The Meaning Behind Famous Leadership Quotes

By Madeleine Green

Inspirational leadership quotes are a quick-fix for a doubtful mind,

but the real challenge is found in their practical application.



When we doubt ourselves as leaders, we look to the greats for inspiration.


From politicians to poets, famous leaders from history have been inspiring the next generation to take up the torch.


What can Martin Luther King Jr tell us about people management?


What can Maya Angelou teach us about running a business?


I’ve selected some of history’s best leadership quotes by women and men to review for The Industry Leaders. Maybe I can introduce you to a new hero, or at least, to a new idea that you can implement in your business, starting today.



Here are my top seven inspirational quotes for business leaders:


1. “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?”


— Benjamin Disraeli


This former prime minister of the UK took a democratic approach to his leadership, seeing his role, primarily, as a service to the people who elected him.


According to Disraeli, those who elect you — whether this be your staff, board members, or yourself — will continue to be your biggest supporters.


Perhaps it is in your best interests, therefore, to focus on your own supporters and let them know that they’re your top priority.


2. “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a moulder of consensus.”


— Martin Luther King Jr.


Unlike Disraeli, King, a preacher and civil rights activist, sought to unite his people under a shared dream rather than change himself and his beliefs to appeal to the public.


King’s leadership grew from his ability to “mould” a common understanding between his followers. One could argue that he led ideas more than he led people.


Perhaps your company has a certain mission or value you think is important for you and your staff to uphold. Focusing on fostering shared values in your staff will strengthen your team’s connection with one another as well as with you.


3. “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.”


— Laozi/Lao Tzu


This ancient Chinese philosopher emphasised the importance of humility. You should be able to perform all of your duties as a leader without needing your efforts to be noticed or praised.


If you allow your followers to take their credit where it's due, they won’t need you to do so much behind the scenes in the future.


By crediting your team with their successes, you can empower them into believing that they, too, can be active agents of change within the company.


4. “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”


— Nelson Mandela


Mandela viewed leadership as a position of great sacrifice. Having endured 27 years in jail for fighting for civil rights, his sacrifice paid off when he was later elected to serve as the prime minister of South Africa.


For Mandela, leadership wasn’t about carrying others to success, but taking charge and taking responsibility for when things went wrong.


You may find those dips in profit or productivity the most challenging to face, but stepping up and taking charge during the bad times is what being a leader is all about.


5. “Do what you feel in your heart to be right - for you’ll be criticised anyway.”


— Eleanor Roosevelt


Similar to Mandela, Roosevelt, a former first lady of the US, understood the sacrifices great leaders have to make — by taking on a position of leadership, you make yourself vulnerable to criticism, and you should expect it.


Roosevelt coped with the constant criticism she received by maintaining her integrity.


She felt that she would always be doing the best she could, as long as she made her decisions with conviction and stayed true to herself rather than trying to be a people pleaser.


6. “People respond well to those that are sure of what they want.”


— Anna Wintour


Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, also values a leader’s abilities to express herself confidently and with conviction.


For Wintour, clear communication of your ideas could even take priority over their substance.


Even if your ideas aren’t quite right, if you can express them well you’ll be able to work with your team to correct them — you can’t do this if you can’t commit to your own vision.


7. “If one is lucky, one solitary fantasy can totally transform one million realities.”


— Maya Angelou


Angelou, a poet and civil rights activist, introduces the concept of luck into the leadership equation.


With luck, she says, the dream of one person — your dream — could change the world.


Depending upon your relationship with luck, or perhaps knowledge of your own circumstances, you can interpret Angelou’s words as either hopeful or bleak.


However, Angelou also speaks to the power of the individual. It may be useful, then, to remember her mantra whenever you feel powerless in leadership.


With a little luck, little insignificant you can reach out to millions of strangers and change their lives for the better.



Do you have a favourite leadership quote?


Hopefully, my interpretation of these wise words has allowed you to make a connection with someone here.


Which ideas do you find yourself drawn to the most?


I recommend that you choose one famous leadership quote from this list and take it away with you today. Keep its philosophy at the forefront of your mind, and try to implement it at work for a week.


Experiment, and see what happens.


Madeleine Green is a freelance writer, and an intern for The Industry Leaders. She graduated from university in 2020 with a degree in education, and her interests include sociology, literature and current affairs. Connect with Madeleine on LinkedIn.


Main Image: Jehyun Sung on Unsplash


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