Follow the Leader

By Dan Reiland

Dan Reiland shares 8 leadership lessons he learned from John Maxwell.

Patti and I met John and Margaret Maxwell in 1982. We were attending Asbury Theological Seminary and soon to graduate. I was being considered for an internship at Skyline Wesleyan Church (San Diego, Calif.) where John was pastor, so he wanted to interview me. We drove from Wilmore, Ky. to Marion, Ind., to attend one of John's earliest leadership conferences. It was five days long and went from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (or later) each day and he never ran out of stuff to teach! I was amazed.

I’ll always remember a special moment during the last day of the conference. John came up to Patti and me, gave us big hugs, encouraged us, and said: “Welcome to the team!” Then he slipped a twenty- dollar bill into my shirt pocket and said, “Take Patti out to dinner tonight!” There it was: my first leadership lesson. Leaders are generous. They are generous with their kindness, encouragement, and even money! And John has been coaching me as a leader ever since.

It is not possible to cover all I’ve learned from John through the years, but let me share eight of the most important and impacting principles.

John C. Maxwell is an ordained minister with The Wesleyan Church. He has served as general secretary of extension and evangelism, as senior pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church, and currently is a best-selling author and international authority on leadership.


If you are casting vision, taking risks, and making progress, you will make mistakes. One of my favorite Maxwell leadership talks was titled “Flops, Failures and Fumbles.” It was the most freeing message I’d ever heard. I thought leaders were in charge, knew all the answers, were always certain, and rarely made mistakes. After thirty minutes of John telling us about all the dumbest things he’d ever done, I had a different perspective. Not one of carelessness, but progress over perfection. Great leaders make mistakes, but they learn and grow from their mistakes!! Every one of John’s mistakes contributed to helping him become the extraordinary leader he is today.

I’ve carried that principle to our staff at 12Stone® Church where we serve now. They’ve heard me say a hundred times: “Make mistakes, make lots of mistakes, even big mistakes, but never make the same mistake twice.”


Anyone can spot a problem, but leaders solve problems. In many ways, problem solving is at the core of a leader’s responsibilities. Good leaders see a problem and solve it. Great leaders often anticipate the problem before it happens and proactively get in front of it. Great leaders don’t make excuses. They take responsibility for the big picture results, which always requires owning and solving problems.

In my thirty plus years of ministry leadership I’ve always served in a “number two” role. It is an honor and privilege to serve leaders who take ownership and responsibility rather than blame others.

I’ve learned that solving problems is fun. Don’t let problems exhaust you; instead they need to energize you! The church is full of problems and that’s okay. If the church didn’t have problems, it wouldn’t need you.


Change is difficult for many church leaders, but not because they don’t want to change. Change is difficult for three reasons. First, because ministry is relationally based and change ruffles people’s feathers. Second, because change creates more work and the pastor is already exhausted. Third, because change creates fear in the heart of a leader who wonders if the change will bring failure or success. That’s a lot to overcome. No wonder so many leaders are slow to change.

But when it comes to change, we don’t have a choice. We change or the church gets stuck and eventually dies. If you do the same things with the same people over and over again, your church will not grow.

The goal is not to change things to make them different; it’s to make them better. Whether it’s your ministries, your staff, or your structure, change to improve or you are wasting time and energy.


My mom died suddenly and unexpectedly of a stroke in 1997. John was across the country teaching leadership at a conference. As soon as he heard, he wrapped up what he was doing, flew back to San Diego, and drove to my home. He and Margaret offered words of comfort, but mostly just sat with us for the afternoon. He offered to preach at my mom’s memorial service and with tears of gratitude I said yes.

You can’t fake caring about people. You either do or you don’t, and people know it. John has always cared about my family and me, and, yes, that makes him a better leader. The same is true for you and me. When you care about others, you demonstrate Christ’s servant heart and people are drawn to that. When you give your heart, people can connect with you. When they connect with you, they trust you, and when they trust you they will follow you.


Jesus set the example as he poured into his twelve disciples. Jesus modeled three things: care about them, spend time with them, and train them. This pattern has been a hallmark lesson of my life from John. He poured into me for many years. I would not be the leader I am today without his investment. I’m grateful, and the best way for me to show my gratitude is to invest in others as I have now for more than 25 years.

Let me share my simple philosophy that is the foundation of all the leadership development we do at 12Stone® Church.

1. Get a group.

2. Pick a book.

3. Ask two questions.

That’s it! Get a group of 5-7 leaders (maybe more) or potential leaders and meet once a month for two hours. Go through a leadership book together. When you meet ask: What are you learning? How are you applying it? You can get more sophisticated than that, but I would urge you to keep it simple and consistent! If you don’t keep it simple, you’ll quit. And if you don’t remain consistent, you won’t see the results you desire.


You can’t give to others what you don’t have, and you’ve got to stay fresh to keep giving. From your walk with God, to studying other great leaders, keep learning!

You learn from the books you read, the places you go, and people with whom you spend time. These things in large part determine your experiences in life. They shape how you think and how you behave.

Here are some practical questions to help you keep growing. What was the last book you read that caused you to rethink something or change how you do something? What was the change? What was the last conversation you had that challenged or inspired you to take action? How did it stretch you? Who was it with and what action did you take? What new place have you visited, from a local restaurant to a foreign country, in which the experience caused you to make a change? What change did you make?


No leader is perfect, but there is a simple test of good character: Do you trust him or her? I have always trusted John Maxwell, and he has always proven trustworthy. I know I can count on him. That is a powerful component of a leader’s life.

Great character is also established by behaviors that very few people see such as acts of kindness, generosity, personal purity, etc. In the early days when John began teaching leadership lessons to pastors, he didn’t want the church to pay for any expenses. So he bought the cassette recording machines, duplicators, and cassette tapes out of his own money. (If you are under thirty years of age, you can “Google” cassette tape.) He never made it a big deal; in fact, few people knew. The church would have paid, but he didn’t feel that was right. That is character.

You can’t fake good character, not for long anyway. The Holy Spirit whispers the right thing to do, and then it’s up to you.


“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). Jesus modeled prayer, great leaders do so as well.

There was a special place above the sanctuary at Skyline Wesleyan Church (before the relocation) that Pastor Orval Butcher, founder of Skyline, named “The Upper Room.” It was truly a holy place. John would spend hours up there, studying the Word and praying. I would often go up there just to soak up the atmosphere; you could sense something different about that place. I wanted to be a man of prayer like Dr. Butcher and Pastor Maxwell, as we called them.

The older I get, the more I pray. It would have been better had I learned the power of prayer as a younger leader. I prayed, of course, but not enough. Now it’s my great joy. It’s my favorite thing to talk about with young leaders. Without the power of prayer, mere knowledge about leadership amounts to little. With prayer, your leadership has amazing kingdom potential.

Whether these leadership principles I’ve learned from John are new to you or review, I pray the Holy Spirit will spark the right one today to help you become a better leader!

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