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In the last issue of Leadership Wired, I presented one of the mistakes that I made in my early years as a leader. That first mistake was that I thought leaders distinguished themselves by rising above their people, only to find out that leaders distinguish themselves by rising with their people.

This next mistake is related to the first: I thought as a leader that the people should be focused on my agenda; and the lesson I learned was, as a leader, that I should be focused on their agenda.

Leaders should be servants and stewards of the people. A perfect example is General George Custer. We all know about Custer and his last stand on June 26, 1876. There are three mistakes that General Custer made that day when he led his people into the slaughter:

Number One
He put his agenda above the soldiers. History proves that he put his agenda above the soldiers', because Custer had tremendous ambitions—he wanted to go to the White House—and he saw this campaign as a way to get there. It was a selfish agenda, and it cost him his life, as well as the lives of many of his men.

Number Two
He underestimated the strength of the enemy. His last recorded words as the soldiers began to break rank and go into battle were, "Hang on, boys. There'll be enough Indians for everyone."

He left behind two Gatlin guns, his most effective weapons, because he didn't think that they would need them. You should never let pride get you in that kind of trouble—to be caught off guard simply because you expected to win and became complacent.

Number Three
He didn't prepare his soldiers for battle. There's a moment in the film "We Were Soldiers," starring Mel Gibson, when the main character looks at his right-hand man and says, "I feel like General Custer." He was distraught because he was watching so many of his men being killed, but there was a vast difference between him and General Custer.

This real-life colonel looked at his men and said, "I'll be the first on the field of battle, I'll be the last off of the field of battle; and when I go, everybody, dead or alive of our group, will be with me." That's a perfect example of somebody who puts someone else's agenda above their own, unlike Custer, who was more interested in glory than the safety of his men.

There are five things that happen when leaders put their agendas above the people:
  • They become self-serving instead of a servant. Leaders should be servants and stewards of their people, plain and simple.
  • They manipulate people instead of motivating people. I manipulate you when I move you for my advantage; I motivate you when I move you for mutual advantage. Motivation as a leader is always right; manipulation as a leader is always wrong.
  • They become self-absorbed instead of focusing on others. Vanity takes the place of humility in this case.
  • They are image-conscious instead of improvement-conscious. This is the difference between the art of seeming and the art of doing.
  • They place their interest above the people's interest. If you do this for too long, people will find a new leader.
Now let me just stop here for a moment and say that my background is in leading people by pastoring. When I first started out, I looked at the people in my church and said to myself, "I wonder how they can help me. I've got this vision, I've got this goal; here's what I want to do—I want to build this church."

It was a huge day in my life when I went the opposite way, asking the question, "How can I help them? How can I add value to them?" When I did that, I began to have some huge breakthroughs.

In my beginning days, I also wanted to sit down and say, "Listen to me, listen to me, listen to me," and I realized that if I really wanted to lead people, I needed to shut up and listen to them. I needed to walk slowly through the crowd, and keep my ears to the ground.

This article is used by permission from Leadership Wired, Dr. John C. Maxwell's premiere leadership newsletter, available for free subscriptin at

Author Biography

John C. Maxwell
Web site: Injoy Group
John Maxwell grew up in the 1950s in the small Midwestern city of Circleville, Ohio. John's earliest childhood memory is of knowing that he would someday be a pastor. He professed faith in Christ at the age of three, and reaffirmed that commitment when he was 13. At age 17, John began preparing for the ministry. He attended Circleville Bible College, earning his bachelor's degree in 1969. In June of that same year, he married his sweetheart, Margaret, and moved to tiny Hillham, Indiana, where he began his first pastorate.

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