Photo by Rabie Madaci on Unsplash

The other day, Mark Cole, the CEO of all our companies, asked a question to our leadership team that I thought was powerful. Looking around the room at our executive vice presidents, he asked, “Who would fill your chair if you weren’t here?”

Mark is one of the best and most capable leaders I know, and I loved the way he connected with his team through this question. It provided them with not only a clear picture of what it means to be in leadership with our organization—but to be a leader, period.

If you want to lead, you must make sure you never leave behind an empty chair. You must constantly develop other leaders to take your place.

I’ve said it before, but it’s the responsibility of a leader to reproduce other leaders; that’s the premise of my latest book, The Leader’s Greatest Return, but it’s also at the heart of my calling. Since 1976 I’ve been passionate about teaching leadership principles and practices, not as a way of building a name, but as a way of building up other leaders. I’ve made it my life’s work to add value to leaders who multiply value to others.

I come by this conviction honestly. In my first leadership role, I didn’t develop other leaders the way I needed to. As a result, an organization that blossomed while I was there quickly fell apart only a few months after my departure. There simply wasn’t enough leadership to sustain the momentum.

I don’t want that to happen to you, or to anyone. It’s why I want you let Mark’s question echo in your life: “Who would fill your chair if you weren’t here?”

Regardless of your role, or age, or stage, you should be thinking about developing someone to take your place. As part of the launch of my new book, we partnered with my publisher, HarperCollins Leadership, to survey hundreds of leaders about developing other leaders.

One of the best findings was that younger leaders—between the ages of 25-35—were not only rising into leadership positions, they were pouring into others along the way. On average, young leaders were mentoring or developing anywhere from one to five potential leaders!

My friends, we should all have the same disposition as leaders. Our attention should be on investing in the right people who have the talent and aptitude to step into our role. It doesn’t mean we have to have designs on a different role—we don’t invest in others as an escape plan. We invest in others because we want to bring out the best in them, which frees us up to ask, “What’s next?”

Because, if leadership teaches us anything, there’s always something next, and we should be ready to answer the call.

That’s only possible if we’ve done the work of preparing someone to take our place. We cannot leave behind an empty chair—we owe it to our teams and ourselves to make sure we’re developing other leaders who can step up. We care best for the people we lead when we prepare people to step up and into leadership.

Good leaders never leave behind an empty chair. Instead, they leave behind a legacy of leaders who develop leaders.

Can that be said of you?


  1. Dan Williams on February 12, 2020 at 5:51 am

    Thank you Mark. Our Sunday School class in two weeks will be studying the death of Moses and a new leader Joshua is coming in to take command of God’s people. Thank you for all you do. Have a wonderful day. Moses did not leave an empty chair

    • Debbie Gantt on February 13, 2020 at 8:15 am

      Love this. I never intended to leave an empty chair when I left my position of 11 years. I had been prepping someone to fill the gap then I gave 4 months notice to my COO. Those 4 months were some of the worst months of my career there. The day after my departure, they let that person go. Ego got the best of them. Functions in that department have essentially gone without any leadership since then.

      • Dan Williams on February 13, 2020 at 9:08 am

        Thank you for the reply I just love it Thank you again and have a wonderful and blessed day

    • Unisah Conteh on February 13, 2020 at 10:22 am

      What a wonderful ’empty chair’ presentation! You have my heart! Actually, the first day also inaugurates a day closer to your exit. I mean every day is a day closer to one’s exit. One might as well take a position with an exit plan in hand. As a matter fact anything can happen from that day. Doesn’t it makes sense to start grooming your successor from the very first to welcome and offer you help? Usually, lasting and trusting relationships are carved out at the beginning. First impression are indelible grooves on pebbles. What do you think? As a matter of fact, if you begin well, you always end well.

      • Dan Williams on February 13, 2020 at 6:34 pm

        What do you think? As a matter of fact, if you begin well, you always end well. Thank you for your reply I agree thank you This is one of your best. I love it

  2. Pat Chua on February 12, 2020 at 4:49 pm

    John Maxwell is an inspiring leadership mentor. This blog gave me more insight not only in leadership where I am at, but also when it comes to legacy.

    Same thing with the story of Elijah and Elisha. Pass it on!

    • Dan Williams on February 13, 2020 at 9:22 am

      Charles Stanley wrote a book some time ago talking about the empty chair. It was on forgiveness. If a person hurt you and that person was passed away you could talk to that person using an empty chair. It works Thank you

      • Carole on February 13, 2020 at 12:05 pm

        Wow I’d like to read that book by Charles Stanley regarding the Empty chair on Firgiveness.

