How to Handle Resistance (Part 1)

Today we’re talking about something that every leader has experienced, is currently experiencing, and will experience throughout their life. We’re talking about resistance. One fundamental law of physics says that movement creates friction. So, if you’re a growing leader, a leader who is creating powerful, positive change, then you will experience resistance as well. But, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” The same goes for resistance––it’s inevitable. But are you the kind of leader who will succumb to it, or will you work through it?

In this series, John Maxwell teaches thirteen ways to handle resistance. Then Mark Cole and Becky Bursell dig into some of the ways resistance has shaped their leadership and has taught them to be better leaders.

Our BONUS resource for this series is the “How to Handle Resistance Worksheet,” which includes fill-in-the-blank notes from John’s teaching. You can download the worksheet by clicking “Download the Bonus Resource” below.


Mark Cole:

Hey, welcome to the Maxwell Leadership Podcast. This is the podcast that adds value to leaders who will multiply value to others. I'm Mark Cole, and today we're talking about something that every leader has experienced. Every leader is probably currently experiencing, and by the way, you're going to experience it some more in your life and in your leadership. I'm talking about resistance. One fundamental law of physics says that the movement of something or someone creates friction. So if you're a growing leader, a leader who is creating powerful, positive change, then guess what? News flash, get excited, you're going to experience resistance as well. But as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, "You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf." The same goes for resistance. It's inevitable, but are you the kind of leader who will succumb to it or will you walk through it?

In this series, we're going to do two parts of John Maxwell teaching on 13 ways to handle resistance. Then my co-host, Becky Bursell and I, we're going to dig into some of the ways resistance has shaped us and how it's taught us to be better leaders. If you would like to download this episode's bonus resource, please go to This resource is a fill in the blank pdf. It's free and it accompanies John's lesson and makes it easier for you to capture notes. Also, if you would like to watch this episode on YouTube, please go to and be sure to leave us a comment.

Now, here we go. Grab a pen, grab a paper. Here is John Maxwell.

John Maxwell:

If you're a parent of any teenager, you understand resistance. I mean, there's no such thing as a teenager that is born to be compliant. For you, that have teenagers, or you got kids that are going to become teenagers, my prayers are with you. Now, don't despise those years. Some of the teenagers are just, you go from wonderful to awful. What I found about teenage years is there's no middle ground. It's either the best thing happening or else you're saying, "Dear God, take my kids now." So if you've ever dealt with teenagers, you understand resistance. If you've ever been a leader, you understand resistance. Isn't that true? It's the first person that always gets shot at, It's the person that's out ... What is it? When the geese fly together, it's the leading head goose that gets all the turbulence and gets all the wind. The leader is always the one who takes the flack. So anybody in a leadership position understands very quickly what I call resistance. So let's see if we cannot talk about it.

I read a bumper sticker lately that said, "When the going gets tough, it's time to take a nap." I read another one that said, "If at first you don't succeed, do it the way your wife told you to." In my book, Developing a Leader Within You, I talk about creating positive change. I call it the acid test of a leader. What I'm saying is, when you talk about momentum, once the organization has momentum, anyone can get out in front and enjoy the thrust that momentum gives to the organization. But what happens when the organization's going the wrong way? So you have to stop that negative momentum. Then you have to build momentum and turn it around and get it going. And now we're talking about a whole different deal. So how do you handle resistance? This will be the practical part of this lesson.

Number one, expect resistance. Let's all start there. Let's all understand we're going to have problems. We're going to have resistance. In fact, motion causes friction. So whenever you move, you're going to have some friction. It's the old law of navigation in my 21 Laws book that says, "Anyone can steer the ship, but it takes a leader to chart the course." Now, the second thing in handling resistance is remember the 20/50/30 rule, And the 20/30/50 rule says that 20% of the people are what I call change friendly. When you say, "Let's change", they say, "Let's change." 50% of the people sit on the fence, and 30% of the people are what I call resistors. Giving resistors your attention often just reinforces problem behavior.

