What are some of the most inspiring thoughts about leadership?

by Sam on July 15, 2009

Analysis: You and I wouldn’t define leadership the same way. That may be one reason why we each think we see so little of it. What others pass off as leadership is not what we “know” it to be. So who’s right? Let’s turn to the great thoughts of experts and proven leaders for insight.

Answer: Here are my pet quotes about leadership. I’ve taken the liberty to attach to each one the meaning I believe it adds to our understanding of this incredibly essential pursuit.

1.   The pilot of a ship is worth as much as all the crew. ~Philo Judaeus
These 2000-year-old words from the Alexandrian philosopher speak to the central role that leadership plays in the success of any corporate venture. When I check into a hotel, walk into a store, or sit down in a restaurant I can gauge within minutes the quality of leadership there. And so can you! I never leave a good (or bad) service experience saying “good (or bad) employees.” I look back saying “good (or bad) leadership.” Philo was right on!

2.   Leadership is liberating people to do what is required of them. ~Max Depree
My all-time favorite definition of leadership! You gotta love a sentence with the words “liberating” and “required” so close together. Leaders “liberate” by removing the roadblocks their people face. Do you?

3.   When the elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. ~African proverb
Very few team leaders get along well while their teams don’t; very few teams collaborate while their leaders fight. This is Philo’s point remade.

4.   Those who are in the highest places, and have the most power, have the least liberty, because they are the most observed. ~John Tillotson
When you supervise you live in a fishbowl. The people you hope to influence watch everything you do. You cannot afford to be a negative role model. You must not declare, “Do as I say not as I do.”

5.   We’ll start the war right here! ~Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr.
When his D-Day troops landed on the wrong spot on Utah Beach, the son of a Rough Rider didn’t wait for new orders. He showed can-do, individual initiative unimaginable in the German ranks. His resourcefulness, in violation of orders, helped win the day for the Allies. Are you willing to seek forgiveness, rather than permission, when it’s right thing to do?

6.   For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? ~1 Corinthians 14:8
Your people look to you for direction, and while your decisions must be measured and thoughtful, you can’t be hesitant or wishy-washy. Such decisiveness is particularly important in times of challenge when people need certainty and stability. TR Jr. surely wasn’t guilty of indecisiveness.

7.   All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of the people in their time. This, and not much else is the essence of leadership. ~John Kenneth Galbraith
Yes! Had I found this quote earlier, I would have used it as the aphorism for “How do I keep people engaged in stormy times?” located in the March 2009 archives.

8.   The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on. ~Walter Lippman
I don’t know if Lippman had heard the term succession planning, but he paints a great word picture of it. Notice that he doesn’t focus on developing talent, skills, or experience in followers, but two far more needed leadership qualities.

9.   In any series of elements to be controlled, a selected small fraction, in terms of numbers of elements, always accounts for a large fraction in terms of effect. ~Vilfredo Pareto
For a sitting leader these may be the most important words on this list. Pareto’s “80/20 Rule” says that 80% of our business comes from 20% of our marketing, 20% of our customers consume 80% of our time, and 20% of our employees do 80% of the work. Its significance for your leadership is this: with 20% of your effort, or in 20% of your workday, you add 80% of your value. Figure out (ask others?) what that 20% is and do more of it.

10.   A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone. ~Henry David Thoreau
The richest leaders have found more time for “20% leadership” by delegating responsibilities that shouldn’t consume their day. That frees them for more strategic thinking in exchange for tactical implementation they can trust to their people.

11.   If you want a place in the sun you’ve got to expect a few blisters. ~Abigail Van Buren
I saw a statistic a while back that 55% of all teachers would agree to fire their School Superintendent. The vote of no confidence among your followers may never get that bad, but you’ll always have your detractors. This was one of the reasons President Harry Truman said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

12.   As long as you can stand up, you keep going. ~1st Sergeant Leonard Lomell
Shot in the side as he stepped onto the beach at Normandy, Ranger Lomell continued to direct his men to their objective at Point du Hoc in France. Do you keep going when “wounded” as an inspiration to your team?

13.   You can’t lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse. ~John Peers
One of my goals for you is that if you are insecure about your impact as a leader, these weekly email briefs will help to dissolve any lack of confidence.

14.   If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. ~John Quincy Adams
Adams’ focus may have been the actions of public servants, but the development others is equally instrumental for corporate leaders.

15.   My own definition of leadership is this: The capacity and the will to rally men and women to a common purpose and the character that inspires confidence. ~General Bernard Montgomery
“Monty” adds two essential leadership ingredients to this list. The first is that leaders excel when they help people discover a sense of purpose and meaning in their work. The second is that when followers are asked to name the quality they most hope to find in their leader, the #1 answer is integrity, which is ultimately “the character that inspires confidence.”

16.   He that is greatest among you shall be your servant. ~Jesus of Nazareth
Isn’t it time that you revisited “What is servant leadership?” in the April 2009 archives?

Which of these sixteen aphorisms means the most to you? Do you face a challenge right now that this thought will help you with?

Action (yours)

Do you have an Ask for Sam about leadership, team building or communications? Email that question to him at sam@asksamdeep.com. He will respond to you either by email or telephone. Please include your telephone number with your Ask.

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