        • Dan Williams on February 14, 2020 at 8:35 pm

          When i read it it really hit me. We need more of that to help with our fear

    • Dan Williams on February 13, 2020 at 6:35 pm

      I love it

  3. Thane Isaacs on February 13, 2020 at 8:15 am

    My platform is Leaders Building Leaders. It is based on the theory that we should always be working to build new leaders. In our homes, our workplace, in our schools and churches and in our communities. THAT is our responsibility. Period. If we aren’t working to build future leaders, we aren’t building a future. I actually have built an evaluation process which focuses on this. Promoting the people who develop those around them as that is what true leadership is, not building up your own skills but building others to take on more an be better tomorrow than they are today. I learned this a long time ago but through John’s teaching have put it into practice in my coaching and training.
    I love the thought of never leaving an empty chair behind. In my past organizations, if you hadn’t developed someone to take your spot, you weren’t qualified to apply for your promotion. It drove the point home and everyone was constantly working to build others around them, that is why our growth every year was off of the charts.

  4. Erwin Simms on February 13, 2020 at 8:19 am

    This is a great article and a great question that Mark Cole asked. I love Mark’s approach to growth and his question reminds me of a question that I asked a former leader at my old employer and the former leader told me not to worry about developing leaders who can take my chair and worry about maintaining my chair. Now that I have left that employer for another company, my old employer is now struggling to maintain the Department that I was in charge of. Thank you for these lessons and keep them coming.

  5. […] Read full Article Source link […]

  6. Gangadharan. S on February 13, 2020 at 10:53 am

    Useful post in learning of leadership

  7. Erum Khaliq on February 13, 2020 at 12:30 pm

    Well said I always prefer that you have deligate others. Prepare someone who carry your vision and mission. I understand that it’s very difficult to give your chair others in your presence but believe me you will always live in people’s heart.

    • Dan Williams on February 14, 2020 at 5:55 am

      Never fear. Give yourself away. It will come back to you in so many ways

  8. S.P Gazama on February 13, 2020 at 1:15 pm

    Thank you father John for your fatherly advice. And because you have said this, I am reminded of one of the real leadership calls of my life: developing other leaders to do what they are truly call to do. It instantly reminded me of chapter seven of Leaving a Legacy: Create to Last. Father John, honestly your words always makes me connect with God, the reality of leadership, and lead me into sobriety. I will obey your advice and go back to my church ECWA Wuse II. Thank you for giving me a wake up call and a direction to a much greater end. I love you!

    • Dan Williams on February 14, 2020 at 6:03 am

      Develop others

  9. Lawrence Leahy on February 13, 2020 at 6:00 pm

    As a young 2nd LT in the early 70s, my battalion commander took me aside and created a vision for me on developing my career. His comment was that if war broke out in Germany, in a months time I would be in a leadership position that was two levels above my current position. His advice to me was to develop my skills so that at a minutes notice I would be prepared to move into the new role. Great advice that I passed on to many others.

  10. Udeme Idem on February 14, 2020 at 4:46 am

    this is really worth thinking of. indeed we should all train people to take our place.

  11. Fabian Espinoza on February 15, 2020 at 9:03 am

    It’s a self rewarding accomplishment to know a leader was developed, nurtured, inspired, and motivated to fill your “chair”. Tremendous read and I can submit it is a self rewarding feeling knowing a mentee filled your chair after your departure.

  12. […] John Maxwell | February 11, 2020 | 21 Photo by Rabie […]

  13. […] I read the other day, Mark Cole, the CEO of John Maxwell Companies, once asked his leadership team a… It’s a powerful question and the one I love the most because it questions our intentions and challenges our assumptions. […]

  14. Obasi. (Nigeria) on February 22, 2020 at 2:44 pm

    Thanks John. I’ve read many of your books. Your humility is admired in all the pages. My grown up children and friends are also benefiting. Am one of Jehovah’s witnesses. We have and value good materials. Hi

  15. Andres Valdes on February 29, 2020 at 12:01 am

    I’ve noticed that most leaders are so interested in their needs that they don’t think about “who will sit in their chair.” The chair’s image is a great way to remind ourselves of our duty to continually build more leaders.

  16. Deno Rousopoulos on March 1, 2020 at 7:27 am

    looking forward to reading this blog

  17. Heidi Maduhu on March 16, 2020 at 6:28 am

    I believe this can be said of me but I don’t know that I do it with intention – and I need to be better about this. Thank you for the reminder.

  18. […] Never Leave Behind an Empty Chair […]

  19. Janeth on April 6, 2020 at 12:07 pm

    Wonderful article to leave a legacy in our leadership. It made me to remember that I am in the way, some failure in the biginning of my career, but with improvements in the route.


  20. Thanyarat Jenwanathanakit on May 25, 2020 at 1:31 pm


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