25 Quotes on Leadership from History’s Great Leaders

Leadership concept, red leader plane leading white plane, on blue background.

25 Quotes on Leadership from History’s Great Leaders

History’s great leaders serve as a source of inspiration the world over, and their leadership leaves a lasting mark throughout history. There is something to be said about the words of men who led nations and armies into greatness. Today’s list is comprised of my favorite quotes from famous world leaders throughout history.

Alexander the Great

Alexander is a legendary conqueror who went undefeated in battle.
©"Alexander the Great, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen" by Following Hadrian is licensed under BY-SA 2.0. - Original / License

I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.

You could perhaps argue that Alexander’s quote on leadership might be a bit cryptic. However, the intent is clear. A strong leader can turn even lowly soldiers into a formidable force.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan is the 40th President of the United States.

When you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat.

Reagan isn’t regarded as much for statecraft, but his leadership during the heightened tensions of the Cold War was instrumental in navigating the decade. Apply political pressure is a valid way of making your adversaries known.

Colin Powell

Powell served as Secretary of State under George W. Bush.
©"Colin Powell" by jdlasica is licensed under BY 2.0. - Original / License

Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.

If there is anyone with authority on the subject, it would be Colin Powell. The modern army has far different needs for leading than ancient armies. Keeping morale high and treating your troops like human beings goes a long way.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon was the first Emperor of France following the Revolution.
©Andrea Appiani, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons - Original / License

A leader is a dealer in hope.

It is hard to deny the effect Napoleon’s leadership had on France. He pulled the country out of the chaos of the Revolution and faced off against every major European power looking to seize French holdings. For the times, he was an embodiment of hope before embarking on his campaign of conquest across Europe.

Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi’s leadership was instrumental in securing Indian independence.

I suppose leadership at one meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.

Gandhi is a unique case when looking at historical leaders. While he held a position of power, the way he achieved his aims wasn’t through violence, but rather through peaceful disobedience.

Sun Tzu

Everyone knows Sun Tzu, but he served as a military leader in addition to his writings.
©"[Prototype 2] Sun Tzu - The Art of War [AUDIOBOOK] [WWW.ETOILE.APP]" by eXploration Etoile is licensed under PDM 1.0. - Original / License

He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.

Life has changed significantly since Sun Tzu’s time, but his view of leadership still has merit. Being prepared and waiting for your time rather than rushing in gets the results you want, more often than not.

Theodore Roosevelt

Soldier, boxer, and eventually President, Theodore Roosevelt was a figure too large for life itself.

Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.

Roosevelt is one of the great examples of leadership in the United States. This quote implies that being calm but having the means to deter or handle whatever comes your way is going to go much further than a paper tiger of a leader.

John F. Kennedy

Kennedy is the last American president to be assassinated while in office.
©Sandra Foyt/Shutterstock.com

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.

Kennedy’s time in office was cut short, but his view of leadership still rings true. People are constantly evolving and growing. A leader who does so is going to be successful in the long run.

Chester W. Nimitz

Nimitz was the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in the Pacific.
©"Admiraal Chester W. Nimitz, Bestanddeelnr 900-6787" by Anefo is licensed under CC0 1.0. - Original / License

Leadership consists of picking good men and helping them do their best.

Nimitz understood finding the right person for the job, thanks in part to his position as a fleet admiral during the Second World War. Having the right person for the job in his position was a matter of life and death for the men on each ship.

Henry Ward Beecher

Beecher championed ending American slavery for years.
©"Beecher, Henry Ward" by Boston Public Library is licensed under BY 2.0. - Original / License

Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody expects of you. Never excuse yourself.

Beecher is an interesting figure when looking at examples of historical leadership. He wasn’t a politician, but rather a preacher and abolitionist. However, he stuck to his ideals and convictions and stayed the course.

Nelson Mandela

After a lengthy time in prison, Mandela famously served as South Africa’s president.

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.

Mandela is one of the most important figures of the 20th century, so it stands to reason he has a few words to say about leadership.

Martin Luther King Jr.

King is a legendary figure when considering American Civil Rights.
©"Public Domain: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at 1963 March on Washington by USIA (NARA)" by pingnews.com is licensed under PDM 1.0. - Original / License

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.

King’s words indicate that a true leader isn’t looking for opinions, but someone who has the moral courage to stand by their convictions. Given his actions, you could certainly count on him as a genuine leader.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower was a renowned general and president.
©"South VN President Ngo Dinh Diem shaking hands with U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower" by manhhai is licensed under BY 2.0. - Original / License

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

Eisenhower certainly understood what it took to be an effective leader. He was able to navigate the immense difficulties of spearheading the D-Day invasion after all.

