Leadership & Impact
7 Unique Leadership Qualities of the Best Leaders in History

When you think of history’s most powerful, compelling, influential, movement-making and game-changing leaders, what do you think their most admired qualities were? The ones that attracted people to them and enrolled people into wanting to support their great mission, goals or causes?

Great leaders are the backbone of our society. Thanks to their unique leadership qualities, they form the foundation of everything from:

  • families
  • communities
  • spiritual organizations
  • major corporations
  • to entire countries

In this article, I’d like to point out what I think are seven of the most important attributes of powerful and influential leaders throughout history.

3 Rare Leadership Qualities of Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi

If someone asks me “What is Leadership?” we need not look further than to the example of one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known. Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln did the impossible as a leader. I am not just talking about reuniting a country ravaged by civil war. He combined two traits as a leader that are seemingly incompatible—confidence and humility. Let’s start with humility.

Attribute #1 – Humility

Humility is generally defined as the quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people. But perhaps C.S. Lewis described it best when he said,

Humility is not thinking LESS of yourself, but rather thinking about yourself less.

Humility is the trait of a leader who can acknowledge their faults and listen to the advisors around him or her, in order to avoid making the mistakes that could jeopardize the objective of that which he or she is leading. But how did Lincoln pull off the impossible? A blend of humility AND confidence?

Attribute #2 – Confidence

Confidence is having a strong sense of self. A belief that you are competent, can do something well, and that you will succeed. Confidence is our ability to stand tall and accomplish what we set out to do. For a leader, it gives them the ability to carve out the path they see as the right one even when others might doubt them.

You can see how these two leadership traits could easily be at odds. Listening to others’ advice and allowing them to convince you against your own decision-making, yet not listening to them when you know you are right. Balancing the two traits is definitely indicative of great leadership.

How Lincoln Displayed Humility & Confidence

Here is how Lincoln’s leadership embodied and demonstrated these two traits: During the crisis over Fort Sumter that began the Civil War, secretary of state William Henry Seward pushed Lincoln to secede the fort peacefully. When Lincoln refused instead opting for his own plan, Seward went so far as to push Lincoln to cede control of the entire administration to him. Of course, Lincoln refused, telling him, “If this must be done, I must do it.” His confidence held him steady in the face of those who would push him out because they felt he was wrong. Then later Lincoln demonstrated humility by accepting the advice of the same man, Seward, when he cautioned him to wait on the Emancipation Proclamation for a time when it wouldn’t make the government look weak and defeated.

In this scenario, Lincoln shows his ability to defer to the judgment of others out of humility and his effort to focus on the needs of the country, not his own plans. While Lincoln had many traits associated with genuinely great leadership, his ability to combine confidence and humility are two of the most important that made what the achievement that he led possible. These are the first two traits I also wish for you: Confidence AND Humility.

Attribute #3 – Authenticity

Having met, interviewed, studied and/or featured many of the greatest leaders alive today, I have concluded the most admirable, powerful, compelling, and WOWing quality of a leader is… AUTHENTICITY.

Having what you say, what you feel, what you believe, and what you do be the same as who you are.

We know the foundation of leadership is credibility and doing what you say—being the example we want others to model. To do so, you have to be clear on your values and align actions with those values. Certainly, a great example of this leadership trait is Mahatma Gandhi. What he believed, he lived. People want to follow a person like that—someone, like Gandhi, who lived his values and had a clear, higher purpose that connected with millions of others as a shared vision. This is how Gandhi put it,

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him … We need not wait to see what others do.

Is there a behavior that’s “rotting the teeth” of your organization? If so, who’s the first one that needs to throw those sweets away? You guessed it… If you’re a leader, it’s YOU. Now that we’ve examined the traits of two of the best leaders in history, I want to point out the #1 leadership attribute I’ve detected from the world’s best business leaders.

A “Funny” Quality 3 of the Best Business Leaders Share

From our earliest days in grade school, we quickly discover that nothing hurts like being laughed at. No one wants to be the butt of the joke. Years later, though we’re no longer children, we may still carry the unspoken stigma of having been ridiculed by the pack. But is it really that bad? Is it really so damaging to be laughed at? I can think of a few “jokes” where the people telling them did not, in fact, have the last laugh.

Attribute #4 – Laughable

Have you heard the joke about the guy who wanted to build a privately funded rocket and launch it into outer space? Or the one about the guy who wanted to start a new airline—the toughest of industries—during the dot-com crash? Oh, wait, how about the joke about the guy who bought 160 acres of orange groves to build what he wanted to call “the happiest place on earth?” A total nutball, right? Are you laughing? Most people did when the SpaceX, Jet Blue, and Disneyland business plans were discussed, albeit for the wrong reasons. Yet when all was said and done, guess who laughed last?

