Great leaders come from all walks of life. Seldom do they follow some predetermined path to leadership. While a few of them may have been “born leaders,” in most cases great leaders weren’t even picked to be “Most Likely to Succeed” in their high school yearbooks.Almost all successful leaders overcome obstacles and failures a long the way. For many, that’s what defines their leadership style and drives them.
What follows is NOT a list of the greatest leaders of all time, though a few of these might make such a list. But each is a successful leader in his or her own way. And while many people see them as extraordinary now, at some point in their past they were viewed as just ordinary by the people around them.
Also, this is NOT a ranking. In fact, ranking great leaders is foolish. Not only does it take away from the accomplishments of so many, but it leads to a never-ending debate. In this case, we only used numbers to help you navigate the list and to prove we really listed 11.
Bill Gates appears everyone’s list of the Top 10 most admired U.S. business leaders – ever. That’s pretty lofty company.
When he retired from Microsoft in 2008, Gates left a legacy as a demanding and, at times, abrasive boss.
Yet he encouraged and nurtured enormous creativity and innovation from people, and made a point of recognizing achievements.
The programmers, engineers, designers, MBAs and others who regularly attended Gates’ development meetings said he frequently interrupted to question and challenge assumptions.
Given those details, there’s little doubt Gates relied heavily on an authoritarian leadership style.
He took charge and let everyone know he was in charge.
But like so many successful people, he relied on a blend of other styles as well.
He was aware that his authoritarian style was not conducive to innovation. Control freaks hinder creativity. (It’s said Gates required so much control in his early years that he even signed off on the expenses of his second-in-command, Steve Ballmer.)
The authoritarian style is very effective in fast-changing situations, where quick decisions are required. Much of Microsoft’s success can be attributed to Gates willingness to make decisions on the run.
Martin Luther King used a variety of styles to establish and lead a movement that was fundamental to the success of ending legal segregation in the United States.
He was a servant leader. He was transformational, but he also could be authoritarian.
He was a coach and mentor.
But in winning the hearts of minds of the American public, as creating a worldwide following, King was foremost a practitioner of the art of Charisma leadership.
His “I Have A Dream” speech brought awareness and humanity to the national consciousness about Civil Rights.
An important lesson for leaders is that this speech was not meant to win the hearts and minds of his followers. They were already on board.
What his speech did do – with a power that is still reverberating today – was to win the hearts and minds of public opinion.
It is not widely known that King was born in a comfortably middle-class family and steeped in the tradition of the Southern black ministry. He was never thrust into his leadership role, but chose it.
During his struggle for equality he was arrested more than 25 times and assaulted at least four reported times, not counting his assassination.
His life was a textbook of insightful lessons for those aspiring to leadership. One of the most indelible: Disrupting the status quo is essential for change.
Winston Churchill was the lion that roared when an empire needed him most, and it was due to his bold leadership that he was able to create for himself a permanent seat of honor at the table of modern history. Churchill relied on many styles. When it came to working with other world leaders who were his allies, he was largely collaborative. But his public leadership image was more transformational. Building morale, motivation and a singular sense of identity, were essential to his success.
When in the public Churchill exuded enthusiasm, determination, and optimism. He regularly visited bombed towns and bustling war factories, standing side-by-side with English citizens as if to say “I am one of you.” He had no choice. Germany already had defeated much of Western Europe, so Churchill needed to rally his countrymen and stand fast.
He used words as weapons, and it’s said his many memorable utterings were more powerful than a thousand cannons.
Churchill’s planning and decision-making – both political and military – is said to have been simple and efficient. His engaging and forceful personality helped to cement the ‘Big Three’ Alliance between Britain, Russia and the United States, which went on to win the biggest war the world has ever known.
It also should be noted that Churchill was an artist, a historian and a writer; his works winning him a Nobel Prize in Literature.
She’s been dubbed the Oprah of Appalachia, a backwoods Barbie who built a music and entertain empire on grit, homespun values and a brilliant smile that turned rain into rainbows.