Try to woo the fence sitters and attend to the 20% who drive the change. Let squeaky wheels squeak. Save your grease for the quieter wheels who are carrying the load. Don't try to get everybody on the boat. Don't try to get everybody on the train. In fact, stop for a moment. You don't want everybody on the boat. Aren't there some people, once they get in your organization, you say, "Oh, dear Lord, what did I do? Let's move the train and let's not tell them." Okay, in handling resistance, number three, explain the rationale for change. What happens in leading people is when they resist you, remember this, it's in your paragraph. Resistance often is rooted in a lack of understanding. Many times people withhold support simply because they haven't figured out the situation. And education and communication's the first step of helping everybody get with a program.

Number four, provide a clear target. Resistance to change climbs fast when people can't figure out where they're headed, the more vague the destination, the fewer the volunteers that you'll find eager to go there. If the destination is vague, and you got a lot of people wanting to get there, you got to check the IQ of the people that want to go.

Okay, number five, take care of the me issues. M-E. The me issues. And here's what I'm saying. The first question a person asks regarding change is, "How will this affect me?" I watch naive leaders. They'll bring the vision before the people. They'll say, "Let me share with you my dream. Let me share with you the vision." And they're up there and they're just talking about this vision and what they want to accomplish and where they want to go, what they got ... Can I tell you something? The person out there that's listening to you, they're not excited about your vision. The first thing they're asking is, if we do what he says or she says, what's going to happen to me? And they're basically going to be excited about it if in the picture they can see themselves being successful with your vision. And they're going to be very resistant to it if in the picture they see themselves not being successful with your vision.

If I would've had time to teach the Law of Connection, the Law of Connection, 21 Laws book, "Leaders touch a Heart before they ask for a hand." One of the main principles I would've taught you in the Law of Connection is, it's the responsibility to the leader to connect with the people, not the responsibility of the people to connect with the leader. The train engine backs up to the cars. The cars don't find the engine. And it's a responsibility of the leader to connect with the people and to ask, "Where are they? How do I do this?"

Okay, in this question, how will this affect me, this is the issue that everybody in the congregation, everybody in the business, this is the question they're asking. How is this going to affect me? So as a leader, what you do is you share how it's going to affect them, and you share with them what's positive, what's not positive. You give them the whole picture because until you answer the question, how it's going to affect them, you won't move them to the next step of the vision journey that you're wanting to take them on.

Number six, we're talking about handling resistance. Seek opportunities to involve your people. And there's some good news about that. Involving your people means that others will feel important, that new ideas will surface, that everyone will be an owner of change, that people won't feel helpless and vulnerable. And the fact that people will have to struggle with the tough issues of change. That's the good news of involvement. The bad news of involvement means that progress can be slower, because when you begin to involve them, it's the old Walt Emerson's statement that if you travel by yourself, you can rise early. If you travel with someone else, you have to wait on them, and decisions can be diluted.


Hey, podcast family. This is your podcast producer, Jake, and I have some exciting news. You may remember a few months ago, we gifted 200 of our listeners with free exclusive early access to our brand new 21 Laws of Leadership online course. Well, for those of you who are not one of the 200 lucky listeners, you've had to wait until the course released in order to enroll. Well, the wait is over. John Maxwell's best selling leadership book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, is now an online course in which you can enroll today and jumpstart your leadership. Just go to That's the number two, the number one, laws and learn from John Maxwell himself, Mark Cole, bestselling author and founder of IT cosmetics, Jamie Kern Lima, and bestselling author and leadership expert, Jeff Henderson. Again, the link to enroll is We'll see you in the course.

Mark Cole:

Hey, welcome back. I really am real glad, Becky, that you're with me today for all of our podcast family. I love what I get to do with all of our co-hosts. Becky and I are leading together, side by side, shoulder to shoulder right now on some really exciting things. And Becky, if I know anything about your leadership style and mine, we love that resistance, that conflict. We believe iron does sharpen iron, and I love that you're hosting. I think Chris might would do a great job. Tracy might would do a great job, but I think we got the right host to talk about resistance.

