John C. Maxwell: Speak to Me!

In researching for my work in progress (WIP), I am reading a variety of texts on leadership. There are few authors in this field who are as well regarded as John C. Maxwell. His may be the name that has come up most often among my colleagues who share my passion for excellence in leadership and teamwork, as well as referenced most often in thoughtful books and articles on the subject. One theme of my WIP relates to identifying critical traits of successful leaders. So, I bought Maxwell’s “The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader” and downloaded it to my Kindle.

The book includes a wealth of collected wisdom on traits that Maxwell deems important for a successful leader. He illustrates the work richly with anecdotes from various historical figures, using their success to illustrate his “indispensible qualities of a leader”. He cites Bill Lear of Lear Jet fame; Charles Schwab; William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli; Napoleon Bonaparte; Michelangelo; basketball players Bill Bradley and Ed Macauley; Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan; Eddie Rickenbacker; and dozens of others. To his credit, Maxwell also manages to weave in many examples of successful women from history: Perle Mesta, Washington socialite; Marya Sklodowska, better known as Madame Curie; Elisabeth Elliot, a missionary in Ecuador; Oprah Winfrey; Chris Evert; and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. 

I appreciated reading about these strong women who clearly mastered traits that made them successful leaders. But Maxwell wrote his book to be not just illustrative but also instructive, offering that he had “written this book to help you recognize, develop, and refine the personal characteristics needed to be a truly effective leader, the kind people want to follow”. In each of the 21 chapters, he included a section called “Bringing It Home” with recommendations for how the reader could apply the perspective offered in that chapter. I think I was about halfway through the 21 chapters when I realized that whenever Maxwell was speaking to the reader as someone who is or aspires to be a leader, he was talking to “him”.  Now, I realize historically people used “he” and “him” as generic pronouns, but even the Chicago Manual of Style advises that “he is no longer accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of either sex”.

The trend was not limited to the first half of the book that I had read; it occurred throughout. In every case, when Maxwell speaks to the reader as a present-day leader or an aspiring leader or someone a leader should help, it is always with a masculine pronoun. The book includes only one excerpt, referring to the vision of a leader as “his or hers” –

“A leader must get things done through others, therefore the leader must have the ability to inspire and motivate, guide and direct, and listen. It’s only through communication that the leader is able to cause others to internalize his or her vision and implement it.”

But the passage was not in Maxwell’s voice, he was quoting someone else – Danto Manuqez, Jr, president of MVM, Inc.

Maxwell seems to be a kind, thoughtful person who has devoted much of his life to helping people be better leaders; helping them develop the skills and traits that will enable them to be better able to influence others around them. I’m confident if you asked him if he supports women in leadership roles, he’d say “Of course!” I am an intelligent, successful woman keenly interested in improving leadership skills. In the entire book on leadership, Maxwell did not once speak to me as a reader. I conclude that Maxwell must believe that there are actually 22 “indispensible qualities of a leader” – and the unwritten one is that a leader must be male.

In her book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg notes: “It’s wonderful when senior men mentor women. It’s even better when they champion and sponsor them.” After reading John Maxwell’s book, I’d be happy if men would simply include women in the conversation!

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