She also knows a bit about leadership.
Dolly Parton connected with her audience right from the outset; a young singer fresh from a childhood in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. She held out hope that the future could be better than the present, and then she put forth the emotional power to make it so.
Among her favorite sayings is: “if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain!”
Three leadership traits that help make her the icon she is, were best described by the Harvard Business Review:
Giving. Leaders give of themselves so others can succeed. That means you spend time coaching and developing your people. Pull them aside when they are high-falutin’ and give them a shoulder to cry on when times are tough.
Forgiving. People make mistakes. If they acknowledge them and seek to make amends, move forward. Get over it. A leader cannot afford grudges; it rubs off negatively on others and drains energy from the team.
Loving. Apply this to your work. Have a passion for what you do; it will rub off on the entire team. A leader who enjoys his work and the people with whom he works is one that encourages people to follow his lead.
The founder of the world’s most prolific and profitable entertainment company adopted many leadership styles over the years.
But during his formative years, in the lead up to World War II, Disney built the beginnings of his empire based mostly on Participative leadership.
It is a leadership style that values the input of team members and peers, though the ultimate responsibility of making the final decision rests with the leader.
In the late 1930s, for instance, after the tremendous success of Snow White, Disney was building an enormous studio complex in Burbank, CA. He needed to find and hire more than 700 skilled artists, often traveling the country to recruit them. As an incentive, he even offered to pay their schooling to help improve their skills.
The very nature of full-length animated story productions required groups of people focusing with extraordinary attention to detail and continuity. This kind of entertainment had never been done before. Disney needed to create the model.
In the many vintage photographs from that era, Disney is seen most often sitting around a drawing table or story board, with a dozen other artists — sometimes as many as 40 – meticulously plotting and crafting scenes and characters.
Disney knew too many cooks could spoil the soup, so he made sure people understood the vision he had for stories, and how he wanted them told.
To create a single story required tens of thousands of hours of artistic input, and that meant mastering the job of Participative leadership.
There was a time that Arianna Huffington was dubbed “the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus,” an Athens-born and Cambridge-educated powerbroker and media savant.
But time has a way of rounding off the edges, and Huffington’s leadership style these days is very different from when she first rose to prominence a generation ago.
Back when she was fighting for a foothold in an industry dominated by mega-corporations, she was the Pacesetter-style of leader, obsessed with getting everything done as efficiently as possible.
As she carefully crafted the Huffington Post, a national online political news and blogging site, she worked 18 hour days, 7 days a week, and it all felt so natural to a woman who’d spent most of her adult life in the political spotlight.
Then one day in 2007 she literally collapsed from exhaustion, and her world view changed.
She continued to build the Huffington Post into the success it is today (it was purchased by AOL in 2011 for $315 million) but she also morphed into a national campaigner for work-LIFE balance, with a heavy emphasis on life.
With that came a conversion more to the Servant leadership style, where a positive corporate culture is built around integrity, generosity and group morale,
“Both my own leadership style, and that of the other leaders at HuffPost, is very much like being in the middle of the circle, rather than at the top of the mountain shouting down,” she told Director magazine. “I’m also looking for people who aren’t too reactive and easily affected by the challenges the business faces every day.”
It’s said that even the best battle plans go out the window the moment the shooting starts.
That’s how unpredictable and disruptive war really is.
It also explains, in large measure, why Colin Powell grew to be an excellent example of Situational leadership.
He remains one of America’s most admired figures, a man whose prestige transcended party lines and political ideology.
The situational leader holds to no single style, but adapts as needed, as the situation requires.
This was particularly crucial to Powell’s extraordinary career. As he rose through the ranks, this Harlem-born general-to-be needed to adapt to military bureaucracy and political reality.
Before long he found himself working side-by-side with presidents, dating back to Richard Nixon’s second term. That required a whole different set of leadership skills and principles.
In his book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, Powell takes the reader through a series of work-life realities. For instance, not everyone gets promoted, he says, because there simply isn’t that many slots at the top. And for those who chose to work nonstop long hours, those he affectionately calls “busy bastards,” they need to prioritize better and get some rest.