Becky Bursell:

I'm trying to-

Mark Cole:

And I'm being funny.

Becky Bursell:

Well, I'm trying to not be personally attacked by-

Mark Cole:

No. It's truly, Becky, and I mean that, I'm very excited about today. But truly, in my opinion, one of your most endearing and yet effective traits as a leader is your ability to take resistance and make something positive out of it. And so Jake probably knew that and scheduled that, but I sit here and looked at this and listened this and went, "I think it's one of the things that really makes us effective is our ability to take resistance." So I'm looking forward to our time together today.

Becky Bursell:

Me too. And I would say you and I are wired very similarly in that aspect that a lot of times we look at those things as a challenge. And I think it's easy when problems occur or resistance happens, maybe we're wired one of two ways. Either we look at it like an opportunity to step up and be challenged and take it on like a competitive game that you would play. And others of us use it as almost a way to handicap ourselves. We kind of use it as a hurdle or a way that we feel like it's an obstacle instead of a challenge. And so I think all of these things come back to us relearning and understanding ourselves and the appropriate ways to approach those things. I love that John categorizes those things as the percentages of those that are resistant and those people that sit on the fence and those that just accept change and run with it. Where would you categorize yourself, I would say, the majority of the time?

Mark Cole:

So it's so interesting. I think that I like change. I like things that cause me to sharpen myself. I love to see myself as being coachable, teachable. And I think the only way you can get those kind of things is through resistance. So I think I like resistance, but it's very interesting. I want to say this on the onset because I believe that the lack of resistance or the running away from resistance is probably the single greatest limiting factor to people that want better things but are not willing to embrace resistance to get them. So let me say that right there, because John says, "Hey, expect resistance." That's his first point. Going back to your question though, Stephanie, my wife and I were talking recently about does she think I like conflict? And I think in a lot of ways that conflict and resistance are at least cousins, if not many times the same thing, the same immediate family.

And she says, "You know what, I think you like control. And on times that you can handle control, you embrace resistance or conflict, but on the times you start losing control, I think you don't want conflict or resistance at that point." And I thought, "Wow, that's incredibly insightful." If Stephanie's right, I haven't given her credit yet that she's right, but I am at least thinking about it to the point I'm putting it out in podcast land. As leaders, do we accept resistance as long as we can keep control? And when resistance or conflict begins to cause us to lose control, we shut it down. And I don't have an answer on that yet for me, but I have a real intrigue to say, I believe I do like resistance or conflict, but I'm wondering if I like it within a controlled environment. And is that really resistance?

Becky Bursell:

Not really. I think it goes back to all of us are comfortable in our strengths. And so for you and I that are comfortable with conflict or resistance, it's still in our comfort zone. And so for everyone that's not wired that same way, it definitely can cause some stress or even anxiety at times. For many years, being in sales, I had a mentor actually teach me this same concept, but he used it in apples, which for anybody that loves a visual, this works really well where people are either red, green, and this sounds harsh, or rotten apples. And I'll get to why it's not so harsh, because red apples are those that just again, embrace change. They want to be a part of growth, they love the challenge, they're up for those things.

The green apples are those that, they need questions and they have a process. So if the change doesn't happen within their process, that's where you get the resistance. Or maybe they just need time to go through the process. Some of us are willing to leap before we look, and some of us have to have all the numbers work out before they do. But the rotten apples, there are those that you could be curing cancer, they don't want to know about it. And mainly it's not because they're bad people, it's just that means they're really going to have to do something about it. When they know better, they have to do better. And so sometimes your resistance to even knowing because it's going to force you into change or progress, or it's going to cause ripple effects, it's easy to do that. But he said it's easy when you can recognize people in those categories to know how to handle it.

