A Leader Is One Who Knows the Way Goes the Way and Shows the Way

This is a famous quote from John C. Maxwell. "A leader is one who knows the way goes the way and shows the way." This quote has become my definition for how I view leadership.

Leadership compass pointing to leadership instead of north

There I stood, having my leadership abilities ‘challenged’ once again. In front of me was someone more equipped to be in my leadership position than I was. But I had clawed my way to the top of this organization, and no one was taking my place. I was the leader, and I was willing to do whatever it took to stay there! The person standing in front of me was older than me and clearly knew more about leadership (and life) than I did. I remember feeling uneasy as this ‘opponent’ became popular among the group of 50+ volunteers. (I already didn’t like this guy!)

Who I just described to you was me in my late teens.

This was my understanding of what it meant to be a leader. I became obsessed with keeping my position. In this obsession, I missed the point entirely. I didn’t know or understand what it meant to lead people. My understanding of (or lack thereof) leadership reminds me of Clu from Tron Legacy. The idea of creating the perfect system poisoned his mind which ultimately led to his corruption.

You see, I wanted to lead the perfect team. I wanted recognition for what I had achieved. I wanted everything to be done my way. Do you see the trend/problem that I had? That’s right, I made leadership all about me – and that’s not leadership at all. Much like a team, there’s no I in the word leader. But I didn’t understand that. As years passed, I became more and more miserable and more of a tyrant than a leader.

Much like a team, there's no I in the word leader. Click to Tweet

Then, one day, I reached my breaking point.

My boss within this organization was extremely talented. Because of his talent, many people were drawn to the organization. Naturally, he attracted what he was; so more great leaders joined the team. I was quickly surrounded by people who were more equipped to lead than I could have ever imagined. I cracked when I realized that I had been ‘defeated.’ I repeatedly asked myself the question, “What do I need to do to become a great leader?” Then, I (finally) had a breakthrough. I finally found an answer to my question!

What does it mean to be a great leader?

Becoming a great leader means to influence others to accomplish an objective or goal while at the same time strengthening an organization or furthering completion of a purpose. A great leader is one who puts others above himself and aims to help them achieve their goals. The most accurate statement describing what it means to be a leader is a quote from John C. Maxwell.

A leader is one who knows the way goes the way and shows the way. – John C. Maxwell

A leader is someone who has a clear vision, (knows the way) follows that vision, (goes the way) and helps others to find their path (Shows the way). A problem that I notice in many leaders is that they often skip knowing the way and following the way and go straight to showing others the way. People will always buy into the leader before they buy into the vision. That is why most leaders fail.

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What does the quote “A leader is one who knows the way goes the way and shows the way” mean?

The meaning behind this famous John C. Maxwell quote is broken into three parts.

  1. Knowing the way means having a clear vision and purpose.
  2. Going the way means going beyond just understanding your vision and purpose, you’re actually living it out and achieving.
  3. Showing the way means you’re helping others achieve the same in their own lives.

Let’s break into each of these three parts to gain a better understanding of their meaning.

A Leader Knows the Way

You cannot take others on a journey with an unknown destination. Know where you are going, and how you are going to get there. As the leader, you must have complete clarity while at the same time not getting stuck waiting for the stars to align. There will never be a time when the path is perfect. That’s okay.

Adjustments and corrections are not a problem as long as the way remains known to those you’re leading. This happens through clear communication and gaining buy in on your calculated course correction. (Side note: All great leaders are great communicators. If you don’t communicate well, you don’t lead well.)

A Leader Goes the Way

In all of my years of leading people, teams, businesses and my own personal life, I’ve discovered that “going the way” is the most abused step in leadership. There are a lot of guru’s out there these days. They want to lead us all so badly, but they aren’t taking the steps themselves. Or another type of person that I refer to as managers are the people who ask people to do things, so they don’t have to.

Many years ago, I developed this principle in my leadership, “Never ask anyone to do something you won’t do yourself. If you’re questioning whether you’d do it, go do it first, then you’re free to ask someone else to do the same.” I live by this. If I ask you to do something – Rest assured that I’ve already done it myself.

“Never ask anyone to do something you won’t do yourself. If you’re questioning whether you’d do it, go do it first, then you’re free to ask someone else to do the same.”

A Leader Shows the Way

Imagine a group of people that live in complete darkness. There is only one path that will take you to where there is light. In this world of complete darkness, no one has a flashlight. Over the years you discovered the way out of the darkness and into the light. The moment you enter the light, you see a flashlight right in front of you. A great leader grabs the flashlight, heads back to the people and begins guiding them along the path toward the light.

You are the only one with a flashlight, so everyone is following you closely. As the leader, you call the shots. What do you do? A true leader doesn’t start running full speed ahead and telling people to keep up. Nope! A true leader stands as close as possible to the group of people, shining the light directly in front of them so they can see the steps they are taking.

