John Maxwell

Interview with John Maxwell

John Maxwell is one of today’s premier authorities on leadership. Through his best-selling books, conferences, and organization (INJOY), John is sharing practical insights and tools with thousands of leaders and potential leaders. Preaching editor Michael Duduit recently visited with John to discuss his latest book, Thinking for a Change.

Preachings: In your book Thinking for a Change (Warner Books), you make the statement that successful people think differently than unsuccessful people. In what way do successful people think differently?

John Maxwell: In the book I identify eleven thinking skills that successful people have. Those are the eleven ways that they think differently. For example, successful people think very realistically. Unsuccessful people don’t. Unsuccessful people just think that something will happen for them or something will happen to them. It’s just a matter of time. It’s kind of a lottery feeling about life. Successful people look at life very realistically and say I am going to have to make some changes here or I am going to lose my family or I’m going to lose my job or my kids. Successful people have a sense of realism that unsuccessful people don’t have.

That thesis — that the greatest gap between successful and unsuccessful people is how they think — really came from my father at his 50th anniversary, when he and Mom were having a big wedding anniversary in Kauai and we were with them. He’s been such a positive thinker and such an encourager and I said, “Dad, did you always think like that?” And he surprised me. He said, “No, when I was a senior in high school” — he grew up in Georgetown High a little town in southern Ohio — “there were only a couple of families in our town that were successful. Only 800 people in the town. In my senior year I asked myself, ‘Why are they successful and everybody else here so average and I came to the conclusion that they thought differently.’

That was the seed to that book. For the next ten years I just watched people, listened to people. And I found that there were certain ways that they thought, certain thinking skills that they possessed. I began to write them down and clarify them. That really is the heart of the book.

Successful people think big picture. Unsuccessful people are just consumed with themselves. What is going to happen to me? They are almost living moment by moment. You know what I’m saying. Never looking at life in context.

Successful people think creatively. Therefore because they’re creative thinkers, what do they have? They have options. Unsuccessful people don’t have options. Everything is a dead-end street. Lost their job — what will we do now? Never get out of themselves, never get out of their comfort zone, never think out of the box.

Successful people are very reflective. They evaluate everything. They understand that experience is not the best teacher — it is the hardest teacher, it’s not the best teacher. Evaluative experience is the best teacher. So they understand that they have to reflect because reflection gives insight into experience. Without reflection you get no insight. Some people just move from experience to experience to experience. Never grow from it. What causes another person to go from experience to experience and grow? It’s the reflection. So successful people reflect, unsuccessful people have a tendency to not reflect. Those eleven thinking skills are the eleven major differences I think in thinking between successfulness and unsuccessful.

Preaching: You’ve got a statement in the book that says, “If your thinking is limited so is your potential.” How do you think that plays out in the life of the church?

John Maxwell: I think it is everything in the life of the church. First of all, where there is no vision people perish. From our biblical roots we understand that the size of your vision or the ability to have big thinking or big dreaming is going to determine the size of your congregation. The greatest limiting factor in a person’s life is their thinking. If I don’t think or if I don’t think good thoughts I am only going to be a recipient of what is given to me.

John Cotter has written some great change books in leadership. We were talking about some of this stuff and he said, “John, the vast majority of people don’t make their life — they accept their life.” And I thought this is so true. People with no thinking skills or limited thinking skills, they just take what is handed to them. They have no other option. When I limit my thinking, the smallness of my thinking is going to always determine what I receive from it.

Preaching: If you were talking to young pastors, how would you advise them to become big thinkers?

John Maxwell: I had to do it myself. First of all I grew up in a small denomination of 225 churches. The largest church would have been 500. Very negative, very legalistic, hyper-critical, most of the churches didn’t have one professional in the congregation. That was my environment. I very quickly assessed my situation and said, “I’m in prison here. How am I going to get out?”

What I did back in 1971, ’72, ’73 is I got a list of the pastors of the ten largest churches in America. That was the first awareness for me that there are some churches that are huge. In fact, I think in ’72 the 10th largest church in America was Charles Blair’s church in Denver, Colorado; if I am not mistaken he either had 1800 or 2000. The tenth largest church. Today there are 10 churches in Orlando that are made up of 2000.

