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The Law of E. F. Hutton

February 15, 2011

(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 provides some delicious food for thought for us in the conducting business.

Law Number Five (or, Chapter Five as titled in Maxwell’s book) is called “The Law of E. F. Hutton.”  The byline for this chapter reads, “When the Real Leader Speaks, People Listen.”

Before we enter into a discussion about this fascinating chapter, you should probably acquaint yourself with E. F. Hutton. I remember these commercials from my childhood, but I am betting not everyone out there does!  View a classic commercial here.

The famous tag-line from E. F. Hutton’s commercials was, “When E. F. Hutton talks, people listen.” I found Maxwell’s take on this concept not only fascinating, but I can think back to times I have served on various boards of directors where I have seen some of the concepts he uses in this chapter.

The opening sentence of this chapter reads, “Young, inexperienced leaders often walk confidently into a room full of people only to discover that they have totally misjudged the leadership dynamics of the situation.” Maxwell writes about how, at his first job leading a church in rural Indiana, he walked into his first meeting there and saw that he was, by far, the youngest person there. As a matter of fact, many of the people there had attended that church longer than he had been alive!  I can relate. One of my first jobs, at age 26, as associate conductor for an orchestra in Colorado, had very similar parallels. I often left board meetings and orchestra rehearsals wondering to myself, “How am I supposed to lead these people? Many of them have children my age!”

Maxwell’s supporting anecdote is didactic as well as entertaining. He writes that he attended his first church board meeting as pastor with no agenda, no preconceptions, and no clue.  He figured that since he was the titular leader that everyone would follow him.  At this meeting he asked if anyone had anything they’d like to discuss (this is how he opened the meeting, he had no plan to lead the meeting otherwise). After a brief pause a fellow named Claude spoke up with an need for tuning the church’s piano. After another brief pause, Claude mentioned a pane of glass that needed replacing at the back of the church. Another pause and then Claude jumped in with a few more items of need. The rest of the board wholeheartedly supported Claude’s agenda items and voted to pass them.  Maxwell then asked, “anything else?” of the group. Claude said, “That’s all I’ve got. Pastor why don’t you close us in prayer.”

Maxwell had the title, but Claude had the position of leadership in the group.  Claude was “E. F. Hutton” in that situation. When he spoke, the group listened.

Margaret Thatcher once said, “Being in power is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, then you aren’t.” Maxwell was faced with a few possible solutions to his situation. He could have gone around and told people that HE was the leader and they should follow him. Or, he could have gotten rid of his rivals, such as Claude (I have personally known a few conductors that this is their first course of action). Or, he could find a way to avail himself of Claude’s authority and the respect he held.  Maxwell opted for this final option. (What a refreshing thought! Maxwell wasn’t threatened and insecure because of Claude, he viewed Claude as an asset!) Prior to his next board meeting at the church, Maxwell contacted Claude with a list of items he thought needed attention. Claude was more than happy to help, and even gathered support for Maxwell’s ideas.

Try this the next time you go to a meeting of any sort. Who is it that the group listens to? Who is it that the group supports? Who has the credibility within the group? Maxwell tells us to look for one of these two types of leaders:


  • Speak first
  • Need the influence of the real leader to get things done
  • Influence only the other positional leaders


  • Speak later
  • Need only their influence to get things done
  • Influence everyone in the room

There is a notable difference in the person who is leading the meeting versus the person who is leading the people. And, truth be told, most of us conductors come into a new organization with the title of leader before we earn the respect of being a true leader. For most groups, there is almost always an adjustment period. Sometimes this lasts for only a few days or weeks, and other times it can take a few years. (Although, most organizations won’t want to wait a few years for you, as a leader, to earn their trust.)

Maxwell continues with seven points entitled “People Become Real Leaders Because Of…”

  1. Character – Who they are (The inner person counts; your depth of character)
  2. Relationships – Who they know (Leaders must have followers. You must have relationships with people to lead them.)
  3. Knowledge – What they know (Deep knowledge of subject matter. Knowledge alone doesn’t make one a leader, but it is essential for leadership to grow.)
  4. Intuition – What they feel (The Law of Intuition is an upcoming post.)
  5. Experience – Where they’ve been (Greater experience encourages people to give you a chance)
  6. Past Success – What they’ve done (A good track record counts. Be conscious of your body of work – make every experience count.)
  7. Ability – What they can do (You must be able to deliver!)

One of Maxwell’s closing statements is, “People listen not necessarily because of the truth being communicated in the message, but because of their respect for the speaker.”  This important concept is reflected in your life on a daily basis. How many times do you hear someone say something you don’t agree with, but because you respect them as a person, you hear them out? The inverse is true, if someone is consistently a poor leader, their best ideas suffer due to their poor track record.

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