Norman Schwarzkopf

Norman Schwarzkopf saw action in Vietnam before leading in the Gulf War.
©"RIP General Norman Schwarzkopf, United States Army" by roberthuffstutter is licensed under BY 2.0. - Original / License

When placed in command, take charge.

Schwarzkopf is one of the great American generals and the commander in charge of managing Operation Desert Storm. You could argue he had a keen understanding of the weight of commanding one of the most powerful militaries in the world.

Chesty Puller

Puller holds the distinction of being the most decorated Marine in American history.
©"Colonel Lewis B. Puller, circa 1950" by Archives Branch, USMC History Division is licensed under BY 2.0. - Original / License

If you want to get the most out of your men, give them a break! Don’t make them work completely in the dark. If you do, they won’t do a bit more than they have to. But if they comprehend, they’ll work like mad.

Chesty Puller is regarded as a legend in the Marine Corps and for good reason. He understood that even when hard work needs to be done, downtime is crucial for morale and motivation.

Golda Meir

Meir was the fourth Prime Minister of Israel, serving from 1969 to 1974.
©"Golda Meir - Dan Hadani collection (990044371740205171)" by Israel Press and Photo Agency (I.P.P.A.) photographer is licensed under BY 4.0. - Original / License

A leader who doesn’t hesitate before he sends his nation into battle is not fit to be a leader.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir certainly understood what it meant to be an effective leader. When you send your troops to war, blood is going to be spilled on both sides, understanding the weight of those actions is vital to continued and effective leadership.

Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle was the commander of Free French forces during World War II before serving as the chair of France’s provisional government.
©"Charles de Gaulle-1963" by Ludwig Wegmann is licensed under BY-SA 3.0. - Original / License

The great leaders have always stage-managed their effects.

de Gaulle is a national hero in France and for good reason. He understood that an effective leader needs to at least have an understanding of what their charges are doing under their care.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States, serving from 2008 to 2016.
©Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy / Public domain - Original / License

In a world of complex threats, our security and leadership depends on all elements of our power – including strong and principled diplomacy.

Being an effective leader isn’t just a matter of wielding the biggest weapons, but understanding when you need to talk things out.

James Buchanan

Buchanan is the 15th President of the United States, and unwittingly saw the sparks of the Civil War start.

The test of leadership is not to put greatness in humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there.

Former president James Buchanan has a good handle on what it takes to make a great leader. Human beings are capable of tremendous things, give them space to do so and they will.

Woodrow Wilson

Wilson came up with the League of Nations in the aftermath of World War I to better broker peace.
©Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com

Absolute identity with one’s cause is the first and great condition of successful leadership.

As president during the First World War, Wilson was able to deliver much-needed aid to America’s allies while also remaining an effective leader when troops finally went overseas.

Justin Trudeau

Trudeau is the current Prime Minister of Canada and son of legendary PM Pierre Trudeau.
©"Justin Trudeau in Lima, Peru - 2018 (41507133581) (cropped)" by Presidencia de la República Mexicana is licensed under BY 2.0. - Original / License

Leadership is inspiring extraordinary people to step up and serve their country.

Trudeau’s time in office might not be as well-regarded as his father’s, but he certainly has a handle on what it takes to be an effective leader.

Daisaku Ikeda

Ikeda is the former leader of Soka Gakkai, a massive religious movement in Japan.
©"Daisaku Ikeda" by https://www.daisakuikeda.org/es/ is licensed under BY-SA 4.0. - Original / License

Leadership that exploits and sacrifices young people on the altar of its goals is nothing more than raw, demonic power. Genuine leadership is found in ceaseless efforts to foster young people, to pave the way forward for them.

I love this quote because any leader willing to sacrifice their people for their goals isn’t an effective leader in the slightest.

Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa

Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa is the current King of Bahrain.
©"16/11/2021 Encontro ampliado do Senhor Presidente da República com Sua Majestade o Rei Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa" by Palácio do Planalto is licensed under BY 2.0. - Original / License

You cannot transpose the U.S. system on Turkey, and the Turkish system on France, etc. You have to understand the people and their culture. That’s leadership.

I don’t necessarily agree with this sentiment, but Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa posits that effective leaders come from people born of the same mold as the people they are leading.

Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu was a philosopher and religious leader that was a contemporary of Confucius.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

This is a methodology of leadership that is prevalent in businesses these days. A good leader motivates but acts almost as an invisible guiding hand. Getting results is vital in any position, but a leader can’t be in the mix and slowing down progress.

Mwai Kibaki

Kibaki served as the President of Kenya from 2002 to 2013.
©"Hon. Mwai Kibaki, President of Kenya" by Foreign and Commonwealth Office is licensed under BY 2.0. - Original / License

Leadership is a privilege to better the lives of others. It is not an opportunity to satisfy personal greed.

Kibaki’s take on what it means to be a leader makes for a perfect closing point. You have to be in it for the people, rather than your own gain.

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