John Maxwell is one of today’s most influential writers and speakers on the issue of leadership. A new edition of his Maxwell Leadership Bible recently was published by Thomas Nelson, and his new book Good Leaders Ask Great Questions has been released by FaithWords. Preaching Executive Editor Michael Duduit recently visited with Maxwell.

Preaching: There is an intense focus on leadership in our culture, including within the church. Why do you think there’s such an interest in leadership among pastors today?

Maxwell: I think people are finding that if they cannot lead well, they’re not going to get the response they want as pastors. I’ve said through the years that everything rises and falls on influence. The more people you can influence in a positive way, the more people who come to the church.

I think leadership is a subject that can’t be ignored. There are people who are uncomfortable with it. There are people who would like to ignore it. However, at the end of the day, if you lead well, you do well. If you don’t lead well, you don’t do well.

Back to the 21 Laws of Leadership and that first law—the law of the lid—how well you lead determines how well you succeed. It’s a fact. I think people who are uncomfortable seeing themselves as leaders still have to recognize that if you lead, you’re going to do well in life. It’s a subject you can’t ignore even if you wanted to.

Preaching: Why do you think pastors specifically should be students of leadership?

Maxwell: I think Jesus is the greatest Leader ever, and we want to be like Him. His ability to value people is what I think made His leadership so effective. They were drawn to Him. Leadership is influence.

If you follow the gospels, the thing that is the strongest conclusion is that on every page, Jesus valued people. His valuing people attracted them, which put Him obviously in a position of influence in leadership. Some pastors say leadership isn’t their gift. I say that’s OK. A lot of people don’t have a leadership gift, but to be able to influence people should be a mission to every pastor.

What did Jesus say? He said we’re to be salt and light. Salt makes things better, and light makes things brighter. To ignore that…Jesus said we’re here to make things better and brighter. If that’s not influence, I don’t know what is.

Yet people say they don’t want to lead or don’t think it’s their gift. I tell people to follow Jesus—that’ll give you the influence.

Preaching: One project you’ve developed is the Maxwell Leadership Bible. Why a Bible connected to leadership?

Maxwell: Because everything I know about leadership is from the Bible. I was speaking to a very secular group, In fact, it was the largest private brokerage company in the world, and I’d been teaching on leadership all day. At the end of the day, a senior vice-president raised his hand and said, “John, your material is just different than most other leadership material. Why is it so different? Where’d you get it? What’s your source?” I said, “You don’t want to know.”

He raised his hand again and said, “No, I really do want to know.” I said, “No, really, if I reveal my source, you’d understand why I said that.” Of course, by now, everyone has their hands up and wants to know where I get my leadership material.

I said, “I’m going to tell you, but when I do, you’re going to be disappointed. Everything I’ve learned about leadership, I’ve learned from the Bible.” There was a groan. I said, “I told you that you’d be disappointed.” Then I told them I’d be down at their cocktail hour at 7 p.m.—in the corner—and that if anybody had any questions about God, they could ask me then. I went from 7 to 8 that night and never stopped answering questions about God and faith.

Everything I know about leadership, although I’m in the corporate community 90 percent of the time now, everything I’m teaching is still right out of the Bible. There’s nothing I know that I teach on leadership that I can’t show Scripture to support.

I was in Kuwait doing a major national leadership conference for the country. They said no politics, no religion. I said, “No problem.” I taught leadership principles all day from the Bible. They were on their feet standing up, and I walked off with great satisfaction, knowing everything I taught that day was biblically based.

So when I did the Leadership Bible, it was very simple. I took all the lessons I ever taught on leadership out of the Bible as a pastor for the past 25 years and stuck them in there. I think there are more than 600 of them.

I had my Leadership Bible at a secular conference one day. This is where I live, Michael. A guy literally came up to me and asked if I wrote the Bible. Is said, “This is the Bible. I didn’t write it.”

Then he said, “I’ve never read the Bible. I don’t even have a Bible, but I’m buying this one. I love leadership. If there are leadership lessons in there, I’m going to read it.”

I had that inner satisfaction saying to myself, “My friend, you have no idea what’s going to happen to you when you interact with God’s Word.” That’s my world—the world I live in now.

I’ve written 76 books they say, but doing the Leadership Bible, which is now in the NIV, is the greatest project I’ve ever tried. If I could have done only one thing in my life as far as writing, it would be the Leadership Bible. It’s been very, very popular, even in the other translation. In the New King James Bible, it was very, very popular, close to a million copies sold; but with the NIV, it’s going to be very exciting. It’s a more preferred translation.

Everything I know about leadership is out of the Bible so why not stick those principles and lessons right into the Bible so a person who loves God’s Word can read it and become a better leader?

Preaching: Apart from Jesus, who do you think is the best leader in the Bible?

Maxwell: My favorite leader in the Old Testament is probably Moses—the very fact that he led for 40 years with complaining people! When he told Pharaoh to let all my people go…I think after a couple years, I’d have gone back and said, “Pharaoh, just let some of the people go. I’m not sure I want to lead them all.” I love Moses. He was inadequate. He was so human, and yet he’s such a powerful leader.

Without question, the apostle Paul in the New Testament: When you talk about a leader and leadership principles, you can probably take the 21 laws of leadership and illustrate them all with Paul’s life, every single one of them. When I wrote Five Levels of Leadership, I put a different character at each level, but probably Paul from the New Testament and Moses from the Old.

