Born in Garden City, Michigan, in 1947, John Maxwell grew up in a family of leaders. His father, Melvin, left his job at Ford Motor Company to go into the pastorate, and the family moved to Ohio in pursuit of that calling while John was still a baby.
"He was a very successful pastor," John says. "He excelled at his administrative duties and eventually became an overseer of about 200 churches. He later served as president of Ohio Christian University, all without attaining a college degree for himself."
For John, family was a growth environment. His loving mother provided him emotional security, while his energetic father provided drive and encouragement. The Maxwell children were required to read 30 minutes daily, and Melvin steered them toward books on self-improvement. Books like How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale were must-reads for John and his siblings.
"I hit the parent lottery," he says. "I was very blessed to be raised by a mother and father who taught their children the values of hard work, honesty, and responsibility. Some of my fondest memories are of my father and me taking two Carnegie courses together and the time when I was in junior high and my father took me to meet E. Stanley Jones, the great missionary to India. I was greatly influenced by the belief in positivity."
The influence of family extended beyond his parents. His older brother, Larry, was entrepreneurial, often bringing John along as an assistant in his dealings. "It was like Larry was the business guy, and I was his gopher," John says. "In the spring, we would order packets of flower seeds and sell them door to door. When Larry went to Ohio State, he bought apartments around campus, and I'd help him with painting and getting them ready to rent."
John himself was extroverted, socially adept, and athletic. He placed great emphasis on sports and relationships instead of academics. Though a good student, he spent more time on ballfields and with friends than with schoolwork and textbooks. That changed when he was a junior in high school.
At age 17, John felt called into ministry. He made Ohio Christian University, where Melvin was president, his target for college, and he threw himself into his studies. Fueled by his passion, his grades soared, and he became a fixture on the Dean's List. He took jobs at a hardware store and in a meat locker to pay his way through school. John even worked weekends as a recruiter for the college, which earned him a scholarship for his final two years of study.
In 1969, three significant events happened: John graduated college, married his longtime sweetheart, Margaret, and took a pastorate in the tiny town of Hillham, Indiana. The rural church had fewer than 30 people in average attendance and was a big challenge for such a young pastor. It was a challenge John desired, however."My father was well known in our denomination," he says, "and I wanted to find a church where he wasn't recognized. It was important to me to make it on my own."
With a starting salary of $80 per week, John dove headfirst into his new role. Supported by Margaret, who worked as a teacher to supplement their income, he led the church to grow to more than 300 people within three years. His success earned him an opportunity with a larger church, this time in Ohio. He and Margaret moved to Lancaster, where John once again began to grow his congregation.
During this time, Maxwell began to realize the denomination to which he belonged didn't value personal growth and success in the same way he did. After prayer and reflection, he made the decision to change denominations, choosing, once again, to make his own way. He became the senior pastor at Skyline Church in San Diego, California, and grew the congregation from 1,000 to 3,000. Skyline was soon recognized as one of the fastest-growing churches in America.
"I think," John says, "the reason my churches did so well is because I understood leadership. I grew up in a leader's home. My father knew how to build something and lead it well, and through my relationship with him, I became a strong leader myself."
John kept his churches growing by focusing on his own growth. While pastoring, he earned his master of divinity from Azusa Pacific University and his doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary. He also sought out the guidance of mentors, one of whom profoundly affected his career.
Dr. Les Parrot, best-selling author, psychologist, and ordained minister, agreed to mentor John early on. During one of their mentoring sessions, John asked why Parrot wrote books. Parrot explained that writing books helped him reach and influence more people than he would ever reach in person."As soon as I heard that," John says, "I felt compelled to write."
John's first book, Think on These Things, was published in 1979. The premise of the book, "how you think determines who you are," would serve as an overarching theme for all of John Maxwell's work. The book's strong sales encouraged him to write even more, and soon writing became a daily discipline for himself.
To help him focus his writing, John developed a thematic framework for his books that he called REAL, Relationships, Equipping, Attitude, and Leadership. The four themes emerged through his experience as a pastor and his studies in seminary as ones that were essential for his own leadership.
John has now produced more than 100 books that have sold more than 31 million copies worldwide. His most famous titles include The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership; The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth; The 5 Levels of Leadership; and Developing the Leader within You 2.0. His most recent book, Leadershift: 11 Essential Changes Every Leader Must Embrace, was released by HarperCollins Leadership in February 2019.
In 1995, John stepped down as the pastor of Skyline. He devoted his full attention to his speaking opportunities and to the creation of resources for other leaders. He founded a company, INJOY Ministries, to help distribute those resources to pastors and lay leaders nationwide. As INJOY grew, the demand for his materials did as well. Soon the business community began asking for resources tailored to them. INJOY was renamed The John Maxwell Company and expanded its inventory to include material for business leaders as well.
Since then, John's enterprise has continued to expand. He launched a nonprofit with his brother Larry called EQUIP with a focus on training leaders in developing countries. Since 1996, EQUIP trained more than 6 million leaders in every nation recognized by the UN, the only organization in the world to do so. In 2015, EQUIP expanded its mandate from training to transformation and launched a second nonprofit, The John Maxwell Leadership Foundation, to assist with the goal of bringing transformational leadership values through roundtables all over the world.
In 2011, John partnered with Paul Martinelli and Scott Fay to launch The John Maxwell Team, an international coaching certification company. Over the past eight years, John and his coaching faculty have trained and certified more than 21,000 people in 150 countries to serve as individual and corporate coaches of John Maxwell's content. "In my mind, all of my companies are part of a transformational leadership movement that not only teaches strong values, but how to live by them," John says. "That's what makes me so passionate about what we are doing, we're making a positive difference in the lives of millions of people."
Despite the many companies, John retains a laser focus on his life's purpose to add value to people who multiply value to others. He cites a near-fatal heart attack in 1998 as a significant factor in maintaining that intensity. "I was lucky to survive," he says. "As a result, I felt the only reason I lived was that my destiny hadn't been fulfilled. I had more value to add to the lives of others."
Since that day, John has received dozens of recognitions for his work. He was named as a Hall of Fame Top 25 Author for Amazon.com's tenth anniversary. Inc. magazine named him the top leadership and management expert in the world in 2014, the same year that The Luminary Leadership Network awarded him the Mother Teresa Prize for Global Peace and Leadership.
His success isn't his message, however. John frequently addresses the challenges that come with leadership, with a desire to encourage those facing hardship or adversity. It's a message he hopes to impart, not only through books like Failing Forward and Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn, but through his message to the Horatio Alger Scholars."This is the message that I hope to impart: don't count your losses; count your lessons. It's a way of looking at loss in a positive light. I know I've learned more from my failures than my successes."
Receiving the Horatio Alger Award is a deep honor for John, one that connects his childhood hopes with his lived-out success."To be given the Horatio Alger Award brings me great joy," he says. "I live by and teach the values of the Association, and I'm looking forward to the relationships I develop with the Members and Scholars. I admire so much the young people who are working hard to attain a college education, it's the gateway for a brighter future.""