John Maxwell originated the phrase, “Everything rises and falls on leadership” in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Often when I go to ministry conferences and I hear leaders speak, this becomes their favorite quote. It appears as a sort of speech pause for them if they forget anything to say. I do not blame them because it is a powerful quote. However, I contend that those who use it should consider the rest of leadership because they often misapply the quote. Allow me to explain.

The fact is there are some people who are stubborn and refuse to follow. This should be to no fault of the leader and too many times leaders bear unjust punishment because no one was willing to follow. They have great leadership abilities, but either the situation is a mismatch or because of stubborn followers the leaders are unfairly blamed. Therefore, by saying that, “EVERYTHING rises and falls on leadership” fails to mention the other half of the leadership equation, which is followership.

In his book, Leading, Teaching, and Making Disciples, Michael Mitchell writes, “There is no leadership without someone following.” His intention is not to callout poor leadership, but to reform negative followers. This is why he further says, “Followership is a commitment to change, a willingness to be transformed into the image, style, and behavior of the leader…a leader must learn to be a follower.” This is Mitchell’s view, but it was also the view of Christ.

In Mark 1:17 Jesus calls Peter and Andrew with the following phrase, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Christ’s first words to His first disciples were to “follow.” He implied that there was a responsibility on them that if they did follow Christ He would transform them. They would no longer be fishermen, but “become fishers of men.” Christ as the leader made the call to them for leadership, but they had to submit and follow. It was a two-part equation that resulted in great success because Peter helped found the early Christian church.

So, the next time you reflect on the phrase, “Everything rises and falls on leadership,” remember that it does not. It does mean that leaders do share the bulk of the burden in leadership. However, it also means that you as an individual have a duty to follow your leaders because their success and yours depends on it. Should you find yourself unable to follow a particular leader than for the productivity of the organization and yourself, you should consider leaving. You could be the catalyst for change, which would be a benefit to you, the organization, and even the leader. No matter what you decide let me encourage you to do so prayerfully.

In the meantime, remember, “Most things rise and fall on leadership, not everything. The rest is dependent on how you follow.”

9 Responses

  1. It’s an interesting thought, but I think misses the point. Yes, Jesus called Peter and Andrew with that simple statement, but without the ability to buy into Jesus as a leader it never would have happened. Yes, they had to make the decision, as do all who follow someone, but that decision is based on what the leader provides that inspires and motivates them. No one follows just because. What resulted in the case of the disciples is that Jesus didn’t just call followers, he called leaders that he developed. Once again establishing himself as the ultimate leader on which everything rises and falls.

    People buy into a leader before they buy into a cause or vision. So again, the leader must establish the circumstances in which a follower can choose to follow. It’s true that some never make that decision, but I think you can attribute that not having the right leader provide the right circumstances. It is not really an one or the other as much as it is symbiotic. If you are leader and there’s no one behind you, you are just taking a walk. If you are a follower and there is no one leading, where are you going?

    I think what your point does emphasize for leaders is the importance of the followers. Our focus must be on them; on inspiring them and motivating them, communicating the vision and their value in bringing that vision to reality. If we forget our followers, we just end up taking a walk.

    1. Dear Paul,

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Yes, I do generally agree with Maxwell’s statement that if no-one is following then you are not leading. I also understand that you feel I “missed the point.” Personally, I understand his point very well, but I think his point is too absolute. To say that EVERYTHING without exception and in every case rises and falls on leadership is a little too dogmatic. Except for the ways of the Lord there is always an exception to the rule and I think there are some situations where people will not follow anyone. This IS NOT a reflection on the leader, but a reflection on the followers. Granted these are extreme cases, but they do exist. If you disagree with me then I have a church you can come pastor that has had HUGE disagreements with its past 5 Senior Pastors. There comes a point where its not the leadership because each of these pastors (myself included) had different styles, which only leaves room for the followers. So while I agree with Maxwell in principle theory, there are times his statement does not reflect reality. Again, this is an extreme case, but one that must be mentioned so as to not destroy the confidence of quality leaders who simply face poor situations.

      1. Mike, sorry for the delay in responding.
        On your point of some people just won’t follow, I think there again is an issue of leadership. An effective leader first connects with the people and gets them to buy into them as a leader, then he gets them to buy into the vision.
        If they buy into the leader but not the vision, it may not be the right vision.
        If they buy into the vision but not the leader, it may not be the right leader.
        If they don’t buy into either, again it may not be the right leader.

        But its also possible that the leadership problem is within the individuals. A history of failure, unrealized expectations, deeply set traditions, all kinds of things can close people to any kind of growth. That’s their leadership problem; leading themselves.

        Circumstances may one day change that. They say we change either because we have learned enough we want to or we hurt enough we have to. Some never reach that point.

        I know of a church in my area years ago that never reached that point. The population of the church was growing old. They had no interest in reviving or growing the church or attracting younger families or making any changes. They simply wanted a pastor to come in and do sermons and funerals until they all died.