The best leaders who have ever lived have put others above themselves. Instead of sprinting through the darkness of life to get to the light, they slow down to bring people with them. They help others to learn and understand what they’ve accomplished in life.

I’m very thankful for John C. Maxwell’s quote above because it’s helped me grasp this principle. (That’s right, I’m not a tyrant teenager anymore!) My entire goal in leadership is to help others succeed and to achieve more than I ever will in my life. This is my purpose and calling as a leader.

Read more DailyPS posts on the topic of leadership.

Here’s the deal, in the world we live in today, people want to redefine what it means to be a leader. (Think back to my guru comment above.) I’m regularly confronted by people demanding an explanation for why I’m so focused on helping others and not spending more time carving out my own financial success. People will ask me, “Alex, why aren’t you monetizing that?” or “Why don’t you charge that guy for that? You could make a lot of money!”

Here’s my answer: I’m someone who has learned my path, and I’m walking on it, and along the way of my journey, I’m pointing out the direction to others. Not everything is about money, fame, or status. A true leader is one who doesn’t put those things above helping others get the most out of their lives. A leader is one who knows the way goes the way and shows the way.

Question from Alex Sanfilippo, the author.

What have you learned about leadership and how has it helped you grow?

Written by Alex Sanfilippo

My mission is to live a life honorable in every way to God my father. I am passionate about building disciples and strengthening the church. My daily goal is to be a positive influence on the people around me and to make the world a better place.

79 thoughts on “A Leader Is One Who Knows the Way Goes the Way and Shows the Way

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  12. Yes, a Tron reference!!!!! Love that movie.

    Also, this post is so spot on. I have really been wrestling with the question, “what does great leadership look like” as I’m going through my bible reading. Alot of what I have found is in this post.

    “Never ask anyone to do something you won’t do yourself. If you’re questioning whether you’d do it, go do it first, then you’re free to ask someone else to do the same.” – I was told/shown this early in my corporate career and I have always carried it with me and it has served (pun!) me well.

    1. Haha I’m so glad you liked the Tron reference… That was for you man! Haha

      What’s your favorite “leadership” scripture?

      1. I’ve taken a page out of your book and have been reading a corresponding chapter in Proverbs with the current calendar day. It’s been awesome and really interesting going through it month after month and seeing all the different verses that stick out each time I read it.

        Before I started reading Proverbs in this way I had read through Jim Collin’s book, “Good to Great.” It’s the best business book I have ever read because it showcases what makes a great CEO/leader who has taken a company from Good to Great. The best part is that Jim Collins doesn’t give his personal input, but rather uses hard data along with interviews of the CEO’s and interviews from people that worked closely with them to hone in on personality traits of those CEO’s.

        It’s been amazing to read the Good to Great book and then immediately start reading through Proverbs with the knowledge gained from Jim’s book. It’s amazing because alot of what Jim found is also found in Proverbs….it’s so cool to see Proverbs validated in a 5 million copy sold book in our day and age. Going through this the way that I did has really strengthened my faith in the Lord in a brand new way.

        Now that I type this all out I think a blog post may be due!

        Anyways, down to your original question. The main verses the the Holy Spirit has really spoke to me in regards to business/leadership are as follows;

        Proverbs 21:5 – The plans of hard-working people earn a profit, but those who act too quickly will become poor

        Proverbs 21:21 – Whoever tried to live right and be loyal finds life, success, and honor

        Proverbs 21:30 – There is no wisdom, understanding, or advice, that can succeed against the Lord

        Proverbs 22:4 – Respecting the Lord and not being proud will bring about wealth, honor, and life.

        Proverbs 12:24 – Hard workers will become leaders, but those who are lazy will be slaves.

        Proverbs 14:23 – Those who work hard make a profit, but those who only talk will be poor.

        Proverbs 14: 29 – Patient people have great understating, but people with quick tempers show their foolishness

        Proverbs 15:23 – People enjoy giving good advice. Saying the right word at the right time is so pleasing.

        Proverbs 15:33 – Respect for the Lord will teach you wisdom. If you want to be honored, you must be humble.

        Proverbs 16:1 – People make plans in their minds, but only the Lord ca make them come true.

        Proverbs 16:1 – Depend on the Lord in whatever you do, and your plans will succeed.

        Proverbs 19:17 – Being kind to the poor is like lending to the Lord; he will reward you for what you have done.

  13. Great Message Alex!!

    The bible is rich and replete with lots of meat on leadership. One of my favorite, which reiterates your message, comes from the journey of Joshua as he not only led the children of Israel, but he also positioned other leaders.