So that just become so resistant, they can't move, it's not that you think less of them, you just move on and let them go through a process by themselves. You would never pick up an apple in the store that was rotting and try to love on it so much that it changes. But we do that, if you're a nurturer too, or like control, like we do, we try to change people. So I love the fact that it gives you permission to let people be and process how they want to, but not to slow down the growth or the progress at the same time, which I think is, again, easier said than done.

Mark Cole:

Yeah. Yeah. I think when we build around us, I used to call people around me that I intentionally put around me, contrarians. I need people that I have a strong personality. I know that's probably a surprise to you, Becky, but I'm pretty strong, opinionated, pretty driven. And I have found that when you have several of those leadership characteristics, that it gets really easy and much more easier, I guess, is the best word to use for people around you to just be agreeable. Yep, that's good, that's good. It'll work out, let's go. But I've also found that's not how you get the best idea. And so for years, I would try to find at least one or a few contrarians to put on my team so that I would get a different perspective. My strength became a minimizer, my passion became a limiting factor when it came out as intensity.

So what I was discovering, even as John was talking, is that that contrarian really is meant to give that resistance or that other perspective to make a leader sharper. And what happened when I get a contrarian around me, two things I think are the biggest takeaways. One, I typically will see a better point of view, a better vision, a better idea, because somebody around me is making me see something from a different perspective. But here's the other thing that I love to get, is it makes me sharper in how I communicate my vision or my direction because I know that contrary and is not going to let me just get by with just convincing people with my emotion or my passion. The words, the strategy, the structure, the plan is going to have to have more validity because the contrarian is going to bring that level of resistance. And that resistance makes me sharper as I prepare, as I present. And then as we pursue the plan, there is a greater degree of effectiveness because of that resistance in one's leadership or on one's leadership team.

Becky Bursell:

Yeah, I think so too. And I think when John brings it back to the point of having a clear target, it helps bring us back to that point as far as realizing sometimes we dilute the message and people aren't able to see the gold at the end of the rainbow. We haven't created that. I know you and I have these conversations too, where we create resistance for each other or push back. And we had a conversation the other day where you even said, "Well, then I'm still not clear with my vision." And I realized, "You know what, it's so true." And it's not that I don't see it or we're not excited about it, it's just sometimes we all have our own thoughts. And so it's very easy to get off track, especially if you're a creator, like you like to create things. So having that vision retold over and over again is not only one of your great strengths, but I think as a leader, we have to create that as a strength, even if it doesn't come naturally.

Mark Cole:

I want to dig into that a little bit, Becky. I didn't even think about that as I was listening, but just as you brought that, I remember that conversation you're referencing. And what I love about you is 30 minutes later we're texting each other about something unrelated, but it doesn't change our relational connectivity at all. But I remember that comment that you were given me something that was a really good idea, but from my vantage point, it took us off point from the vision that I had laid out. And so we bantered about it two or three times. We even had a couple of referees, other people in the room with us or in the conversation with us, and they would give a vantage point that would help me see you a little bit more and perhaps gave you a vantage point that you'd let me see a little more.

And at the end, I remember as a leader, I pulled the trump card. There's only one card that can be pulled in a setting like this, which is, hey, there's only one of us that's a visionary, and you're off point from the vision. Well, what do you say as a leader to that when your leader pulls the trump card, right? I remember you coming back and saying, "Well, I don't think it is a vision adjustment. I think it's right in line with the vision. You're pulling the trump card, Mark, but let me come back with a little bit more resistance and tell you that this is how I am seeing it." And I went, "Well, maybe I'm just not giving the vision clear enough." Well here, here's what I want to pull out of that, Becky. The great takeaway from me from that meeting was, I need to do a better job of communicating and sometimes communicating the vision is not telling it, it's listening for it.