        The issue was inside them, but it was still a leadership issue because they refused to lead themselves. If you won’t lead yourself, you can effectively follow anyone else or lead anyone else.

        1. Dear Paul,

          No worries on the delay. I’m glad you did respond anyway as it is always welcomed. I think when you wrote, “But its also possible that the leadership problem is within the individuals. A history of failure, unrealized expectations, deeply set traditions, all kinds of things can close people to any kind of growth. That’s their leadership problem; leading themselves” we can find a lot of agreement here.

          Recently, I have had some discussions with others who have gently pushed back on this blog post. I’m glad, like you, they have because it had me thinking and I will say in a sense, “everything DOES rise and fall on leadership.” However, the one’s leading may not be the ones who SHOULD be leading. This is similar to what I quoted from you earlier. For example, if a church has some deacons or any other person who is the de facto leader in the church, not because of their position, but influence, then they are the leader. This is true even if the pastor is suppose to be the leader by creating a vision, etc. The problem arises in that these de facto leaders are not really effective leaders, but are leaders due to emotional attachments from the organizations followers. So again, I say followers have a role because if they will not follow the proper leader then one cannot lead. In contrast, I will agree with you in saying that “everything does rise and fall on leadership.” It just may mean that someone is leading who is NOT SUPPOSE to be leading. Fact is, there is always leadership somewhere, even if it’s someone acting as an organizations leader when they are not suppose to be doing so. As you said, “leadership problem; leading themselves” than following who they should be following. So I think we can agree there that Maxwell has it right that “everything does rise and fall on leadership” one way or another.

          Lastly, though Maxwell has it right, I still contend that people at conferences misapply the phrase. In my experience, too often convention personalities, some who I know personally, use this quote with the intention of making it an absolute statement. They do so in a way that calls out organizational leaders without consideration to the challenges of a de facto leader. This universal application is a bit harmful because I know some guys who really question their ability when they are really capable leaders. Had they been in a different position they would be all-star leaders, yet they were dealt a hand of cards in their position that no one could win with. So the condemnation that comes from the quote being universally misapplied is still a concern of mine. But, this is not an issue with Maxwell as much as it is those who misapply the quote.

          All this said, I have been in contact with a Maxwell Team Leader Program Coordinator about joining the Maxwell Team myself to become a coach, speaker, and trainer. I’d love to talk to you over the phone should time permit before I make the commitment. Feel free to e-mail me at [email protected]

    2. Simkins: I totally agree with the writer of this article. I’ve said the same thing ever since I read Maxwells 21 Laws of Leadership. The statement that everything rises and falls on leadership turned me off from reading anything else he “authored.” There are rebellious people everywhere and they are not going to follow any leader. Adam and Eve had The Best leader, God Himself, and they still didn’t follow the vision He was leading them to. They were totally sold out to their leader (God) yet they decided NOT to follow Him. Most things do rise and fall on leaders but not everything. Some argue that there are those who will not lead themselves-thus a leadership issue. That’s rediculous. A person can’t lead him/herself. We can be self-motivated and and proactive but you can’t lead yourself unless, of course, you define self-motivation and proactivity “self-leadership.” Some don’t want to grow or be led no matter who tries to lead them. This is a true statement: all leaders follow some other leader. I have served under some awesome pastors that had all of the qualities of a great leader but people were just not willing to follow. So please, all of you Maxwellites, don’t throw all of the responsibility on us who are called and equipped to lead.

  2. “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”

    At first I did no want to believe this because of my ego – I did not want to admit that all the responsibility is on me, the leader.

    I also did not want to admit my failures in the past of leading people.

    But ever since I accepted this principle my leadership ability increased because I am responsible for my own growth and the growth of my team.

    1. Thanks for reading and thanks for getting the gist of what the post is saying. Many have been brainwashed to forget that leadership is a two-way dance that as you said, “depends on both sides.” There are both leaders and followers who have to work together or the dance will fail. As I close the post with, “Most things rise and fall on leadership, not everything. The rest is dependent on how you follow.”

  3. I believe Michael’s experience is worth considering, that

    “…since I accepted this principle my leadership ability increased because I am responsible for my own growth and the growth of my team.”

    I strongly feel this is the context on which Maxwell had drawn out the phrase. It’s about not putting the blame on anyone but yourself when things do go wrong. Not because you really are the problem but because you’re mature enough to accept accountability.

    And yes, it boils down to the fact that responsibility is different from accountability. The leader might not be the one RESPONSIBLE for the rise and fall but he will always be ACCOUNTABLE. It’s a command- responsibility thing which is another lengthy subject.

    Finally, while writing this, I recall the verse saying:

    James 3:1 KJV
    My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.

    Although “masters” here literally mean “teachers”, one will notice that Apostle James related this to the topic of taming animals and tongue. Thus, may I say that even if leadership is not all about teaching, it has greatly to do with disciplining, managing and directing the course of an organization as the “governor to the ship” (James 3:4).

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