He is also fond of saying that “With some people you spend an evening: with others you invest it.” In other words, if you flock with eagles, you’ll learn to fly high.
In her business, as in her life, she is the ultimate perfectionist; whether cooking, gardening, entertaining, writing books — or creating multi-channel media operations that are the envy of marketers.
That’s just how she is.
Martha Stewart, the founder of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, is an entrepreneur who was always focused on every excruciating detail. It paid off. She went on to become one of the world’s most recognizable brands.
Whether you admire her or not, she is meticulous, demanding and successful. A big reason she has been so resilient is her autocratic management style.
Those close to her say that demanding style seemed to naturally be part of her.
Others suggest that even more success might have awaited her if she had not relied so heavily on such a potentially damaging style.
It’s often said the Autocratic style works, until it fails.
That may be true, but so far, Martha Stewart has had more influence on how Americans eat, entertain, and decorate their homes than probably any other person.
Marc Russell Benioff, the founder, chairman and CEO of Salesforce, Inc, has turned the software industry on its head.
His company, simply called salesforce.com, is a global cloud computing operation headquartered San Francisco. Forbes magazine called Salesforce, Inc. the most innovative company in America every year since 2011. It provides a broad range of internet-based customer-relationship and customer-management services.
Though he’s been called frumpy, often sporting a perpetual 5 o;clock shadow, Benioff exudes a genuine passion for his work. His mission is so clear he trademarked it: “The End of Software.”
With salesforce, companies no longer need to buy their own software, or in many cases even have an IT infrastructure. For a price, you simply plug into saleforce.com’s cloud, and it does it all customized and done for you.
Benioff has been lauded as one of the Smartest 50 People in Tech as well as one of the Top 50 People in Business, in part because salesforce achieved its greatest growth strides while the world’s economy was experiencing on of its most difficult downturns.
Benioff also pioneered the 1/1/1 integrated philanthropic model, by which companies contribute 1 percent of profits, 1 percent of equity, and 1 percent of employee hours back to the communities it serves.
Teddy Roosevelt lived his life larger than life, and in so doing, left his mark on history.
He was a doer, the founder of the famed, volunteer cavalry unit called the “Rough Riders” and the first sitting president to the travel outside the United States while still in office.
He was foremost a master at capturing a moment.
For example, as Congress dilly-dallied over building the Panama Canal and the public’s interest wanted, Roosevelt had his picture taken at the controls of a 95-ton steam shovel digging a trench through the Panamanian jungle, and the project won the public’s imagination.
To solidify America’s position as world military power, he ordered that 16 large vessels be painted white before they departed Hampton Roads, and thus was born the Great White Fleet. In still another iconic moment, Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear cub that had already been trapped by hunters. He called the practice unsportsmanlike. The American public called him a Teddy bear, and thus the term for a stuffed animal came into popular use.
Roosevelt prepared the country for the rapid change ahead as the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear. He beat up on corporate welfare goons, where he earned the nickname Trust Buster, and he turned the relatively weak president’s position into a “bully pulpit.”
Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, set out to level the playing field by creating an entirely new generation of saleswomen.
She mastered sales by selling books door-to-door. In 1963, she retired from a home products company after being passed over for a promotion in favor of a man that she had trained.
But she was only getting started.
Ash went on to create a company for working women to make sure they are treated equally and promoted based on merit. Business success came from encouraging her sales force to focus on products that were not necessarily the most profitable, but that they felt they could sell well.
A core principal was to encourage both the corporate staff and the independent sales force to act as if each person they met was wearing a sign around his or her neck that read “Make me feel important”.
As a coach, she put forth a strong leadership mindset. She believed in herself and others.
She put the individual success of each member of her sales team first, and so, the success of her company soon followed.
Ash believed it was important to reward the hard workers, so she gave away vacations, jewelry, and pink Cadillacs to her top performers.
Through it all, her company’s success came from well-coached and confident team members.
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