And I went, "You know what I've got to do? I've got to let Becky regurgitate back to me what she's hearing when I give a vision comment." I bet you your takeaway was probably, "I got to do a better job when I'm presenting an opportunity like this, of linking it to the vision that I'm hearing Mark say." You're a brilliant leader, Becky, you're competent. You've succeeded so many times in so many areas I've never succeeded. We make a brilliant team. When you come to an impasse because of conflict or resistance, everyone needs to come to the table saying, "What can I learn from this to make me more effective down the road?" For me, it was clarify the vision, but not by talking more, talk less and let Becky speak back the vision. In subsequent conversations, your takeaway in that particular issue was, "Hey, I need to do a better job of linking my ideas, this opportunity to the vision that I already know what Mark is wanting right here."

My challenge to us as leaders, when John says, "Explain the rationale for change", or when he says, "Provide a clear target", which is three and four in our notes that we're all looking at when John's teaching, is us as leaders do not need to look to eradicate resistance. We need to look for ways to make that resistance yield a stronger leadership team, a greater resolve in the leader or the leadership team, and a way for that resistance to take us faster. Because just like a sailboat, if you can set the cast, if you can set the sail to take the wind, the resistance, that's the faster the vessel's going to go. And if you and I, as co-leaders, Becky, will look for ways to take resistance and yield exactly that, strength, we're stronger because of it. Clarity, we're more clear and effective because of it are faster. We've learned to set the resistance to set the sail and to go faster, then resistance actually becomes something we long for on teams rather than we try to eliminate on teams.

Becky Bursell:

I agree. And I think sometimes you and I make people nervous around us because it does sound disruptive sometimes. I think for people that might not have that foundation that you and I do as far as mutual vision and mutual respect, and we just really love each other's company, but we also understand that that's how we grow. And my husband can attest to that as well. There's been 29 years of just a few disagreements, but we always come back stronger together. And a lot of times, the disagreement isn't even on the vision, it's just communicating the process. And I think that's where you can't substitute time with people. And I love, even in other lessons that John's talked about, mentoring, you can't mentor someone, one that you don't necessarily like personally, but you also can't mentor someone you don't spend time with. It requires amount of time. And a lot of that I think has to do with just being able to communicate not just the end goal and the vision, but the processes around it.

And I've said this to you before, especially launching new initiatives, my greatest fear is that I start running and I'm running in the wrong direction. And so when we all come together, I love our lead team meetings, I love all of our events, I love all of our calls because it really helps us all just align and we're just all so much stronger together.

Mark Cole:

Well, I want to catch this. I want to catch this. Sometimes differences in language and communication can manifest itself as resistance. And I think it's really important for leadership teams. I love that statement. I think it's important for leadership teams to identify what is resistance. In fact, I remember a conversation you and I, Becky, we had, and I was giving you the positives. I was giving you the positivity sandwich. The bread is the positive, the meat is really what I want to say. Becky, you're doing such a great job. Man, you failed miserably that last time. Becky, I'm so glad you were on the team. That's an example. Okay, so we put that positivity sandwich on it, and one time I was giving you the front end positivity and you said, "Mark, can we cut to the chase and just get to the things you want to really say right here?"

And I started laughing because I was going to get to the things I wanted to say, but I was treating you the way I might would treat the person down the road. They need to hear positivity. They need to hear something that would sandwich what you're really wanting to say from a critiquing standpoint. I want to take that a step further. I'm working with one of our teammates right now that's helping me in some of my areas. I have found that you not only need to identify what is resistance as a team, what's the rules of engagement around resistance. You need to also understand when and how you want resistance in certain areas of your life, in certain areas of your leadership. I'm telling a leader currently, "Hey, in this area I need you to be a little more positive on the things I did right before you give me the critique on the things I can do to get better."

Here's why. I'm not as confident in that area as I am in other areas. And so I gave this universal thought, "Hey, in this area, give me the resistance after you tell me two or three things that you've done right, because I'm not super secure in this area. It's outside of my skillset, but I'm needing to develop it to make my leadership more well-rounded." And that was a wonderful conversation. In fact, the leader said, "That's so good, thank you." Well, then I noticed he started doing it in another area to where I don't need the positivity. I'm super comfortable there. Don't give me all the positive. Let's save some time and get to the critique, please, because I'm ready to go. And I watched this leader who is a developing leader, go, Wow. And I can only imagine they're going, "Is this Jekyll or Hyde I'm dealing with, which guy am I dealing with here?"

