7 For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

True leadership will ultimately end in influence but it begins with initiative.  Don’t be afraid.  Be the leader God made you to be!


So, of course – Maxwell is right about leadership – however, I would simply add that broad influence is not possible until bold initiative has taken place.

What are your thoughts?  Where am I going wrong?  Have I apostatized from the conversation on leadership?  Please don’t report me to John Maxwell.  Also – please comment in the thread below and I will attempt to answer each.

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[1] The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, pg. 16

[2] The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, pg. 13

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  • Reply
    April 10, 2018 at 12:15 am

    Way to lead us Pastor!

  • Reply
    Evan S.
    April 10, 2018 at 8:06 pm

    I want to step in and defend my man Maxwell here, but you beat me to it when you admit several times that you don’t actually disagree with him.
    Obviously, the “influence” John Maxwell is talking about is not the same as your “standing among peers.” Those concerned with that are destined to remain followers. Even of your examples were proven out as leaders when those around them saw and then followed their example. Livingstone inspired generations of future missionaries and the young outfielder undoubtedly inspired the rest of his team to follow his lead.
    As you mentioned the application of Maxwell’s chapter is that being named a pastor, elder, or deacon in your church does not make you a leader. You become a leader when the example you set, the direction you point, and the spirit with which you teach influences other to change, follow, and/or carry on. And ultimately the best Christian leaders are those who sincerely and boldly follow Christ.

  • Reply
    Nickolaus Pacione
    April 11, 2018 at 11:21 pm

    Sometimes it’s not playing leadership role — when I do The Ethereal Gazette, I am the editor-in-chief. Tabloid Purposes and sequels, ringmaster (no really, they call me this. The joke came from being in the audience of Jerry Springer show and pulling the ticker-tape kiss.) The namesakes I am known as the curator; the entire history of the imprint I carry it as a junior college policy — open door revolving cast of writers who are a supporting cast and sometimes they are high profile who I held my own with. When I walked from the church and almost from the faith all together: I had seen my share of being cornered. Let me show you the blog of Reverend Beast. I sent you two things in your message box — the odt of what I am inviting you for, and the pdf of what the actual layout looks like before you infuse your narrative. Don’t be afraid to thumb your nose a bit. That’s what makes a good leader in my eyes. The will to speak up and say there are things when you pray and pray for something, God will get mad and say, “you figure it out you misanthropic bastard.”

  • Reply
    Tim Stanton
    April 12, 2018 at 1:08 pm

    I heard a sermon yesterday that showed another illustration of initiative. The sermon preached by Stephen in Acts 7 was not one of influence because no one immediately followed or came to Christ as a result. In fact, he was stoned during the invitation. Saul was there during the sermon and then only a chapter later (Stephen killed in Acts 8 Saul’s converstion in Acts 9) we see the result of initiative in Paul’s preaching throughout the New Testament and to many parts of the known world at that time. Most people only think of Stephen as the first martyr for Christ but his initiative influenced a man many look to as one of the greatest men in Scripture. We cannot discount the immediate result for lasting impact.
    Thanks for the great post, Josh, and making many of us in leadership positions reevaluate how we view our roles.

  • Reply
    April 25, 2018 at 4:25 pm

    I think you should make a distinction between legitimate leadership – a leader that is given power by the public – and illegitimate leadership – a leader who takes power from the public.

    There absolutely are leaders who conquer a territory and rule with violence authority. Obedience and influence IS mandated in an illegitimate situation. I would disagree with Maxwell there.

    However, when it comes to legitimate authority, I think you are both right in part.

    Initiative may be the starting place for many who seek to become leaders, but initiative without influence is meaningless. Let’s say that there is a growing church, but two different groups wish to go in opposite directions. They both have the initiative to go out and start new churches. One lacks influence and crumbles in a year. The other has influence and thrives.

    There are also instances of reluctant leaders taking power in traditional societies (like monarchies). They need no initiative to have influence, as they are merely born into a position. How they rule has tremendous influence on the people.

    Your premise that initiative means stepping out from the crowd is a false one. Sometimes initiative takes you right into the middle of the crowd, but one can be influential by simply being more charismatic. Again, we see this with churches. You can have two (or more) churches in the same area with the same doctrine, same music, same clothes, same beliefs and attitudes, but the one with the more charismatic preacher will most likely grow.

    We are a nation obsessed with charisma. You can have as much initiative as you like, but the charismatic leader will almost always come out on top in our society. We can see this in our churches, celebrities, and politics. For decades, the most charismatic candidate has become our President. For decades, our churches have followed the most charismatic preachers.

    Charisma leads to influence. Initiative does not. Being born into a leadership role leads to influence. Initiative does not.

    You should read Max Weber’s work on types of authority. I know it’s not a Christian work, but it provides an enlightening view of how power is achieved and distributed in different societies.

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