Several years ago, I taught a lesson titled, “How Leaders Think.” Like a lot of my older lessons, there is plenty about the content that I would have to change if I were to present it today—after all, I’ve grown over the years, and what I think about thinking has changed quite a bit.

But as I thought about this week’s blog, I couldn’t help but pull out my old notes. Leadership requires constant thought; if you’re not thinking about a problem, then you’re thinking about your people, or thinking about possibilities.

The mind of a leader is in near-constant motion.

What every leader needs to consider, is whether or not that motion is producing something worthwhile. After all, activity doesn’t equal accomplishment—especially in your thinking.

So how do you think like a leader?

Leaders Think Big

Nothing hurts a leader like small thinking. When you’re at the top of the decision ladder, you need to bring your A-game to every situation. Pushing the envelope with creativity and vision is essential for a leader.

The reason is simple: everyone else will try and talk your ideas down. And that’s good—you need people on your team who will challenge you and reign you in. But that means it’s your job to think big so that the ideas you settle on aren’t too small.

Big thinking isn’t reckless thinking either. It’s just big. You are responsible for the big picture, and big picture thinking by nature cannot be small—otherwise, we’d call it small picture thinking. Reality still must come into play, but that doesn’t mean you can’t define a new, larger reality to chase.

Leaders Think Others First

Say it with me: leadership is about serving others. That means leaders should make other people a priority in their thinking.

Leaders want more for others, even before they know to want it themselves. Leaders see more than others, not just in terms of strategy and vision, but in terms of seeing potential and talent in the people around you.

So, it’s only natural that leaders think more and before others—and think a lot about those others in the process.

You should be thinking about how to grow your people and encourage them to grow themselves.

You should be thinking about which people have leadership potential and how you can develop that within your organization.

You should be thinking about which people solve problems, take initiative, and add value to the mission so you can move faster, go farther, and do more.

And you should be thinking about other ways you can add value to people as their leader. Because without other people, you’re not a leader—you’re just a person with a mission looking for a team.

Leaders Think with Focus

The last thing I want to say about thinking like a leader is that leadership thinking requires focus. That’s because a leader rarely has two consecutive good days on the job, which means a leader has to be intentional about thinking and be intentional while thinking.

Intentionality about thinking is a matter of schedule and priority. If you make thinking a priority (and you should), then putting time on your calendar for thinking is the next natural step. I recommend leaders have a dedicated thinking place and a dedicated thinking time—and stick to both. Too often leaders aren’t intentional about their thinking, and the end result suffers.

Intentionality with thinking is a matter of consistency. It means eliminating excuses and distractions. I have a lot of young leaders on my teams, and it’s not uncommon for them to lament on the amount of overwhelm they experience—and not just because we keep them busy!

Every leader knows what it means to be overwhelmed—to have more problems or possibilities than you know how to handle. Overwhelm is normal, and intentional thinking is the best antidote. Nothing combats too many ideas like focusing on one or two, just like nothing destroys a creative block like jotting down as many ideas as possible.

Thinking is rarely a one-way street. Just like healthy eating and exercise are the surest—and least used—methods for losing weight, setting aside time to think and actually thinking are the best way to combat overwhelm.

That type of thinking is so crucial, I wrote the book How Successful People Think. I wanted leaders to have a practical guide to different (and essential) types and styles of thinking. It’s also why my team is developing a new Mentor’s Guide to Focused Thinking. We want to help leaders think like leaders!

My thinking about thinking may have changed over the years, but one thing remains the same: I spend time thinking!

And so should you.

Thinking is how leaders—good leaders—take their people to the top.


  1. Jason J. Stoughton on April 16, 2019 at 2:30 pm

    Thanks to John Maxwell, one of the greatest life & leadership lessons that I have learned is spending intentional time to think daily. Being still, sustaining my thoughts and evaluating my experiences have maximized the return in my growth & creativity and made be more effective in my pursuits.

  2. Beybunui Ngum on April 16, 2019 at 3:09 pm

    Thank you so much. I learnt a lot from this most importantly: intentional thinking is antidote to overwhelm.

  3. Vivian C Carver on April 16, 2019 at 3:52 pm

    Thank you

  4. Adebayo on April 16, 2019 at 7:55 pm

    Thanks so much,John. You are always a blessing.

  5. Quang Vu on April 16, 2019 at 8:24 pm

    Love it

  6. Rob Smedley on April 16, 2019 at 9:44 pm

    I THINK it was a good thing I read this blog today – thank you!

  7. Joyce on April 16, 2019 at 10:38 pm

    I love this message. It really do always help me a lot everytime I got to sit and listen and read anything about sir John’s ideas and teachings.

  8. Satish Kumar Pandey on April 17, 2019 at 4:10 am

    If you stop a little bit, you can see the beauty in and around you. If you are in the center, you don’t need to whirl around.
    May I get an interpretation of the above lines in the context of you current leadership
    theme ?
    Thanks and regards.

  9. Shridhar G. desai on April 17, 2019 at 7:31 am

    Thank you very much.

  10. Rich Carr on April 17, 2019 at 9:47 am

    Thanks, this puts my constant thoughts of work in to context. I will have to remember overwhelm is normal, but to be intentional of what I want to think and focus on. Love your books and blogs posts!

  11. Tim Lombardo on April 17, 2019 at 11:55 am

    There is confidence in following a leader who thinks things through. “Thinking for a Change” was a thoughtful gift given to us by John Maxwell several years ago.

  12. Owah on April 18, 2019 at 2:47 pm

    More wisdom mentor

  13. Olanrewaju Murtala on April 18, 2019 at 3:26 pm

    I am often motivated strategically and mind driven each time l read John Maxwell leadership hints. Thinking intentionally is apt to keep one relieved of overwhelming situation. Thank you sir

  14. Devon Wheeler on April 19, 2019 at 2:59 am

    Valuable insight on leadership. Knowledge and experience are highly praised in leaders and managers, but we often overlook the importance of thinking. Thinking about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, how you’re doing it. As Edward de Bono put it “I like to think of intelligence as being equivalent to the horsepower of a car. The skill of thinking is then the skill of the driver.”

  15. […] to have for dinner, and a number of other things that aren’t super important. If we can start thinking like a leader, we can turn this constant mental energy into a potent force for change and […]

  16. Emmanuel K Lake on May 14, 2019 at 8:35 am

    Thank you so much, it was great-full

  17. Bob on May 28, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    I am always reminded that a leader’s success is dependent on the success of the people they support. It is always about we and never about me.

  18. Masaki Nakazono on August 21, 2019 at 1:45 pm

    This is a great companion article to John’s mentoring session on “Think Like a CEO.” The difference between a leader and a follower is how they think. Bigger, continually, other-focused…

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  21. Angel B M on December 24, 2019 at 3:05 pm

    Thank you John and all your team too!

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