Preaching: In the Leadership Bible, are there particular resources you think would be helpful for preachers?

Maxwell: What happens is that there are 600 leadership lessons. The reason they’re all for pastors is because that’s what I did with them. I taught them to my leadership. When I pastored at Skyline, I sat down with my board monthly and spent two hours doing biblical leadership with the members. I did the same thing with my staff on a monthly basis. So all of the leadership lessons are ones I taught either from the pulpit or to my leaders on Saturday mornings just trying to help them get leadership on a biblical basis under their belts.

Preaching: You have a new book coming out called Good Leaders Ask Great Questions. Why are questions important to leaders?

Maxwell: In the first chapter, I talk about the value of questions. As a leader, for too long I didn’t ask questions, much to my regret. I just gave direction, cast vision, pointed and huffed and puffed, trying to get everybody on the train and the whole process. It took me a while to understand that if I were going to learn how to be a leader, it wasn’t going to be my casting vision but going to good leaders and asking questions.

It started with me going to pastors of large churches and asking questions about how they built their churches. I visited with the pastors of the top 10 churches during four years, asked them questions and learned so much. I learned that questions are the keys to unlock the doors of opportunity. Almost every good thing that’s happened to me in my life is because I either asked a good question and it changed my life, or somebody asked me a question that challenged me.

So I talk about the 10 most important questions ever asked of me and the 10 most important questions I’ve asked someone else. I’ve got a chapter about the 11 questions I ask my team continually. That would be great for pastors and their own staffs. I have another chapter about the questions that I ask myself as a leader. You really can’t lead until you’ve settled the issues in your own life, so I have a chapter about the questions I ask myself on a continual basis that hold me steady and keep me focused on where I want to go.

The thing in the book that excites me more than anything else—the thing I really love—is that from chapter 4 through the end of the book, I basically answer questions people have asked me for 40 years about leadership. It’s going to become a reference book for leaders. If you want to know about recruiting, hiring, firing, developing people or developing themselves, I probably have 1,000 questions and answers in that book.

It’s going to be a reference book. Leaders are going to pull that book off their shelves and find out what God has to say about issues they’ve got, and hopefully it will help them. I’m excited about it coming out. I think it’s going to be a constant companion to leaders, not only because of the questions they have to ask themselves and their team, but because I also answer about every question I’ve ever been asked on leadership.

Preaching: Thinking back on your years as a pastor, is there any one question that’s the most important for a pastor to ask?

Maxwell: I think the greatest question a pastor has to ask is if he or she is investing in him or herself. I mean, we give all the time. Our lives are filled with sermons, teaching, grace, serving, loving and helping. If we are not careful, we don’t fill up ourselves and keep our own fuel tanks full. The first question I ask myself every day is—and this will sound selfish, but it’s not—but am I investing in me?

The reason I ask that question is because I cannot give what I do not have. I think a lot of times, we start giving yesterday’s stuff to people who need today’s answers because we didn’t take enough time to go to the well and draw the water. No matter how busy you are, pastors have a real challenge of investing in themselves and taking some good thinking time. Leaders have a lot of action, but we don’t spend enough time just thinking.

I think the greatest exercise I do each day is to take my legal pad, sit and think, take notes and reflect, and draw truths and principles that help make a difference.

Preaching: You spent years speaking Sunday after Sunday, and now you’re speaking to corporate groups. Are there things you’re learning now that you wish you’d known when you were a pastor?

Maxwell: Oh, there are a lot of things. That’s an article in itself! Let me say this: I wish I could get a do-over as a pastor. The longer I’m away from the pastorate, the worse I feel about the job I did. After 25 years, I thought I’d done a good job; maybe not a great job, but I thought I was a good pastor and good leader. The longer I’m out of it, the more I realize I wasn’t a good leader. What I know now, I wish I had known then.

When it comes to reaching people, everything in the church world is based on relationships. Michael, you and I haven’t talked for two years, but we get on the phone and pick right back up because we’re brothers in the Lord and we’re connected. We’re relationally connected. We’re both bought by a price, and we’re God’s children. So there’s a relational connection in the body of Christ.

Once you leave the body of Christ and you try to influence people who are not Christians, you have to lead by respect. People have to respect you. If I had anything to do, I would tell the laypeople they need to gain respect among their peers and the people with whom they work, the people in their communities and their neighbors. They need to be persons others truly value.

I don’t have a shot of sharing Christ with them until they respect me, so my job is to go in, meet their levels of expectation and surpass them. If I win their respect, it’s only a matter of time until they’ll begin to talk to me about the life issues, which allows me to introduce Christ to them. I’ve seen more people come to Christ since I left the pastorate than when I was a pastor. What I’ve learned is: Don’t try to share your faith first. Help people first; add value to them until they respect you; and the moment they respect you, they’ll open up and start asking the real questions.

I’ve had hundreds and thousands of opportunities to share my faith. I’ve led CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to Christ only because I went in and delivered for their company, delivered for them. I did my job with excellence; then I got the respect, and then I got their ears. I wish I had taught my audience they needed to be good in the community before they could share well. I didn’t do a good job of that at all, but if I could go back, I would do it; that’s for sure.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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