    “Then Joshua rose early in the morning; and they set out from Acacia Grove and came to the Jordan, he and all the children of Israel, and lodged there before they crossed over. 2 So it was, after three days, that the officers went through the camp; 3 and they commanded the people, saying, “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests, the Levites, bearing it, then you shall set out from your place and go after it. 4 Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure. Do not come near it, that you may know the way by which you must go, FOR YOU HAVE NOT PASSED THIS WAY BEFORE….Joshua 3:1-4

    Those leading knew the way, had gone the way, and were now showing the way…..

    1. BOOM! I love that, thank you for sharing that scripture. That’s the perfect add on to this post. Love it!

    2. Also, I’ve highlighted the MESS out of Joshua chapters 1-4 in my Bible over the years haha

  14. Very succinct. Nice rhyming scheme too makes it memorable. Glad your like at DailyBiblePrayer brought me here. may God continue to lead and guide you in the way to go, and give you courage to go that way. Laura

  15. Great post Alex! Wonderful perspective about leadership beyond charisma and excitement. It takes dedication and humility to be a true leader. Hard to come by but once perfected you don’t have to chase blessings blessings will come to you.

    1. LOVE IT! “And gets out of the way” that’s so true. That can take a lot of humility. Love that point.

  16. Alex, I saw you liked my post on deeperstilldevotions.org so I thought I’d check out your blog. I don’t always do that but I’m glad I did this time. Very insightful leadership wisdom. I just subscribed and looking forward to reading more. -Sue

  17. 4 – serves those who follow by serving their needs
    5 – provides a sense of security to those he serves
    Otherwise great post! 🙂

  18. Very well done! My Master’s is in Leadership, and you summed up our introductory course in this post! The leader is the one you follow because they know where you’ve been…and are willing to get down in the trench and dig with you.

  19. I loved this article. The things you point out are so obviously crucial yet the leaders of today do not embody them. The title is very crisp and insightful.

    Also, thank you for taking the time to read my blog, The Civil Tactician and liking my post ‘When Gandhi Became Gandhi.’

    1. Thanks so much for this comment. And thanks for the writing that you provide to the world as well 🙂

  20. Nice blog….leaders have to be on the top of their work….to be a leader you have to be a guide as well.

  21. I loved this. It is so true and it is what we should all want in our Christian lives. Sadly so many are falling away as the Lord tells us would happen. Too many don’t want to stand for the truth, don’t want to defend the word, are embarrassed of the gospel. God Bless.

  22. Your Mission Statement is Great! Blessings to You and Your Ministry. And Thank You for Your Support.

  23. Your Mission Statement is Great! Blessings to you and your Ministry and Thank You for Your Support..

  24. Good thoughts here and thanks for sharing, Alex. Will have a look around your site when I get a “mo”

    PS Best wishes from the First City to see the light

  25. This post has become one of our cornerstone posts on the blog! Check out the leadership category above for more.

  26. Alex, You are so right in your thoughts that many want to be leaders and yet, are not willing to walk the walk. We get distracted, we have a million excuses. Matthew 7:13-14

    The Narrow and Wide Gates

    13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

  27. Excellent piece bro – This dovetails nicely with a book I just finished called “Leaders Made Here” by Chick-fil-A executive Mark Miller. He breaks down creating a Leadership Culture into 5 phases: Define it, Teach it, Practice it, Measure it, Model it. Thanks for your burden for discipleship and leadership. I’ll be following your blog brother!

  28. Another quality many leaders lack is the capacity to serve. Far too many pursue their own ambitions, rather than the good of their followers.

    1. This is sad but very true Anna. I couldn’t agree more. One rule that I live by is “Never ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t” – This really applies in the area of serving/volunteering. As a leader, I should never ask someone who is serving with me or volunteering with me to do something I’m unwilling to do.

      Thanks for the great comment!

      1. It was emotionally and mentally exhausting. The information was timely and relevant, and I’m still learning some things. Totally worth it!

  29. A couple of thoughts…

    “Without a vision, the people perish…” Proverbs 29:18.

    A vision makes a leader, not the other way around. Moses tried to be a leader and instead murdered a man. When he was given a true vision though, he delivered a nation and became a Law Giver.

    Real leadership always does this ONE THING… it creates trust….

    1. For us as Christians, we think that becoming a leader means you have to come up with a vision first. The first step actually is to ask God for a vision. Your own vision won’t be big enough to move people’s hearts and inspire their thoughts, at least not for long…

  30. Beautifully written, casting vision is the key giving direction is crucial. Leading like Jesus is essential.

  31. This is so true, and we have seen it with some famous TV evangelists who are telling others what to do but not walking the walk or talking the talk themselves. We all have to guard against the mindset of expecting others to do as we say but not as we do.

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