John Addison: 4 Inspiring Quotes From the Most Influential Leaders of All Time

UPDATED: June 8, 2023
PUBLISHED: November 9, 2015

I love reading about and studying the lives of our great leaders. I find it inspiring that so many of the people we admire the most came from very regular beginnings and, through hard work and dedication, achieved great success. They didn’t just persevere in the face of adversity; they seemed to thrive on it and they continued to fight for change even when it was hard and wasn’t all that convenient for them.

Being a leader is more than just the role you’re in or title you hold. Leadership is really about influence and being a force for positive change. Throughout history, people from all walks of life have become influential leaders: authors, former slaves, clergymen, migrant workers and homemakers have led movements that changed history.

To give you a little extra inspiration on your leadership journey, here are four quotes from people I consider to be among the most influential leaders of all time. Not all of them held traditional leadership roles, but they all helped change the world in immeasurable ways.

“It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.” — Sir Winston Churchill

I understand there is value in long-term planning, but it seems like a lot of people use it as a way to not deal with whatever is going on right now. Like, they truly, honestly think as long as they have that plan and cling to it, whatever is happening right now will sort itself out.  Unfortunately, that’s not actually how life works.

As a leader, the bulk of your organization’s issues are going to land right in your lap. Sidestepping them and trying to focus on the big picture won’t make them disappear. It’ll only make them bigger. If you want to be successful, you have to deal with the problem in front of you right this very second. And then you move on to the next one. You have to be in motion. You have to be actively involved in what’s happening in the here and now. Anything else will totally derail the long-term plan you’ve been clinging to.

“Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.” — Norman Vincent Peale

Everyone is good at something, but no one is good at everything. Find what you’re good at. If you need to, sit down and make a list of all the things you’re naturally good at—things you do well without practice or lessons—and focus on those things. If you want to be a successful and effective leader, you’ve got to have enough faith in what you can achieve to admit you can’t achieve all the things alone.

Build up those natural strengths, and surround yourself with people who complement your skill set but whose strengths are opposite of yours

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”   General George S. Patton

Treat your people like professionals—not like children. Trust that you did a good enough job hiring them that you can give them an assignment and they can figure out how to complete it based on the skills and experience that led you to choose them over all the other applicants in the first place. Maybe they don’t go about doing things exactly the same way you do, but that doesn’t mean their way is wrong. It’s just different. Standing over your people and dictating how they do their job doesn’t make you a good leader—it makes you a micromanager. No one likes to work for a micromanager. And they generally won’t for any longer than absolutely necessary.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

There is a big difference between being a boss and being a leader. A boss tends to think the people around him are there to make him a big deal. He takes all the glory when things are going well and passes on 100 percent of the blame when things are going bad. His ego is too big to see that his people neither like nor respect him because he makes them feel like they don’t matter.  Those are the kind of people that make us hate to go to work every day.

If you want to be a leader who makes a lasting impact and who is respected by your employees, build your people up. Shine a light on them. Acknowledge the vital role they play in your successes as well as their individual achievements and make them feel like you are grateful to have them on your team. Make them feel appreciated. When you shine a light on your people and make them feel like they matter, the light will eventually shine back on you.

Being a leader definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. You have to thrive on adversity and have the guts to run gleefully towards the uncertainty. That’s scary stuff, but you don’t have to go it alone. When you find yourself worrying about the future, take a look at the past and get inspiration from the greats who came before you. They may provide just the shot of bravery you need to be the great leader you aspire to be.

Jim Rohn says what’s important in leadership is refining your skills. Learn the 7 qualities of a great leader—then keep working on yourself until you become effective.

John Addison is the Leadership Editor for SUCCESS and the author of Real Leadership: 9 Simple Practices for Leading and Living with Purpose, a Wall Street Journal and USA Today best-seller. Renowned for his insight and wisdom on leadership, personal development and success, John is a sought-after speaker and motivator. Read more on his blog, and follow John on Facebook and Twitter.