I love to read. While I’m not too picky in my selections, I would have to say that my favorite type of book would be biographies. Sometimes they’re entertaining, while other times they’re informative. I mainly use books as a source of inspiration for both my business and life outside of work, believing that learning about inspired leaders can help me improve my leadership abilities.
I think this quest to improve my leadership skills as of late has improved some of my leadership abilities, but the mere reading of inspiration doesn’t change things. To make a change takes action and a whole lot of work. I’ve been learning as much as possible about people who are considered the most inspiring leaders and hope to be able to put their ideas into practice. Here are lessons twelve of the most inspirational leaders I’ve come across.
1. The power of emotional intelligence.
There have been more biographies written about the 16th president of the United States than any other president. That fact about Abraham Lincoln shouldn’t be all that shocking. He went from a self-taught boy in the Indiana wilderness to becoming president. Through his values, persistence, and decision-making, Lincoln helped steer the country out of the Civil War.
Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told HBR that what made Lincoln an exceptional leader was possessing EI. “What Lincoln had was an extraordinary amount of emotional intelligence. He was able to acknowledge his errors and learn from his mistakes to a remarkable degree,” said Goodwin.
“Lincoln was careful to put past hurts behind him and never allowed wounds to fester. The rare example I could find of Lincoln’s being unable to forgive someone was his father.” Goodwin describes that Lincoln never visited his father when he was dying. This stance may suggest he couldn’t let go of a type of anger.
Maybe the action of not visiting was sorrow he felt around this individual. Possibly Lincoln’s father remained cruel, and Lincoln may not have wanted to put himself in the position of getting bashed again. We don’t know the circumstances, and it would be hard to come to any consensus about his actions. The future president always had a fierce desire to learn — and his father continually told him it was “a sign of laziness.”
2. Consider all the possible options.
The French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is hailed as the most skilled military leader of all time. One of the reasons for this bestowed title is because he took into consideration all risks before going into battle. “A deep thinker,” writes Toby Rogers in a Medium post, Napoleon “would ponder all the possible outcomes of his endeavors, good and bad, before choosing to engage the enemy.
Bonaparte exaggerated the calamities in his own mind first, so he was absolutely prepared for whatever came to pass.” “It’s an approach that any business leader can apply,” adds Rogers. “Before kickstarting anything new, spend time with your team thinking about everything that could go wrong; it’ll stand you in good stead for whatever does.”
3. Leaders must make sacrifices and conquer their fears.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela. Also known for his patience and being a visionary, Nelson Mandela (most inspiring leaders) was the first democratically elected president in South Africa.
Mandela was willing to make sacrifices in what he believed in and wasn’t afraid of the repercussions for his actions. Great leaders, like Mandela, will do almost whatever it takes to reach their goals. Along the way, these stalwart leaders hold themselves accountable and take responsibility for the consequences.
4. Stop taking yourself too seriously.
We’ve all met those people who take themselves way too serious. I get that you started a fantastic business and all, but no one is perfect. We all make mistakes at some point. Besides being a priceless learning experience, not shying away from mistakes or hiding them demonstrates our humility and our humanity.
According to Paul C. Brunson, who had a reality documentary series on OWN, not taking himself too seriously was something he learned from Oprah. “You can’t go more than two minutes in a conversation with Oprah without her smiling and belting out a laugh — typically at her own expense,” Brunson told Inc.com.
5. Believe in your dreams.
Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t just the wife of the 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It’s conceivable that she was the most accomplished First Lady. Eleanor Roosevelt was a leading activist for the rights of women and African-Americans. She was the first First Lady to write a daily newspaper column and helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
No surprise that in 1999, Time named her as one of the most influential people in the 20th Century. The honor of being named as an influential person by Time might not have been possible if Roosevelt were not willing to think big. As she said herself, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
6. Turn weaknesses into strengths.
Make no mistake about it. Helen Keller is arguably one of the most inspirational and uplifting people to ever walk the Earth. As brand expert Leonard Kim informed Entrepreneur, Helen Keller pushed Kim to keep reaching for better things. “Not much is said about Helen Keller in the textbooks, aside from the fact that she was blind and deaf as a child,” Kim said. “But, as she grew older, she learned to turn her weaknesses into strengths.
In Hellen Keller’s life, she earned a bachelor’s degree, published books, co-founded the ACLU, spoke across the world and was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom. ‘“Most of us would be horrified, even traumatized, if we had to live one day in Keller’s shoes, but by she kept continuing onward. Keller was able to inspire not just Americans, but citizens of the entire world.”
7. Character matters.
“The greatest historical leaders demonstrated that character could often matter more than ideas when it comes to leading others to find the greatness in themselves,” writes Gary Polson, CEO, and Chairman at Cydcor. Perhaps that’s why “Benjamin Franklin identified Thirteen Critical Virtues necessary for a successful life and vowed to exemplify them.”
When you think about George Washington, for example, you associate with honesty, while Gandhi is remembered for his restraint and self-discipline. “Whether reading about George Washington, Ben Franklin, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, their personal quality of character stood out and earned them respect, built trust with others, and translated to a highly-regarded reputation,” adds Polson.
8. Always envision something bigger.
Want to know how Microsoft became such a dominant force? It’s because Bill Gates was always focused on building something bigger and better. He was ever-evolving and never willing to become complacent. We’ve even seen this in his philanthropic life. Gates, like all great leaders, are vision-oriented. These leaders are willing to do whatever it takes to make their vision become a reality. Often “doing what it takes” is through continued education, embracing change, and the learning the ability to put yourself out there.
9. Think on the fly.
To be an effective leader, you need to take some time to prepare. Just imagine how disastrous a team meeting would be without an agenda? At the same time, leaders need to be able to improvise and think on their feet. Take, for example, one of the most famous speeches ever; “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr. Legend has it that King was going over the speech he had prepared. But, when he heard gospel singer Mahalia Jackson call out, “Tell ’em about the ‘dream,” he improvised his iconic speech.
10. It takes grit to inspire others.
Winston Churchill had the daunting task of not just leading Britain against the Nazis in World War II, but the entire Allied powers. It was through his persistence and oratory skills that the Allied powers were victorious. Because of this, Churchill is considered one of the greatest leaders ever, and known as the “savior of democracy.”
Churchill was able to inspire others by summoning insurmountable grit. Just read his iconic “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech and tell me you wouldn’t follow this man into battle?
11. The value of mentorship.
Alexander the Great is considered one of the greatest conquers in history. Known for being efficient and innovative, he also knew the importance of having mentors and becoming one yourself. Aristotle actually educated Alexander in cultural, political, and military matters. He also joined his father on military campaigns. When it was time for him to assume the throne, Alexander was more than ready since he was mentored by the most extraordinary minds of the time. Who is your mentor? Are you learning and growing?
Additionally, Alexander the Great was able to surround himself with a talented and committed team. The reason? Alexander, Manfred Kets de Vries writes on INSEAD Knowledge, “spent an extraordinary amount of resources on training and development. He not only trained his present troops but also looked to the future by developing the next generation.”
12. Learn to say “no.”
Known for his virtues and non-violence resistance Mahatma Gandhi once said, “A ‘No’ uttered from the most profound conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse to avoid trouble.”
As a leader, you have to downturn requests for your time. If you are not willing to “do what it takes” to say, “NO,” then you’ll continuously be putting other’s priorities ahead of your own. More importantly, however, I think this quote perfectly sums up the idea that there will be times when you have to make tough decisions even though that decision is not the most popular.
Student at UC Berkeley, currently working on a degree in Electrical Engineering/Computer Sciences and Business Administration. Experienced in CSX, productivity management, and chatbot implementation.