11 Modern Leadership Lessons from History's Masters

Helen Keller. Theodore Roosevelt. Ann Bradstreet. Nelson Mandela: Who inspired you?
11 Modern Leadership Lessons from History's Masters
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“How can I inspire others to follow my lead?” Aspiring influencers have wrestled with this question since the beginning of time, and those who emerged and ultimately became legendary leaders did so because they were willing to learn from the very best.

Related: 5 Keys to Inspiring Leadership, No Matter Your Style

I asked 11 modern-day leadership experts about the historical figures who expanded their perspective and influenced their practice.  The result is this list of game-changing leaders --  and a little about the work and philosophy they brought to the world.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Angry activists have never been in short supply, but the greatest leaders don’t just complain.

"I have been inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and how he inspired a movement,” optimist and best-selling author Simon Sinek told me. “I have learned that a cause must be organic; if it is to have an impact, it must belong to those who join the movement and not those who lead it."

Kim Man-bok

In our capacity as leaders, we often think of influence as persuasion. But, when the stakes are high, most of the negotiation process takes place before formal discussions even begin.

In his book Pre-Suasion, best-selling author Robert Cialdini told the story of Kim Man-bok, head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, who in 2007 was tasked with recovering hostages from the Taliban. Before he could get there, two of the 21 captives were murdered, and two more executions were already scheduled.

“But,” Cialdini said of Kim, “before saying a word to the kidnappers, he changed their thinking. He replaced the head South Korean negotiator with one who spoke fluent Pashtun, winning the hostages’ swift release."

Later, Kim would explain what it was about his move that made it pre-suasively effective. ‘"As soon as our counterparts saw that our negotiator was speaking their language," Kim said, "a strong intimacy developed with us; and so the talks then went well.’”

Buddha

As easy as it can be to blame the media, politics or a Facebook algorithm update for the anxiety in our lives, the fact that we create our own reality still remains.

Executive coach and best-selling author Marshall Goldsmith explained, "When it comes to influence, one aspect of Buddhist philosophy applies in a simple, but powerful way: Buddha believed anyone can change. As it turns out, coaches who believe people can change are much more effective than those who believe people cannot."   

Related: Inspiration From 7 Legendary Business Titans

Peter Drucker

In their ramen-noodle days, few aspiring leaders imagine how much the masters routinely charge. Best-selling author Geoff Smart said he himself felt fortunate to have learned this reality, when he was a student, from the “father of modern management,” Peter Drucker.

Smart recounted one occasion where he listened to Drucker -- in his backyard by the pool, no less -- talk about counseling Fortune 500 CEOs. Smart remembered that he asked his mentor what he charged for his counsel.

"He [Drucker] responded,'$50,000,'" Smart said.

“You charge $50,000?" the incredulous student exclaimed. "For what?”

“For anything,” Drucker replied. He went on to explain that it wasn’t about making money, but that he found that his counsel was more often acted upon, and was therefore more impactful, when he charged a lot than when he gave it away for free.

Theodore Roosevelt

Video storyteller Keri Vandongen said she applied the following oft-quoted adage from Theodore Roosevelt to her own work: “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Another way of saying this? Veteran teacher Rita Pierson restated it as, "Kids don't learn from people they don't like."

“Through working with kids and adults,” Vandongen said, “I’ve witnessed the essence of connecting through caring. Getting people to follow our lead, and become part of our community begins by showing we care about them. Early on in my profession, I discovered kids work and try harder for people who like and care about them. So do adults.”

Nelson Mandela

No one likes to be bullied, but even top-tier business professionals push one other around all the time. “Many clients come to me because of how their managers treat them,” said author and executive coach Josh Spodek.  “They think they just have to accept that bosses can make them miserable. Many people confuse authority with leadership, but influential leaders lead without authority.

“Think of Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years," Spodek said. "The government had authority, he had none. But he ended up negotiating with the nation's presidents from prison, eventually getting their job. Effective leaders find many means of influence, even without authority. Meanwhile, authoritarian ‘leadership’ often provokes resistance.

“Once you learn to lead through understanding people's motivations and emotions, you can influence anyone, even your authoritarian boss.”

Max Planck

Max Planck, a German theoretical physicist, famously said, ‘When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.’” And that resonated with author, speaker, and executive Sunnie Giles.

"This quote shows the importance of self-management and consciously choosing the message you want to walk away with from each situation," Giles said. "If you view a situation with the lens of victimhood or fear, you will pick out messages of attack or threat from innocuous signals.

“On the other hand, if you view a situation with trust and hope, you will pick out messages of safety and hope. If you want to influence others positively, managing your thoughts and consciously choosing the mental frame through which you view the world is an important, foundational leadership skill.”

Winston Churchill

True leaders know when the occasion calls for brevity. Best-selling author Gretchen Rubin felt inspired by Winston Churchill in this respect when she wrote his biography.

“I saw," she said, "that although Churchill sometimes used grandiloquent language, when he wanted to communicate most directly and urgently, he used the simplest, clearest language":

  • "We shall go on to the end."
  • "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat." 
  • "Give us the tools and we will finish the job."

"So powerful, Rubin said -- "with words which are mostly just one syllable.”

Ann Bradstreet

Many entrepreneurs lie awake at night, either with sweet dreams of disrupting an old creaky market or nightmares of disruption in their own industry. But how is disruption accomplished?

Author and blogger Penelope Trunk finds inspiration in the personal revolution of Ann Bradstreet, one of the first internationally recognized writers writing from the New World. Bradstreet, who came to the American colonies in 1630, “helped American colonists be true to themselves by writing poetry that was true to her. The American Revolution emerged from the idea that the colonies had a separate cultural identity from England. Bradstreet was one of the first to express this separate identity.

“Most revolutionary leaders do not set out to lead so much as they invent a new vision in order to make sense of their own reality," Trunk said. "Bradstreet could not help but express her reality in the New World as different than her old, English reality. And her poetry helped colonists see themselves as separate as well.”

Marcus Aurelius and Cato

If you’ve seen enough, “Write your book in 30 days!” ads to make you physically ill, you’ll be happy to know that not all influencers communicated their genius through words.

“Marcus Aurelius and Cato, two of the most important Roman philosophers, didn't publish any writings in their lifetimes,” best-selling author Ryan Holiday observed. “Yet they introduced many millions of people to Stoicism. How? By how they lived their lives. The deeds were their example and how they had influence. Not speeches, not words, not books.”

Helen Keller

People may not think of Helen Keller in terms of her personal brand, but her persistence and international influence have inspired brand expert Leonard Kim to keep reaching for better things.

“Not much is said about Helen Keller in the textbooks, aside from the fact that she was blind and deaf as a child,” Kim said. “But, as she grew older, she learned to turn her weaknesses into strengths. In her life, she earned a bachelor’s degree, published books, co-founded the ACLU, spoke across the world and was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

‘“Most of us would be horrified, even traumatized, if we had to live one day in Keller’s shoes, but by continuing onward, Keller was able to inspire not just Americans, but citizens of the entire world.”

Related: The Most Inspiring Moments From This Year's Oscars

Now it’s your turn. What have you learned from your mentors past? How do you want to be remembered when your story is history?

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