For over 20 years John C. Maxwell has been a leading voice in the world of business, penning leadership advice classics such as “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership,” “How Successful People Think” and “The 5 Levels of Leadership.” Drawing on his own leadership experiences, as well as his Christian faith, Maxwell believe the best leaders are those who connect with others and prize people over profits. In his latest book, “Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn,” Maxwell offers advice for turning personal setbacks and economic hardships into tools for success. His guidance will surely resonate with readers whose faith in the future (financial or otherwise) has been shaken by recent economic trends, particularly the threat of a government default here in the U.S. Bookish spoke with Maxwell about the changing nature of business and leadership in America, the role of women in workplace and why young professionals should look to the Depression for lessons on how to succeed today.
Bookish: What inspired you to write “Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn”?
John C. Maxwell: I was motivated to write “Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn” for two reasons: 1) I’ve never seen a time like this where the economy is so depressed and people are out of work, and I think people need to be encouraged to realize that losses don’t have to be permanent and don’t have to lead to failure; and 2) I’ve done a lot of stupid things, which I write about a lot in the book.
JCM: The one I’m most famous for is in the book: It’s when someone gave me a pistol as a gift, and I left it in my briefcase. I remembered it as it was going through the X-ray machine at [airport] security. Of course, the TSA was not happy: I was arrested, handcuffed, fingerprinted and had my mug shot taken. That’s about as stupid as it gets. Fortunately, they recognized that it was unintentional and had mercy on me. What it reminded me of was that everyone makes mistakes. Ideally, we should extend as much grace to others as we would like extended to us when we fall short.
Bookish: With the rise of the Internet, social media and new technologies, today’s business leaders must adapt quickly to change. What can they learn from your classic advice?
JCM: No matter how much tech changes, leadership remains the same. It’s still about one person connecting with another person. One of the laws in “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” is the Law of Buy-in: People buy in to the leader before they buy in to the vision. So regardless of how you interact with your people, whether in person or virtually, you need to connect with them intentionally, because that’s the only way you’ll get their buy-in when you try to implement change.
Bookish: Even today, there’s still debate around working women and “breaking the glass ceiling.” How has the landscape changed for women since you began writing your books?
JCM: Well, since I’m not a woman, my perspective is limited. But I know one thing that hasn’t changed: Women who are good leaders have always been good leaders. I don’t think gender matters in leadership. What has perhaps changed over the past few decades is that women have more opportunities than they had 20-plus years ago. There are more large organizations led by female executives than there were before, and there are a lot of women leading smaller, more entrepreneurial businesses.
Bookish: Looking at some of the most important business leaders of the past decade, who best embodies your “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” and why?
JCM: [UCLA Bruins coach] John Wooden, who passed away in 2010, wasn’t a business leader, but he was one of the best leaders I’ve ever known. For about six years, I was able to meet regularly with him and have him mentor me. He cared deeply about other people, was highly strategic, demonstrated competence off the charts and his success never went to his head. There isn’t a law of leadership that he didn’t do well.
On the business side, I currently admire Jim Blanchard, retired chairman and CEO of Synovus Bank. Synovus has been named one of the best companies in America to work for. I think it’s because he cared about people, not just finance. That’s what leadership is all about: the people.
Bookish: The unemployment and underemployment rates for new college graduates and 20-somethings are significant. What advice do you have for young professionals, given current circumstances?
JCM: My advice would be very similar to what my father learned during the Depression: When no one could find a job back then, my father would go to a business and offer to work for a day for free. If, at the end of the day, the owner wanted to hire him, that would be fine. If not, then the owner had gotten a free day’s work. My father was never without a job during the Depression. That doesn’t mean he made a lot, but he made enough to survive. Start wherever you can get in. Work hard. Prove yourself. Don’t expect to start at the top. If you prove yourself long enough, people will recognize it and you’ll be rewarded.
Bookish: What are your thoughts on maintaining a healthy work-life balance? How can employees best manage work demands?
JCM: I actually don’t think there’s such a thing as balance. I think it’s more accurate to view life as a series of seasons: Just as a vacation is not balanced, neither are seasons of work. There’s an ebb and flow to our lives that we have to take into account. That doesn’t mean we should neglect our families, or our health or our personal growth. It just means you have to find a rhythm that works for you.
Bookish: How has your faith inspired your wisdom on leadership? What obstacles do you encounter when bringing your faith into your discussions of business?
JCM: Everything I’ve learned about leadership, I’ve learned from the Bible, so that’s the foundation of everything I believe and teach. I started my career as a pastor. Business people found me, when I was teaching leadership to church leaders. I eventually decided to start speaking and writing to business people. I have to admit, it was a challenge. Not because the principles weren’t sound, but because I had to find new illustrations to explain them. It took me a couple years to really begin to communicate effectively to that audience. As for obstacles, I don’t really see any. I don’t try to push my faith on anyone, but everyone knows that I’m a person of faith. I just try to be an open book and help leaders learn how to lead better.
John C. Maxwell is an internationally respected leadership expert and author who has sold more than 21 million books.