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The Law of Process

October 28, 2010

(Note: This is part of a series based on John C. Maxwell’s book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.)

John C. Maxwell has written a number of books about leading and leadership.  They all have their merits and some of the books will resonate more with some readers than others, but it is his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership that really provides some delicious food for thought for us in the conducting business.

Law Number Three (or, Chapter Three as titled in Maxwell’s book) is called “The Law of Process.”  The byline for this chapter reads, “Leadership Develops Daily, Not in a Day.”

Regardless of your political leanings, it is great when you get to hear a sitting president speak live and in person. I was in the Oklahoma Youth Orchestra when we were asked to play at a political fundraiser for President Ronald Reagan in 1984, although it might have been at the mid-term elections in 1986. That is too long ago for me to remember now! And, at the 2008 Arizona State University graduation ceremonies, I was fortunate to hear President Barack Obama speak.

One of his central messages to the new graduates of ASU was, “You never stop adding to your body of work.”  He then cited numerous creative and political figures that had endured years of failure and obscurity only to achieve enormous success through relentless persistence. I felt inspired at the thought and it has often encouraged me throughout my career since and even on a rehearsal-to-rehearsal basis.  It is a fantastic concept that empowers us – today is another chance to add to your body of work.

In his book, John Maxwell does the same thing as President Obama did: he cites numerous real-life examples and stories of people who have not relented in their pursuit of growth and leadership success.  His first story of this chapter addresses a woman who turned a small savings stash into an enormous fortune by investing wisely and staying the course.  While this sort of story is in every other personal finance book in print, Maxwell uses the story to tie in to the message of this chapter, that “leadership is like investing – it compounds.”

The importance in investing in your leadership for the long haul, like investing your money over time and building the investment, is what Maxwell cites as an essential attitude for your personal growth.  Many persons who are successful at what they do will tell you it is the daily effort to get better that is the secret to their success (think Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Joe DiMaggio, and many others) and that the adage, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” applies in every situation.

Are leaders born?  That’s an important question.  Maxwell says, jokingly, “Yes… I’ve yet to meet one that came into the world any other way!” But, he does acknowledge that some are born with more natural talent toward leadership, yet everyone can learn basic leadership skills and improve on the skills they already possess.

Here are “facets” of leadership, according to Maxwell:

  1. Respect
  2. Experience
  3. Emotional Strength
  4. People Skills
  5. Discipline
  6. Vision
  7. Momentum
  8. Timing

He then says “and the list goes on.” Maxwell also acknowledges that effective leaders have many “intangibles.” (What’s a more accurate display of intangibles at work than the conducting profession?)

Perhaps more salient to leadership development, Maxwell offers “The Four Phases of Leadership Growth:”

  1. I don’t Know what I don’t Know
  2. I Know what I don’t Know
  3. I Grow and Know and it Starts to Show
  4. I Simply go because of What I Know

He proposes this learning curve as a growth from being Unaware to Aware as a leader.  This curve takes a potential leader from a position of ignorance to a degree of comfort and naturalness with leadership.  Maxwell proposes, however, that this is a process which takes years, not days or weeks.

Finally, one of the most significant points of this chapter is that “Leaders are Learners.”  Many conductors seek to be finished products – but not only is that not possible, it shouldn’t even be a goal.  If we, as conductors, seek to instill a spirit of discovery and freshness in our ensembles we must display it ourselves. Your ensembles should see you ask someone who is seeking to grow. If they don’t perceive you that way, why should they want to grow?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben Therrell permalink
    October 29, 2010 10:11 am

    This curve of growth is very similar to the way musicians (especially people in the private teaching world) view the process of practice:

    1. “There’s a problem. I don’t know what it is.”

    2. “I know what the problem is, now how do I fix it/make it easier/develop strength in this area?”

    3. “I’m utilizing a process to streamline the issue and effectively eliminate the problem.”

    4. “The problem has become a non-issue to the point where I don’t have to be aware there was a problem in the first place.”

    Another, less wordy and more general way that I look at this is:

    1. Problem/Unaware of Cause/ Unaware of Solution

    2. Problem/ Aware of Cause/ Working Toward Solution

    3. No Problem/ Aware of Cause/ Have Streamlined Solution

    4. No Problem/ Unaware of Inhibition/ Efficiently Acting Unconsciously

    A term I’ve heard for this process is “Effortless Mastery.” I’m not sure if it’s an accurate title but it sounds elegant. I’m sure it’s very similar for Conducting, both physically and in leading a rehearsal. You’re always problem-solving. Maybe that’s what people mean when they say music and math are similar!

    Great post! I really need to look into this book.

  2. Brian permalink*
    October 29, 2010 10:28 am


    Fantastic comments and observations. I agree that the idea of “effortless mastery” might be misleading… if you believe the 10,000 hour rule, which is: it takes about 10,000 hours of practice at something for it to become natural, then “effortless” doesn’t seem like part of the equation!

    I used to conduct an orchestra that when through this process, which took years:

    1. I would identify a musical issue, the ensemble would collectively say “really?”
    2. I would identify a musical issue, the ensemble would say “I think there might be an issue.”
    3. I would identify a musical issue, the ensemble would say “We should do something about that.”
    4. I would identify a musical issue, the ensemble would say “Let’s fix it!”

    Place three years per number above and you can see that it took 12 years to facilitate progress with that particular ensemble. I never gave up, when it would have been very easy to. But, at the same time, this process was anything but “effortless!”

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