45 pages 1 hour read

John C. Maxwell

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide


John C. Maxwell’s book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You (1998), is a self-help book designed to inspire readers to become better leaders. It sold over a million copies by 2015, and was preemptively listed as a New York Times bestseller in 1999. It has received mostly positive feedback, with high-profile people such as NBA player Harrison Barnes praising its contents. It has since become Maxwell’s best known work.

In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Maxwell teaches his philosophy of leadership using examples from history and from his life. Each chapter is dedicated to one of the 21 Laws, providing a definition, at least two historical examples of the Law at work, and reasons for its significance. This study guide covers only those historical examples that provide useful additional context or information. Every chapter in Maxwell’s book  ends with a section that helps readers apply the Law in their daily lives. As these sections are mostly summaries of the major points brought up throughout the chapter, this guide has elected to omit them to avoid redundancy.

This guide refers to the 10th anniversary edition (2007) published by HarperCollins Leadership.


The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership begins with an introduction describing changes made in the present edition and ends with a very brief conclusion. There are 21 chapters in between, each explaining a specific Law of Leadership using definitions and real-life examples taken from history or from Maxwell’s personal life. Each chapter stands on its own and the work can mostly be read out of order.

Chapter 1 explains that a person’s leadership ability is determined by their effectiveness. Chapter 2 argues that a person’s influence determines how good of a leader they are. Chapter 3 argues that true leaders continue to seek for self-improvement in order to remain relevant. Chapter 4 posits that leaders must be able to “chart the course” of a project rather than simply “steer the ship.” (58) Chapter 5 says that the best leaders add value to others through their influence.

In Chapters 6 and 7, Maxwell writes that at the core of good leadership is trust and mutual respect. Chapter 8 and 9 deal with the intangible skills of a leader: intuition and magnetism. Maxwell argues that a leader’s character is reflected in who they attract. Chapter 10 expands upon this idea by pointing out that good leaders establish genuine connections with others to better lead them.

Chapter 11 warns future leaders that they must have an inner circle of people with excellent character for their influence to reach further. Chapter 12 posits that leaders who are self-confident have the resources to give power to others, thereby helping themselves in the process. Chapter 13 argues that leaders should lead by example because followers mimic what they do. Chapter 14 explains that followers are first attracted by the character of the leader and then by their vision—not the other way. Chapter 15 says that the best leaders do not accept defeat and search for ways to improve, which is why they often emerge victorious.

In Chapters 16 and 17, Maxwell argues that leaders must know how to create momentum and set priorities to maximize their chances of success. In Chapter 18, he reminds leaders that they must sacrifice part of themselves (such as their time, comfort, or personal life) in order to extend their influence. In Chapter 19, he writes that only doing the right thing is not enough—leaders must also find the right time to act to achieve maximum effect. In Chapter 20, he posits that only leaders who focus on empowering other leaders (rather than just amassing followers) can expect explosive growth. Finally, in Chapter 21, he cautions leaders that their influence can only be fleeting in the grand scheme of things if they do not pay attention to the problem of succession.

The Introduction explains the changes made to the book in the special 10th anniversary edition (which this guide references) while the Conclusion expresses Maxwell’s wishes for readers’ success. As a result, there are no detailed summaries for these sections of the book. The content of the introduction will be explained in the following paragraph.

The 10th anniversary edition is different from the original publication, providing more up-to-date examples to certain Laws and adding two new laws: The Law of Addition: Leaders Add Value by Serving Others and The Law of the Picture: People Do What People See. These two additions were the result of Maxwell’s expanding his theory from teaching leadership in developing countries. In this edition, Maxwell also cautions readers to think of good leaders as people who can perform well in more than one Law, but he ultimately acknowledges that even the best leaders will not excel at all 21 of them. Maxwell offers a simple solution to this problem: Leaders have the responsibility to train a team of leaders to fill in the gaps in their skill.

The introduction concludes with four fundamentals rules for readers to keep in mind:

1.   All 21 Laws can be learned.

2.   The Laws can stand alone; they can be learned individually and are not interdependent.

3.   They carry consequences, and good readers will not make light of them.

4.   They are the foundation of leadership, and must be applied in daily life.