But really, it's important. And let me say why I even illustrated that. It's important in leadership teams that you don't allow resistance to cause conflict that is irreparable. That's not smart leadership. You need to allow resistance to be an accelerator of trust, not a distraction from congruency. And that's a leader's responsibility, because I've seen resistance that can build trust or tear trust down. What kind of leader are you going to be, podcast listener? You're going to have resistance, John said it. It's his first point. Expect resistance. Now that we've got that out of the way, you're going to have resistance. What you're going to do with it? Are you going to let it build trust? Are you going to let it tear trust and congruency and collaboration down?

The best way I know to let resistance make an environment better, build trust is to, one, agree with what is resistance. With you, Becky, I can go, "Becky, come on." With another leader on our team, if I just use that tone, they wilt, they're done. So you got to identify what the resistance is and then you got to put rules of engagement around how we're going to make resistance build trust. That's why, and I'm going to come back and let you say something, Becky, because I can tell you want to, and I'm ready for you to. But that's why we've called this a series. We're going to spend two weeks. John did six today, we're going to do seven more next week because resistance is that important. It's going to happen, but is it going to be effective or detrimental to your organization. Becky.

Becky Bursell:

Yeah. No, I just think it's so important what you said of understanding in our own leadership that it's a sign of our maturity or immaturity, how we adjust our communication in that resistance moment. Because I think it's very easy for us, especially when we own the vision, to decide that we're going to communicate it the way we want to communicate it. But the fact that in number six, John lays out the positives and the negatives. I'm literally sitting here looking at, others will feel important, new ideas will surface and all of these things sounds so great. And then he gets to the bad news. The progress will be slower and decisions can be diluted. And I immediately are like, no, that's where the resistance comes in. I

Mark Cole:

I don't want that.

Becky Bursell:


Mark Cole:

Hey, I resist that.

Becky Bursell:

I'm resisting that part because that's in my nature is just to run, run, run. And sometimes when we are running too fast, we're not bringing the right people along with us and we need those people to grab that vision. So I think what you just said, as far as understanding that we even in our very, very secure moments, have insecure parts of our leadership and being just as conscious of those two helps us adapt so that we're not resistant to even the slower movement or diluting the progress because those things just hurt my head thinking about them. How do we avoid that, and there's just no way to avoid those things.

Mark Cole:

Yeah. And so again, we're in the middle of talking about how to handle resistance in teams, in leaders, in partners. So expect resistance. Remember the 20/50/30 rule. Explain the rationale for change, provide a clear target, take care of the ME issues. And then John finished up today with seek opportunities to involve your people.

Hey, I want to involve you in next week because we're going to be right back here. John's going to give seven more and I want to invite you back. This is going to be an incredible continuation coming next week. Now, I love to kind of finish our podcast always with going into our mailbox and going into our posts and finding a comment. And today I'm bringing Kyle back. Now, some of you will remember, Kyle was going to speak to some firefighters in Arkansas and doing an incredible job out there. I remember giving him a shout out and Kyle heard the shout out and then wanted to give us a follow up on what happened from the first comment.

So Kyle from the podcast, the Law of Connection, said this. "Hey, I just heard your shout out to me on the podcast. What an honor. Just to fill you in, after posting my original comment, I was given an opportunity to spread out great leadership. I was asked to present my lecture at the Arkansas Fire Conference, and I did it. I presented it to the firefighters for the whole state of Arkansas. And it's because of your teaching, I was able to do something I had only dreamed about before that." Kyle, that's why Becky and I are doing what we're doing today. That's why Jake and Jared or back making us sound good, look good. Well, make Becky look good, make me sound better. And that's because you, Kyle, and everybody else on this podcast. We add value to you so you'll multiply value to others. What is value? It's what we think is creating powerful positive change because everyone deserves to be led well.

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