Leadership Lessons from the Mouths of Leaders


Leadership is not always the easiest thing to define. Perhaps it is a good thing to take some leadership lessons from the mouths of real leaders. Let’s consider the following Lao Tzu quote:

“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.”

Lao Tzu

I don’t know if he really said this, but is this good advice or bad advice? Some quickly suggest that it is bad advice because a leader needs to be seen or that a leader must have visible control. However, I think the quote provides great advice, but it takes a deeper understanding to really know why.

Let us examine a few ideas via the words of different leaders and see what we can conclude. What follows are some of my favorite leadership quotes, along with reasons why I believe it is important to think about what they say. Then we’ll reexamine Lao Tzu’s advice.

“Leadership is about being a servant first.”

Allen West

Servant leadership is not always an easy thing to do. The goal is to enrich the lives of those who follow you and perhaps even the lives of those who do not. The philosophy states that by doing so, you will build a happier and more efficient organization that fosters a more caring and just world. Unfortunately, many in leadership positions often exploit the power and position to enrich their own lives instead.

“The supreme quality of leadership is integrity.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. This is arguably one of the most important qualities a leader can have. Oddly enough, some would find such a statement from Eisenhower a bit ironic, considering that he wrote the Army’s official incident report that endorsed MacArthur’s conduct during the charge on the American Veteran Bonus Expeditionary Force in the summer of 1932. This is especially true after having openly disagreed with MacArthur and advising him against getting involved. It’s still a good quote, though, because it is true and demonstrates that not everyone is perfect.

However, a lack of integrity seems to be a systemic problem in leadership lately. Too many times, we discover that integrity is something that is often lacking in our leadership. From business to politics, the norm seems to be a less-than-stellar track record. So I list this quote as a reminder of expectations regarding those you might follow or endorse and something to strive for as a leader yourself. No matter how much you dislike the alternative, integrity weighs much heavier in the long run. If we could only foster more of it.

“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”

Ralph Nader

Of course, it is. And why shouldn’t it be? The sad part is that many in positions of leadership often hold down those with exceptional ability. Is this based on fear?

Think of the alternative. I have heard it said that you are only as good as those you hire. In many ways, this is true. Wouldn’t it make more sense to hire great ethical people and attempt to replicate know-how to improve a process or organization?

If you are a leader, your organization needs more of you. By replicating you or improving upon the ability of those who can do – and can do correctly without oversight – you are freeing up time and ability for other squeaky wheels. This idea breeds efficiency and exceptionalism.

“A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit.”

Arnold Glasow

Pointing out fault rarely solves a problem. Furthermore, find me someone who says that they do not make mistakes, and I will show you a delusional liar. People make mistakes. People will stumble in their tasks. Leaders need to find a way to equip followers for success and take responsibility when their tactics fail. Better yet, perhaps the leader needs to replicate himself in the first place, as addressed before. Think about this for a moment; as a leader, when you create another leader who completes the task successfully, there is no greater joy than lifting your victorious creation up for all to see.

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

Marin Luther King Jr.

“Consensus” is defined by Merriam-Webster as, first, general agreement, and second, group solidarity of belief or sentiment. As you can imagine, when you have a consensus, everyone will be more committed to the way you address a situation. However, a leader does not seek the approval of those who follow, he either creates it or molds it. I like to say that he creates and justifies reason in an easily understood and agreeable way. So how does one do this?

Sir Francis Bacon once wrote, “ipsa scientia potestas est.” In our words, it means ‘knowledge itself is power.’ Many times, knowledge is often the missing piece of the puzzle in regard to both followers and leaders, and the absence of it can quickly turn the program into the blind leading the blind. If this is you, you must course correct.

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

John F. Kennedy

It is my humble opinion that leadership requires a never-ending quest for knowledge. Learning should never cease, and the quest itself should be an objective one. All sides and all perspectives should be evaluated and pondered. Your own conclusions should be researched and challenged (especially by yourself). If you or someone else can rip your conclusions apart easily, they are weak and need to be reconsidered or refined.

Never stop learning. Learn as much as possible and share those conclusions with anyone who will hear them. But understand that learning is more about self-enrichment; what you do with it can make you a leader. Being knowledgeable about many things can make you a more competent leader and THE resource for those who might follow.

“Leadership cannot really be taught. It can only be learned.”

Harold Geneen

If someone is not interested in a subject, it will be difficult for them to retain the information. For instance, someone who is not a sports fan will not remember the stats, players, or even the rules of the game. Will they know some of the basics? Sure they will, but the passion will not be there. Leadership is not so different. You can tell someone the principles of leadership, but will they be retained? Only if that individual is eager to learn and retain them in the first place. Your job as a leader is to seek out those who fit that profile and then help them grow.

Remember: not everyone can be a leader. Your task is to find leaders, bring them into your organization, and then replicate your efforts.

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”

Jack Welch

See what I mean? When you foster personal growth in yourself by learning everything you possibly can, you have a much better chance of becoming the trusted leader people want to follow. Your decisions hold more weight because your research is vast, and you consider more factors and angles before making decisions. This gives you the edge because by doing it this way, your decisions have a better chance of being right more often. That’s what followers are looking for.

But give that some thought. Did you swim perfectly your first time? Did you ride a bike perfectly your first time? Was the first paper you ever wrote a masterpiece? Of course not. You had to learn through practice and certain preparations (such as learning).

Again, leadership is not so different. Now imagine it was your career to teach others how to ride a bike, write a paper, or swim. How would you go about it? “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” Keep it simple: learn, practice, perfect, teach, lead.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

John Quincy Adams

Look at it this way. When you fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something, you have inspired them. Inspiration is just as important as knowledge or planning. When you provide a dream or goal when you provide a plan to get there, and when you help someone achieve that goal or dream, you are a leader, and history will see you as a great one.

“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.”

Alexander the Great

I like this quote because of its simplicity. Indeed, an entire nation of warriors led by a pacifist is not on my list of concerns. However, Alexander is pointing out that a calculating and aggressive leader is a force to be reckoned with because that leader will know how to position his followers for maximum effect or influence. However, I would like to take it a step further and have you consider that few things are more powerful than an inspired and knowledgeable team. Think of Alexander’s words and then imagine that army of lions led by another lion. Why even deal with the sheep? Of course, it would be hard at that point to tell who the true leader was, right? Maybe that’s the goal of any organization.

“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.”

Lao Tzu

Can you see why I find this to be great advice? For me, barely being noticed is not about being a weak leader; it’s about making a great team that makes it hard to distinguish one from the other. Great teams are created and fostered by great leaders who are knowledgeable enough to make sound ethical decisions when needed.

You will be among your equals if you’ve done your job well enough. As a result, your team will thrive, and you will all succeed. I will also add that I believe that leadership is having the courage to do the right thing; by seizing the moment and affecting positive change; especially when others either cannot or do not. These are all very powerful lessons.

Keep learning! You might also like my article titled, “Essential Theories and Concepts in Leadership.