I called these pastors up and said, “You don’t know me but I really want to learn and I’ll give you $100 for thirty minutes of your time.” That was back in ’72 when I made $14,000. I did that because I knew that there was no way they would ever give me an audience. I had to show them that I was going to be different than the average person that was passionate. Over the next three years I interviewed them. How does a young pastor get out of his limited thinking? They took me out of it. I exposed myself to a world that I did not know. I exposed myself to a world that I wasn’t comfortable with. But I knew the only way for me to ever get big is to get away from that small-thinking pettiness and hang around with people who think big. They all have the same effect on me.

People ask me often, “Well, what questions did you ask?” I had like five pages of questions and a tape recorder. I had more questions than I could ever ask in a half hour. I only had a half hour — I wanted it clean. What happened was not questions that I asked or answers that they gave — there was an empowerment that happened that day. When I went back out in that empty parking lot at that church, I lay my head against that steering wheel and I would bawl like a baby and say, “Oh God, if you can do that for him you can do that for me.” And I was empowered.

In fact it is interesting — I can only remember one answer to any one question that I asked of all those people. I went down to Jacksonville, Florida and talked to Bob Grey. Our church building was full, and I asked Bob Grey if we should go to two services. We were packed out. We were so packed out we would put them in the balcony, then we would seat them on the steps going down the balcony, then we would fill the chairs clear out to the last door. When you dismiss the last people had to get out first. The Fire Marshall would have had a hay day. I asked Bob Grey if I should go to two services and he said, “Oh don’t you do that Johnny. It would be a huge mistake.” He said, “I have played pastor in two congregations.” Which is terrible advice. Because of that I had to plateau for two years while I was building a new sanctuary. Terrible advice. The only question I have ever asked, the only answer I have ever received was terrible. Terrible answer.

But the value from all of them — including Bob Grey — is that I came out of there so empowered that it lifted me out of this small thinking, “can’t be done” prison that I was in and very quickly. The first thing I noticed when I would go back to my church, when I would go back to my denomination was that I was no longer what these people were. I knew it was only an amount of time ‘til I’d have to leave because there was no connection. So I would tell a pastor go talk to a visionary, go talk to a big thinker. They’ll lift you out. They’ll empower you out.

Preaching: One of the hot buttons for so many pastors is dealing with the whole issue of change. In the book you talk about the fact that reaching goals always involves change. That’s a struggle for many pastors with churches that are resistant to change. How did you as a pastor get people within the church ready for change?

John Maxwell: First of all let’s start with pastor. Thirty years ago when I taught leadership I would have said wrongly — there is so much I have learned and grown — I would have said thirty years ago that leaders like change and are out there paving the way and followers dislike change. That followers are the drag and the resistance to it. I no longer think that. I think most leaders dislike change as much as followers do, unless it’s their idea. In fact I think when change does not occur in an organization or church it is not because the followers resist a change — it is because leaders resist a change.

Followers by and large have no influence and pretty much fall in line to what everyone else is going to do anyway. That’s why they call them followers. So when change does not occur it’s almost always sabotaged. There is a leader to sabotage the change, not a follower. Pastors do not need to worry about the people. The pastors need to have an honest date with themselves. When churches don’t change it is not a follower problem, it’s a leader problem almost always.

Now that being said, I want to be very careful to say that I do not advocate or admire change in itself. I know a lot of people just want change because they get restless. I don’t think that’s a good change. I think growth, true legitimate growth necessitates change. You can’t grow over a period of time without making major changes. So I think growth means change. I don’t think that change means growth. Somebody says, “Well I’m making some changes,” and I am saying, “That doesn’t make it better.” I know people who have made changes and got worse.

