Lessons We Can Learn from History’s Greatest Leaders

12 May
May 12, 2014

This week I take a step back in time and examine the careers of some of history’s greatest leaders. Whilst a couple of them are considered somewhat controversial, there are some important lessons that can be learnt from their leadership styles which can be applied in a modern context. Five important leadership lessons can be taken out of this article, those being; the willingness to do what you ask of others, the value of education, the importance of aspiring to achieve high goals, the benefit of resilience, and finally the value of compassion as a leader.

Napoleon Bonaparte


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Going back many years in history we find the ruthless but great French leader Napoleon Bonaparte. Although Napoleon was known to be controversial in many of his decisions, he was also known to be very in touch with his people. In an article written by Ralph Jean-Paul, Napoleon is described as a leader who would regularly be found completing tasks considered below his role; he was wherever he was needed on the battlefield. Whilst modern day business is very different to an ancient warzone, the key lesson to take away from this French figure is his willingness to be hands on with his workers. Despite being an Emperor, no job was beneath him and he was committed to his responsibility to get the job done. Modern day leaders can undoubtedly learn from this; by completing tasks that he expected of others, Napoleon’s men felt that he really cared about what he was fighting for. This encourages leaders of today to learn to participate in the work of those that you lead. This hands-on approach allows you to connect with people and lead on a more intimate level. It also demonstrates your commitment to the cause that you are all working towards, and could result in a more enthusiastic work ethic from your staff.

Nelson Mandela

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Undoubtedly one of the most influential leaders in history, Nelson Mandela has countless lessons that can be applied into business leadership and people management. One which stands out is his great belief in lifelong learning. Mandela himself attended six higher education institutions including the University of South Africa, the University of London, and the University of Fort Hart. One of his most well-known quotes is ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’. Education does not cease after your first degree; lifelong learning includes going back to study at a later date, as well as the willingness to continue to learn and grow from your experiences. Education provides us with a wider understanding of ideas and people and in turn, allows us to be a more informed and wiser leader.

John F Kennedy

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Known as one of the more controversial leaders, former US President John F Kennedy is examined for his ability to ‘think big’ and his constant high aspirations for the people of the United States. Inc. Magazine quotes Kennedy from a public speech in 1962 to say ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills’. Kennedy had very high aspirations, and was not afraid to set goals that others considered unachievable. Both already established as well as aspiring leaders can learn from Kennedy; allow yourself to set difficult goals, and challenge yourself in the workplace. Great leaders do not seek easily achievable tasks, they aspire to change and be revolutionary. If you truly want to be a good leader, challenge your skillset and lead your team to greatness.

 Margaret Thatcher

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Famously known as ‘The Iron Lady’, Margaret Thatcher experienced her share of controversies throughout her career as British Prime Minister. One constant however, was her admirable resilience which earned her that infamous likening to the metal. The tougher the challenge the more she seemed to rise to it, and she appeared to enjoy the process of doing so. Her leadership style reflected her personality, that being challenge-orientated with a strong sense of self confidence. The Center for Work Life notes that high levels of resilience can lead to positive consequences ‘such as reduced stress and a more constructive work attitude’. In your leadership career, you are bound to come across challenges and times where you will need to display resilience. Thatcher is a great example of someone who displayed resilience during times of adversity, and one which should be noted by leaders as a whole.

Mahatma Gandhi


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When the name Mahatma Gandhi is mentioned, one of the first words to come to mind is ‘compassion’.  Many consider Gandhi as one of the most ethical and compassionate leaders the earth has seen. He is well-known for his quote ‘In a gentle way, you can shake the world’, one which indicates his intentions to change the world, but to do it in a compassionate manner. Gandhi was a leader who had the ability to step into the shoes of others allowing him to gain an understanding of issues from different perspectives. This ability to have compassion and empathise with those around you is an integral characteristic of leaders. It helps you connect with those you lead, and people appreciate leaders who show an interest and care.

Overall, it is clear that Napoleon Bonaparte, Nelson Mandela, John F Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher and Mahatma Gandhi have a range of very admirable leadership qualities which can be emulated in a modern business context. I am interested to hear if you think these qualities are relevant in your career. Feel free to write a comment below to let me know your views, or alternatively, do you have any other leadership qualities that you think should be added to the list?

This article was written by Laura Hutton on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources have been used to prepare this article: Potential2SuccessCenter For Work LifeInc. MagazineNews Limited and the United Nations.

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  • Georgie

    A good range of leaders… I also admire Obama and his public speaking skills. They have definitely made him an influential leader!

    • aibeducation

      Thanks for your comment Georgie – Obama is another great example of one of the many fantastic leaders we can learn from.

  • Sam

    I like the combination of historical and more modern leaders – good to see a spread across the ages.

    • aibeducation

      Thanks Sam – appreciate the feedback!

  • Shalene

    Richard Branson….his leadership style has certainly led to his phenomenal success…

    • aibeducation

      A great suggestion Shalene! Stay tuned for a profile on Richard Branson in the near future – we too admire his leadership style and success.

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