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Life Lessons From 6 Unsung Leaders Who Rose to the Occasion

In our celebrity-fixated culture we too often overlook ordinary people who tackle immense challenges without applause.

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When the topic of leadership comes up, odds are your mind conjures names or images of well-known politicians and business owners. While you’d certainly do well to learn as much as you can from great entrepreneurs and corporate leaders, many second-best leaders -- people like you and me -- have equally impressive stories to tell.

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We usually miss these "nobodies." We don’t realize, however, that we can relate to underdogs and common people more than great leaders. Little fellas are the ordinary people who rise to the occasion, whenever the occasion arises.

Many of these stories are from general fields. If you exhibit leadership because it’s your job, expect to find only non-greatness there. When leadership arises out of a need or for a cause, it turns into a virtue. True leadership commands gratitude and respect.

Here are a few lessons from some ordinary people who won’t appear nearly so ordinary once you learn their backgrounds.

1. Rick Rescorla.

What can a security director of a company like Morgan Stanley do to inspire? A lot.

Ask any of the thousands of people who owe him their lives. Thanks to Rick Rescorla, 2,700 Morgan Stanley employees working in the World Trade Center escaped the collapse during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The drills he designed and trained them in saved all but six of his colleagues. 

Rescorla has more to his credit: He actually predicted an event such as of 9/11 when he was with a Morgan Stanley legacy group, the Dean Witter Corporation.

He didn’t spend his time gazing into crystal balls. He was a professional. He was alert. He used his intuition, intelligence, research and all that he learned from years of experience in guerilla warfare to think deeply about risks. Risks that others -- including government organizations such as the Port Authority -- remained blind to. Even after he sought to open their eyes.

Rescorla went back to save the remaining injured, confused and disoriented people. None of them made it out it out of the tower.

2. Bob Bartlett.

What would you do for your team? Arctic explorer and seafarer Robert "Bob" Abram Bartlett captained the Karluk Expedition (1913-1914). His ship was trapped in Arctic ice. The designated “leader” of the expedition abandoned ship and set off with his men. Bartlett could have fled, too. He could have saved his own life. He didn’t.

Instead, along with another crew member, he undertook a 700-mile journey to Siberia -- most of it on foot -- and returned with another ship to save his stranded crew.

In 1917, Bartlett rescued members of Donald Baxter MacMillan’s Crocker Land Expedition, who had been stuck on the ice for four years. 

3. Whitney Young Jr.

What would you do if a more popular and powerful leader overshadowed your work?

Whitney Young Jr. played a critical role in the civil rights struggle, despite being far less well-known than Martin Luther King Jr. He still managed to work his way into the Oval Office and corporate board rooms, working closely with other leaders within the system.

A number of schools and administration facilities are named after Young (including First Lady Michelle Obama's alma mater). He led the National Urban League, put in place many anti-poverty programs such as Job Corps and Head Start, dedicated himself to the cause of race relations and persuaded President Richard Nixon to support these social programs.

Related: Lessons Small-Business Owners Can Learn from Historical Leaders

4. Jaci Adams.

Would you let your own deficiencies hurt your growth? Many people do. Not Jaci Adams. A 55-year old transgender woman, Adams was abused and neglected throughout her childhood. It only made her stronger. She learned her lessons and took up advocacy for others after being diagnosed with HIV in 1983.

As a longtime volunteer with the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, Adams ran well-established programs focused on HIV and transgender awareness. “Jaci Adams was a fierce leader, mentor and friend who was unafraid of sharing her own difficult life experiences in an effort to make a difference in the lives and actions of others,” said Gloria Casarez, director of the Office of LGBT Affairs of Philadelphia.

Adams continued to raise funds for the cause while battling cancer and was featured in POZ magazine's 2013 edition of the POZ 100: Celebrating Unsung Heroes. She died in February 2014. 

Related: The Proven Strategies for Overcoming Obstacles

5. Dr. Victoria Brander.

Some people dedicate their lives to others. Dr. Victoria Brander is one of them. In 2003, she founded the nonprofit Operation Walk Chicago to help impoverished patients worldwide. Her mission's unique selling position: Patients who are financially well-off donate toward the cost of treating others.

Brander believes in opening up her heart to help others. She's interested human connections, and she deems it her responsibility to be of service to others.

Related: The Superpower Every Women Disrupter Needs to Have

6. Patricia Carrigan.

The glass ceiling seemingly refuses to shatter. But there are those who love the sound of breaking glass. Patricia Carrigan was the first woman to be named manager of a General Motors assembly plant. Carrigan, a women of grit and steel, handled this typically male role in style. 

Carrigan was assigned the Lakewood plant, which had a history of labor-related problems. She not only addressed issues head-on but turned the plant into a profit center for the company.

Related: Look Before You Leap: 3 Steps to Leading Change

A common thread runs through these stories. You can see the pattern: People took responsibility on their own, made things happen because they took action, held themselves accountable and brought guts, determination, compassion, courage and patience to their work.

These are the traits of truly great leadership. Not every individual who embodies these characteristics will make the front page of the paper or news feed, but their legacy remains. People will remember, and respects will be paid. 

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