John Maxwell on Leadership: “Follow Me, I’m Right Behind You…”

by jeremywaite

Not too long ago I went to a seminar just to hear someone because I knew he charged $100,000 a day to speak.  What could anyone possibly say to justify that kind of rate?

Was he going to deliver a few long and eloquent speeches?  Was he going to regale us with tales of celebrities and presidents?  Maybe he’d spend 5 hours telling us how he became so successful I thought.  I hoped not.  I could read that in one of his many books.  What I was hoping for was that he might actually say something genuinely remarkable.  Something life-changing.  Perhaps even just one thing that I could take away…

In actual fact, he gave me more than I could ever have hoped for.  The speaker was New York Times best-selling author, John Maxwell.  He started many of his sentences with the phrase, “If you just put into action what I’m about to tell you in the next 3 minutes, this advice will change your life”.  If you charge big bucks – you need to make big statements right?

Well… his big statements were very big.  Better still, they delivered.  He spoke four sessions of exactly an hour, sat on a bar stool, with no notes and no slides, to a room of 3000 people who were literally eating out of his hand.  It was edge of your seat stuff and you didn’t want to miss a thing he was saying.  I wrote down everything he said as fast as I could.  (And yes, I did say that he spoke with NO notes). So much for limited attention spans.  It was an impressive display.

I wouldn’t complain if the only business advice I ever received was that which John Maxwell gave to me that rainy Thursday.  He was outstanding.  Looking back, I imagine his advice would have generated millions of pounds in increased revenue if the business leaders there put into practise the principles and lessons he spoke about.

So what did he say that was SO special???

There were two things that I remember most from what John told me that day…

  1. How will your name be remembered? When you’re gone, people will sum up your life in one sentence. You decide NOW what you want that to be. (Don’t let them decide for you).
  2. What makes an AMAZING leader?

It’s that second question I want to tell you about.  John Maxwell isn’t just a speaker who knows his onions, he lives what he teaches at the highest level everyday.  As a key advisor to the last four presidents, world leaders and CEO’s including Bill Gates, if anyone wants to learn anything about leadership, John is your man.

To a packed auditorium of 3,000 entrepreneurs, he spoke about something he noticed when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.  At that time George W. Bush was the president of the USA and he did what any good president would do.  He jumped into Marine One and flew straight to New Orleans.  Looking down on the devastation and destruction he tried to understand what the people might be going though.  Landing on high ground he then gave a press conference to the worlds media, talking about the unlimited support that the US government was to give the people of Louisiana.

Bill Clinton didn’t do that.  He wasn’t president.  He didn’t even need to go.  Without fanfare he drove straight into the heart of the flooded area, rolled up his sleeves and got to work helping with the clean up operation.  He stood side by side with the emergency workers and got stuck in.

That tiny vignette sums up for me the difference between a good leader and a great leader.

Bill Clinton = “I feel your pain.  I’m right here alongside you”.

George W. Bush = “This is what we’re going to do.  I hope you like it”.

It’s the difference between leading from the front and leading from the middle of the pack.  For all you soccer fans, there’s a reason why the captain of your team is usually a mid-fielder and not a striker.  Leaders need to be like generals, directing troops from the heart of the action.

Some leaders have that position because of their title. Other people are leaders because people want to follow them.

Leadership like George W’s still works well, it just doesn’t inspire anyone. Many people need their leader to tell them what to do.  It inspires confidence.  But now that he is not president is George W still a leader?

Similarly, ask anyone who ever worked with Bill Clinton if they still see him as a leader.  People will tell you how he always remembered their name.  (No Monica jokes please). They’d tell you how if you talked to him briefly in a crowded room, he made you feel like you were the only person in that room that mattered.  For me, that’s leadership.

A leader without any real followers isn’t a leader at all, he’s just taking a walk on his own. (That same truth applies in the world of Twitter – think about it)…

I’ll always remember the iconic image that will always be associated with George W’s reign as president.  Bull horn in hand, he stood on top of the rubble at ground zero after 9/11 and addressed the emergency workers.  Part of his rousing speech included the line, “…soon everyone will be able to hear”.

It sounded like fighting talk.  A leader letting the terrorists know that America was about to kick their ass.  Emotions were high and it sounded like a strong leader delivering the perfect line at the perfect time.  Truth is, the bull-horn wasn’t working and some guy shouted that he couldn’t hear George W talking.  The line was actually directed at the workers in from of him, “Well theses guys can hear and soon everyone will be able to hear”.  In context, it doesn’t quite make headlines does it?  The bull-horn started working and he gave his speech, but those few words are the ones that people (and especially the media) remember.

A serendipitous moment of accidental leadership or inspired words?  All I know is that real leaders don’t usually shout from mountain tops.  They usually get down and dirty in the crowd because that’s where real change usually begins.

Among the many things that John taught me that day in Bradford, learning about the kind of leader I’d like to become was the thing I remember the most. £100,000 a day?  Worth every penny.

[John has got a great blog and gives away podcasts for free on iTunes, so if you want more of the Maxwell, go and discover him for yourself].