5 Timeless Leadership Lessons From 5 of History’s Greatest Leaders

There are few challenges that can compare to the ones faced by those who lead. Whether you are the CEO of a giant corporation, a military general or the manager of your local grocery store, leading a group or spearheading a project is a responsibility sure to throw up problems and issues on a near daily basis. If there is any consolation to be found in such moments of difficulty, it is that there are countless others who have faced similar problems in the past.

Moreover, it is always the greatest leaders who faced the greatest challenges. Unsurprisingly, we can learn a lot from these people if we choose to listen to them. What follows are five leadership lessons from some of the greatest leaders and thinkers in human history.

To lead people, walk behind them. ~ Lao Zi Click To Tweet

The father of Daoism (Taoism), Lao Zi is a semi-mythological Chinese figure now no longer thought to have ever existed. The text attributed to him, The Daodejing, is now the cornerstone of Daoism, a Chinese religion based around cryptic, ancient books of knowledge. Indeed, many in the West are familiar with Daoism very much because of the strange, ‘Eastern’ language and wisdom found in the Daodejing.

However, in it’s own time, the Daodejing was a book taken very seriously not as a religion, but as a political philosophy. In the period when Lao Zi allegedly lived, (c.500-350 BCE), China was a nation rocked by several internal wars; the dynasties of old had broken apart, leaving several smaller states vying for power. A very real question emerged, one that would have seemed pointless even to contemplate when the state was unified and prosperous; what is the best way to rule? How do we lead a state when there is a constant and real threat of war?

Lao Zi’s answer was to take a light touch in leadership. Too many self-interested, self-righteous rulers were a big part of the problem for China, if Lao Zi is to be believed. Too many dictators, deciding everything for themselves because, as far as they were concerned, only they had the right answers. Too many leaders were micro-managing their societies, actively imposing their own rules on others in the name of improving things.

Lao Zi, instead, would flip everything on its head. Case in point: Rather than a dictator, a leader should be little more than a figurehead. He should learn how to delegate, allowing ministers and local rulers to see to the daily issues of a nation. After all, who better to deal with the little details than those who live and work in that specific environment every day? The leader should be non-active, stepping in only when absolutely necessary. It’s an important lesson; delegate work to those best fit to carry it out, and trust the people you lead to carry it out properly.

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. ~ John Fitzgerald Kennedy Click To Tweet

A simple truth from a man famous for plain speaking. JFK’s greatest gift to the world is surely his role in solving the Cuban Missile Crisis (thereby avoiding nuclear war), but he is also a man full of easily digestible quotes that are as relevant today as ever. Who hasn’t worked with a manager or a leader who thought they knew everything, that they had all the answers to any problem? It’s usually a recipe for disaster. Nobody is an expert in every situation, and even those who are true geniuses always have the opportunity to learn more.

JFK’s quote is, therefore, something of a double-edged lesson. A leader must remember that there is always more to learn, that they can always improve. And in order to actually find something worth learning, of course, a leader must listen. In this case, listening means listening to those that you lead. A great innovation can come from anywhere and at any time — it’s not just the people at the top who can make a big difference. If a leader is willing to learn and listen at all times, he or she is far more likely to achieve the goals that they have set themselves.

Not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck. ~ Dali Lama Click To Tweet 

Another drop of Eastern wisdom, this time from the Dali Lama. It’s easy sometimes, especially when everything seems to be going wrong for you, to despair. Missing a deadline, preforming poorly in a crunch situation, failing to release a product on time — these are the kinds of problems that can really weigh heavily on our working lives, especially if you’re a leader. Our confidence can be effected, we can become frustrated and disappointed (both at ourselves and the situation we are stuck in).

However, the Dali Lama is right; sometimes a little bit of disappointment is just what we need. We always learn more from our failures than from our successes. What’s more, sometimes our failures open new avenues for us, giving us insight into things that we might never have thought of if we hadn’t failed. Sometimes when we don’t get what we want we find that we end up happier without it anyway. Sometimes when we are forced down a road we would not have chosen willingly, we find that the option we didn’t choose willingly turns out to be the best one available to us.

In terms of leadership, being able to respond positively  to things going wrong or not getting the result we wanted is vital. Reacting to failure is key for any leader, and knowing that things going wrong often lead very directly to things going right makes life a lot easier.

The victor is not victorious if the vanquished does not consider himself so. ~ Ennius Click To Tweet

More ancient wisdom, this time from the time of the Roman Republic. Ennius, considered the father of Roman poetry, was not a great political leader. However, if any one quote sums up the attitude that led to Rome becoming the centre of the ancient western world, it is this one. When we think back to Rome, the images that we summon up are of great, organised columns of Roman armies tearing though smaller bands of barbarian Celts and Germans. We don’t ever think back to the earlier history of Rome and wonder how the Romans got to be the undisputed kingpins of Europe.

In the early days of Rome, their main rivals were the Carthaginians, their neighbours across the Mediterranean Sea. The Carthaginians had Hannibal, one of history’s great generals, lead a huge army across the Alps and down into Italy. The Romans sent out their best troops and met Hannibal at the foot of the mountains. The Romans were quickly and comprehensively defeated — a loss that sent shockwaves across Rome.

Worse still, the Romans were then defeated in a second battle, ambushed by Hannibal while marching through a forest, losing thousands of men. Then came the battle that cemented Hannibal’s legendary status: the battle of Cannae. Hannibal’s smaller army managed (in a feat still studied in military academies today) to entirely surround a larger Roman army, cutting them off, killing and capturing tens of thousands of Romans. Afterwards, there was nothing to stand between Hannibal and Rome itself. To make matters worse, other Italian city states turned on the Romans, allying with Hannibal.

Yet the Romans chose simply not to accept defeat — they chose not to consider themselves vanquished, despite everything going against them. They raised more men, harried and skirmished and slowed Hannibals advance, tiring his army and dragging them all around Italy. Finally, drawn out and lacking supplies, Hannibal was forced to return to Carthage. Rome survived. Their story is proof that, even if everything is against you, if you refuse to accept defeat there is always a chance you can turn things around.


Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way. ~ General George Patton Click To Tweet

At the end of the day, sometimes leaders have to be decisive. Patton, at the head of an army facing off against the Nazi’s, knew this more than most. Sometimes, a leader just has to lead. Sometimes, the individuals who are making a project more difficult than it needs to be simply have to be ignored. Sometimes, there are people you lead who have to be told ‘no’, who have to have their responsibilities taken away because they are taking a project in the wrong direction. Leaders can’t be afraid to make big decisions; simply letting everybody get their way will never work out unless everybody wants the same things (which they rarely, if ever, do).

It’s not easy to be so decisive; people who disagree with your opinions will often resist you openly, criticising you and providing their own solutions to given problems. It’s up to the leader to decide if these criticisms and solutions are viable or not; if not, it’s up to you to let this person know that you are the one who has the final say.

Conclusions

If you look back at these quotes you might feel they’re somewhat contradictory; Lao Zi says you need to delegate your decisions to others, while Patton says you need to be decisive. Ennius says you should simply never consider yourself defeated, while the Dali Lama says that sometimes defeat provides new alternatives that can work out better than if you had succeeded. JFK says leaders need to keep learning, but what is to be learned from all of these contradictory quotes?

The real lesson is, perhaps, that there are lots of different ways to lead. There are lots of solutions to different problems, but there is no one single rule that will always bring about success. The true genius of great leadership is knowing what angle to take for a given situation. On one day you might let other people have all of the responsibility, on another you might have to make the big calls all on your own. Knowing how to react to each situation is the true key to good leadership. The trick is figuring out what that reaction should be!