So let’s not glorify change. Let’s glorify growth. If growth occurs a person will change and what I have discovered is when growth occurs change is received much more positively. My challenge is not to change churches or change pastors; my challenge is to grow churches and grow pastors. If I truly get them on a growth pattern they’ll have momentum to make the changes they need to have. Because remember this, to change without growth is to change without momentum. That is very difficult. It only takes a strong degree of discipline but you have so many nay sayers that it’s much easier to grow and then make changes than it is to change to have growth. I think a lot of times you get the cart before the horse. I would tell pastors they’re responsible for the change. But really what I want them to do is not change — what I really want them to do is grow and then change.

Preaching: You describe yourself as a communicator, and your writing and speaking reflects that you’re an effective communicator. What counsel would you give to pastors to help them develop as communicators?

John Maxwell: The first thing I’d say is that I did not come out of college to be a communicator. I came out of college for my age as a good preacher. I did not come out as a good communicator — I came out as a good forth teller, preacher. But I didn’t connect with people. My definition of communication is very simple: the acid test of communicating is connection. You never communicate until you connect. And all of the great communicators — different styles, different mannerisms, personalities — only have one thin in common: they connect. When they speak to an audience there’s a connection. Just as all people that are not good communicators have one thing in common: they don’t connect. So the question for a person who wants to be a good communicator is: how do I connect with people?

I graduated from college in 1969. This will blow your mind — it took me from ‘69 to1977 to know how to connect. The reason it took me that long was because I had no mentors, I had nobody to teach me. So I had to kind of grope and do trial and error. When I would listen to somebody speak I would ask myself a question. Are they connecting? And if they were connecting with me I would ask myself “why?” What are they doing, what are they saying that connects with me?

I quickly learned how to discern the difference between a person who connects because of a subject and a person who connects because of their ability to communicate. The best way I can explain that is it’s not a subject issue — it’s the person that is the communicator. So you say give me a subject that I can really communicate to people. My whole thing is: if you’re a good communicator just about any subject will do. If you are a bad communicator there is no subject that will help.

So I began to study the communicators, once I understood that the key to communication was connection. Then I began to ask myself the question: “How do people connect?” When I met Charlie, Charlie was a member of my church at Skyline.  He does the bulk of my writing now — we form ideas together, we lay it out and then we kind of work together but I mean he is the main “pen man” now for me. But I realized that I had to teach him. If he was going to do research for me, how does he know he has good research? I mean I don’t want people bringing me material. Through the computer and internet I mean, you could put stacks on top of the guy. You have to get the right material. I used to have him read quote books and mark what he thought were good quotes.  Then I would read the same book and I would mark what I thought were good quotes. And when we started ninety percent of the quotes that Charlie thought were good quotes weren’t ones that I’d ever use. Ninety percent — I mean we were ninety percent off! But over time I would explain to him why I would never use that quote, why it would never work for me, why it didn’t fit me. Probably after five or six of those exercises with those books he was ninety percent on. Now I could have him go get quotes for me. I don’t need quotes — I need good quotes.

When I had sermons every Sunday, I would teach for forty minutes and they would hardly ever look up. So then I said to Charlie, “In that message give me the five best minutes of that.” I was teaching him how to read a crowd. “Charlie, what were the five minutes I could have omitted and have gotten nothing but applause from people?” I taught him how to read people. If you can’t read a situation you can’t read a person.

I am amazed at guys who go up and communicate and nobody’s home and they don’t have a clue — they walk off just happy as clams and I’m sitting there saying, “Do you know how bad you were? If I were to interrupt you halfway in your message and looked at the people and said, ‘Do we want to take a vote?’ they would have found a gong and the trap door would have opened and you would be gone. Do you know what I am sayin’?” They don’t have a clue.

The great communicators connect, regardless of style, personality, background, subject — it doesn’t matter. There is nothing I love better than to hear somebody speak and evaluate. I can tell you if they’ve connected, I can tell you when they connected, I can tell you why they connected. You know I love to play golf but if you don’t understand what a proper swing feels like and looks like you can practice ‘til Jesus comes and you are still going to be bad. Practice doesn’t make perfect — it makes permanent. So people who don’t understand that connection is the key for a communicator — they can do their preaching, do all their study and the whole process, and they’re still going to be boring until they understand that.