Elon Musk chuckled 1.6 billion times when he bucked all his closest friends’ advice and was awarded NASA’s International Space Station cargo contract. Launched in 1999, Jet Blue was one of only a few airlines after 9/11 to be profitable. David Neeleman has 2 billion reasons ($) to smile. Walt Disney, along with his “go big or go home” leadership philosophy, has snickered 515 million times as each person entered into what has truly become a wonderland.

Like Gandhi implied, people laugh at revolutionaries, extraordinary achievers, and icons… at first. So like this great business leaders, if you believe in your dream, vision, or plan, don’t let the snickering and finger-pointing deter you!

3 Impactful Leadership Qualities of Nelson Mandela

I feel it’s only fitting to conclude our leadership qualities list with an example of one of my greatest leadership heroes. One of the greatest leaders I think the world has witnessed, during our lifetime at least, is Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela’s life story has long since become a legend, one that transcends borders, race, language or culture. It would be absurd–let alone disrespectful to Mandela’s achievements–to suggest that the issues you and I face as a business leader are as grave as Apartheid, or that the stresses you and I encounter can ever compare with his decades of imprisonment. There are, however, three unique attributes Mandela demonstrated during his career that hold lessons for everyone who aspires to be a great leader.

Attribute #5 – Adherence to Principles

In a 1985 speech to the nation, pro-Apartheid President F. W. Botha offered Mandela freedom if he renounced violence and other illegal activity. The President tried to shift the blame for imprisonment to Mandela himself: after all, he was now free to go, provided he would be law abiding. Right then, Mandela could have freed himself, at least from a jail cell, but he knew he could not free himself from his principles. He did not fall for this transparent ploy, however. Yes, he very much desired freedom after decades of hard labor and confinement in a small cell. But he also felt it would betray his principles, his leadership, and the ANC’s long struggle. Here is how Mandela replied, in part, to President Botha’s disingenuous offer:

What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? What freedom am I being offered if I must ask permission to live in an urban area? Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.

Mandela turned down Botha and opted to stay in his cold, dark prison cell — about 8 feet by 8 feet in size — and was prepared to serve the remainder of his life sentence. His principles and the cause in which he led took precedence even over relief from his pain or his human desires to be liberated. This decision was enormously powerful since it greatly elevated his position as a leader of strength and principle and now the face of the ANC’s opposition.

Attribute #6 – Calm in Chaos

Another example and demonstration of his attributes occurred shortly after Mandela became a free man, but before he was elected President in 1994. The trigger was the 1993 assassination of Chris Hani, a popular black leader fighting for equal rights. Hani was shot in cold blood by a right-wing white extremist when stepping out of his car. The assassination ignited widespread fury and triggered huge demonstrations.

Many black South Africans wanted revenge, and the atmosphere was ripe for looting, violence, and mayhem. Recently out of prison, Mandela rose to the occasion and appealed for calm. Here is part of what he said: “Tonight, I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us.”

Mandela demonstrated the crucial attribute of calm and confidence, particularly in times of fear, strife, and chaos.

Attribute #7 – Forgiveness

The third example I want to point out is when, in 1995, Mandela visited the widow of the very man who was the main architect of the apartheid regime and in effect put him in prison. He demonstrated forgiveness and put the purpose of his cause above his own grievances and personal wounds. He also rejoiced when the national rugby team, Springboks, won the world championship, even though this team had been a symbol of racism and Afrikaner power for decades. He proudly wore the team’s shirt during the championship match, waved his hands in support and signaled to the world at large that he truly supported a rainbow nation. Such leadership is as precious as it is rare.

Leadership Qualities List – Evaluation Time

In summary, I ask you to evaluate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 on how well you demonstrate the 7 prominent leadership qualities list from Lincoln, Gandhi, Musk, Disney, Neeleman, and Mandela:

  1. Confidence
  2. Humility
  3. Authenticity
  4. Fearlessness
  5. Adherence to principles (even at personal sacrifice)
  6. Calm in chaos
  7. Forgiveness

I suggest evaluating yourself, then asking a few members of your team to evaluate you on these 7 attributes. If you are too afraid to ask your leadership team (which kinda disqualifies you as a leader) then ask your spouse—they are always willing to be enthusiastic critics or let’s say, coaches. You may even get a chance to put your “humility” to the test if they point out some of the bad leadership qualities you display.

Hey, leadership is not easy and it demands substantial personal growth. So be willing to do the hard work necessary so you can be a great leader of men, women, and children. And don’t forget to tell all your overachiever friends, family and colleagues to share in your journey to becoming a great leader by also subscribing to Darren Daily.

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