John Maxwell’s classic best seller is the ’21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership‘. First published in 1998 and extensively revised in 2007, it has sold over 2 million copies and is available in 40 languages.

The first law helpfully ties together the late Stephen Covey’s teaching on effectiveness (from the classic bestseller ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’) by asserting that a person’s leadership ability is the lid on a person’s overall level of effectiveness.

That means, quite simply, no matter how much you know, or think you know, your ability to gather committed people around you will ultimately determine how much you can achieve or how far you can go. In other words it is impossible for your effectiveness to exceed your leadership ability.

I remember how that was a significant paradigm shift for me in the early 2000s when I was involved in church leadership and had recently become a consultant psychiatrist. On one level it seemed that I had reached the top of the professional and spiritual ladder, but on the other hand I began slowly to realise that head knowledge and positional leadership were of themselves not enough to rally others around a cause or a project. It was as if I had reached the top of one ladder to find myself at the bottom of another one! There were other completely different skills that I needed to learn and I was back to being a novice again.

An important clue that you are hitting your leadership lid is that you hit what Dan Sullivan calls the ceiling of complexity. When we hit that ceiling we get incredibly busy, but reach the limit of how far we can go. We cannot move onto another level.

When we get to that place it is as if we run out of ideas of how to develop our future. We carry on doing what we have always done and so get what we have always got. There is simply not enough time or energy to move further.

Common lids in peoples lives include education, people skills, communication, administration, and even personal fears and self-doubt. They may appear small and insignificant, but they can have a huge impact – rather like a small block of wood can keep a huge locomotive train from moving. Or a sports car is useless unless you have the key to turn the engine.

In many government organisations what is called the Peter Principle is often at work – where technically excellent professionals get promoted to their level of incompetence. They reach a point where they need a different skill set but cannot move forward as they need to grow and develop in other ways. But they carry on doing what they have always done, or they micromanage, or they disengage and the organisation suffers.

So how do we go about raising our leadership lid?

The first step has to be with a mindset and a commitment to grow. Recognising and acknowledging that I don’t know and need to learn is the first step to growth – going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence! What is it that is holding me down?

The second step is then to build self-awareness (see posts on awareness at part 1 and part 2) and honest self-evaluation as to where are my strengths and weaknesses? What is it that I do best and where is it that I need help? Who are the people around me and are they helping or hindering my growth? I am told that apparently if you collect crabs in a container, there is no need to put a lid on as the crabs will themselves stop any of their peers climbing out of the container! Are your peers helping or hindering your growth?

The third step has to do with honestly asking yourself what is the best use of my time? And then beginning to follow through with those actions that bring the greatest return.

So over to you.
What does this law of the lid say to you?
What areas do you recognise as lids in your life?