And how do you connect? You connect thru authenticity. You connect by being yourself and not trying to be someone else. You know what I’m saying? Stay in your strengths zone.

Preaching: Among preachers, who are some of the ones that you saw that you learned from as connecters?

John Maxwell: I saw that Chuck Swindoll connected through humor. He loved to laugh. Loved to laugh with people, laugh at himself. I saw John MacArthur absolutely communicate, connect through confidence. John MacArthur, when you got done you were just convinced that he knew the right way. This is the way that I ought to go. I just studied these guys, and I watched them.

You know the great African-American preachers understand it so much better than the white preachers. They understand that they get on a subject and they stay there until they connect. Here’s the difference between a white preacher and an African-American preacher: the white preacher has to finish the outline. A black preacher, once he finds his connection point he never leaves, he never leaves. He never finishes his message. Never does the outline right. But he stays right there. He understands that when you find the bait you stay there. So I watched and I observed — how long does it take a person to connect?

Jack Hayford was a classic example. It took him almost a whole message. He’s more warm-up than anybody I have ever heard. You know what I’m saying. But I always stayed with him because he would connect. It took him forty minutes but he would connect. And it was worth it. He could land that plane every time.

So I began to appreciate people for how they connected and when they connected and understood the process of what helped them to connect. Let me tell you something about the great communicators: there is also the type of preacher who can communicate in his setting because he knows his setting, but you take him out that setting and he can’t do that. So they are very strong in creating an environment where they are comfortable and they connect there. But because they are not really great communicators — they just are good leaders that set an environment for connection in their setting — when you pull them out of that you say, “What happened?” What happened is that they weren’t pure communicators. A pure communicator reads the situation, adapts himself or herself to that situation. Figures out what the connecting link is and moves into that. It sometimes takes a little while but moves into that connection.

Preaching: You talk about the importance of being a big picture thinker. How do leaders develop that skill?

John Maxwell: First of all we often equate vision with leadership. We say, “Man, he can cast a great vision, therefore he is a great leader”. I don’t think so. I think the ability to cast vision is the skill of the communicator, not a leader. I have known a lot of very good communicators that could cast vision but really couldn’t take the people there. When the sermon was over it was over. So I think that the ability to cast vision is not a leadership skill.

The question is being a big picture thinker. The ability to see the big picture — whether it’s your vision or not — the ability to see the big picture is definitely a leadership skill. The ability to see not only what is happening but what probably could happen, what has happened, to have an appreciation for the past, to have a grasp of the present, to have an intuition of the future. That big picture thinking, I think, is definitely into the realm of what I would call a natural leader. I’ll give you the difference. If I cast visions but I don’t see the big picture, half the time we don’t go there because the people are not ready. The context hasn’t been set. A big picture thinker is a person who understands the context of things — whether he or she likes it that way or not — and then understands what is necessary to make this vision happen. If you are a big picture thinker, the vision will become a reality. If you are a visionary it doesn’t necessarily mean you see the big picture. And the big picture allows the good things to happen.

I’ve got weaknesses, I’ve got strengths. I do some things good, I do some things very poorly. And I suppose this is a gift. I have always looked at people around me and been amazed at their inability to see the whole picture. They will make decisions and I would think, “Don’t they see what is going happen? Don’t they understand where this is?” And one day it just hit me that perhaps that it’s more giftedness that anything else. When pastors get in trouble — as they do in churches all the time — it’s almost always because they didn’t see the big picture.

I think for the best ones it is probably innate and natural — that is what you call the natural gifted leader — but I think it can always be cultivated. Oh my goodness, so much of the stuff that I do today I learned. It was learned behavior from watching someone else. And I believe somebody like Charlie that hangs with me a lot, I think that there are so many ways that they think differently today than they would have thought. It is not because we have gone to school and sat down and had classroom session 101 but you get in that environment. And that is why I am so grateful I had an environment as a kid that was very privileged. We didn’t have any money but we had a positive, encouraging, affirming home — all the stuff that you need to have to get you started off.