Leadership Lessons from 8 Top Leaders

Leadership Lessons from 8 Top Leaders

Filter tag: Change Management and Executive Outplacement, Leadership Capability, Strategies for Growth

What makes a great leader? What is it about them that inspires others to follow their directives? Why is it that when they speak, others seem to listen? There is no blueprint, no set path to follow. Successful leaders don’t all come from the same school, town, or walks of life.  Leaders take all different forms, as do their styles of leadership. It’s reassuring, as this signals that all of us have the potential for greatness within us. So then why is it that some rise to the top while others don’t?

Are great leaders born, or are they made? That’s up for debate, but there are certainly leadership lessons to be learned from those who have reached the very top. Whether you agree or disagree with their styles or approach, their impact is undeniable. Therefore, this blog aims to examine some of the most successful, inspirational, and influential leaders of both today and yesterday to provide insight into what it is that sets certain leaders apart from others.

Here are some valuable leadership lessons you can apply to your own approach and consider working into your leadership development efforts:


Winston Churchill – Be direct in your communications

The first leader on our list needs no introduction, having lead Britain through one of its most challenging periods and setting a lasting example for leadership that still persists today. Many of the Prime Ministers who came after him, as well as several American presidents and global political leaders, have cited Churchill as inspiration or directly quoted him in their own speeches.

It makes sense then why one of Churchill’s greatest legacies is his skills as a communicator. He was not one to mince words, and was a firm believer in sharing the truth with the public during Britain’s darkest hours. He regularly communicated exactly what he thought and felt in a clear and open manner, directly with his intended audience instead of relaying it through those lower down. At just about every point of his tenure at Prime Minister, his fellow Members of Parliament, other world leaders, and the people of Britain knew exactly what his stances were. He is also known to have preferred to deliver bad news personally, providing yet another opportunity for openness and clarity.

While most of us will never have to lead a nation through a troubled time, many leaders today are facing their own darkest hours due to challenges from the pandemic, the worsening global economy and impending recession, staffing challenges from The Great Recession, threats from technology, and more. As we navigate these issues and adjust to new ways of working, there are notes that can be taken from Churchill’s style of communication. Be open, honest, and transparent with your people. Keep them in the loop, even when the news is bad. You shouldn’t scaremonger, but sugar-coating the issues can potentially damage trust and buy-in over time. Treat your people as peers and respect them enough to share your true thoughts and opinions with them. As a leader, there should be no questions about where you stand on the issues and what you are working to do about them.


Mary Barra – Don’t be afraid to evolve with the times

General Motors (GM) is one of the most recognisable names in automotive manufacturing, and for several decades of the 20th century, it was also the most successful. That winning streak came to an end in 2009 when the company filed for bankruptcy when saddled with more than $100 billion of debt. The company was still recovering from financial woes as well as several safety-related controversies when Mary Barra was appointed CEO in 2015, becoming the first female Chief Executive of a “Big Three” car manufacturer.

The tradition of GM runs deep in Barra. Her father spent his whole career working for the company and so far so has she, starting as a line inspector at just 18 years old. With that level of investment in the company’s heritage, it would likely have been tempting to stick to the status quo and get wrapped up in the old way. Instead, Barra took note of the changes happening the world around her and pushed for innovation. She eliminated outmoded operations and shifted the company’s focus towards areas that today’s consumers are becoming more interested in. For example, in recent years, GM has invested millions in electric vehicles and self-driving cars and is projected to overtake Tesla as the top US-based seller of electric vehicles by 2025.

The lesson here is that while it can be tempting to stick to what’s comfortable, innovation is usually the best option. Today’s leaders are facing an increasingly disrupted business landscape with strong global competition and ever-evolving technology. Rather than fighting to keep their heads above water, the best leaders are those who embrace change early and double down on innovation.


Nelson Mandela —Lead from the back

There are many things that former South African president and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nelson Mandela should be celebrated for, such as his determined activism and courage in the face of fear. His work landed him a 27-year prison sentence, during which time he continued exerting his influence to further the anti-apartheid movement. He played a critical role in its success, and will go down in history as one of the greatest activists and democratic leaders of all time. But despite all of the great work he did and the impact he personally made, Mandela’s greatest lesson is that leadership isn’t about the leader at all.

In his autobiography, Mandela wrote: “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.” Leadership is often misunderstood as a hierarchy, with those at the top diffusing down directives to those below them. While some leadership initiatives will take place this way, in general, the leader needs to guide from the back of the pack. When you march out in front, you do so with the hopes that everyone will follow, which isn’t always the case. From the front, you miss out on all that happens behind, and by the time you turn around to check in it may be too late.

Instead, if you lead from the back and keep your people and purpose at the front, things begin to go unmissed. You can see if anyone is struggling or strays, and course correct if needed. This metaphor might conjure mental images of a shepherd flocking sheep, but what might it look like in a business setting? Leading from behind means empowering your people to share their thoughts and ideas, and ensuring everyone buys into the vision. It means being able to set aside your ego, the esteem of your position, or your own self-importance if it means that your organisation and your people benefit. Mandela put the bigger picture first, even at personal cost. Great leaders should be willing to do the same when the situation calls for it.


Marilyn Adams Hewson—Establish your priorities and set clear goals to achieve them

From fighter jets to spacecraft, Lockheed Martin has strongly cemented itself as the world’s largest aerospace and defense company. Much of its success in recent years fell under the leadership of Marilyn Adams Hewson, who served as Chairman and CEO between 2013-2020 and now serves as the strategic advisor to the company’s sitting Chief Executive. During her time in the top spot, Hewson helped to turn around a company threatened by defence budgets cuts and with a reputation for poor customer service.

Hewson has been applauded for her operational style of leadership characterised by strategic monitoring. During her tenure as CEO, she consistently sought feedback from customers and staff in order to form clear objectives and establish targets for achieving them. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Hewson was quick to establish priorities that ensured the safety of employees and maintained operations, many of which are critical to national security.

For leaders, it can be tempting to try to be everything to everyone all at once. It’s just not feasible. Instead, you should be determining what the priorities and focus need to be and building your strategy around those points. Determine what the expectations will be and clearly communicate them so that everyone knows exactly what needs to be done and how it will be assessed. That way, you can handle the most pressing issues first instead of spinning multiple plates that may not even be delivering the necessary value or ROI for your efforts.


Sir Alex Ferguson—Your success lies with your people

This next leader needs no introduction for football fans, but for those unfamiliar, Sir Alex Ferguson is the former manager of Manchester United. During his 26 seasons with the club, they won 13 English league titles along with 25 other domestic and international trophies, earning their spot as one of the most successful sports franchises of all time. There are many great leadership lessons to be gleaned from sport itself, but Ferguson was more than just a great coach. He understood that the key to leading a successful team was to build the right one.

Part of Ferguson’s strategy was to consistently rebuild better. He wasn’t afraid to trade his most famous players, some still at their peak, to experiment with new talent. Ferguson kept his focus on the long-term success of the club and was willing to invest in whatever he felt was best for achieving growth. Now, that’s not to say you should go sack your staff for a bunch of graduates, but you should be thinking about futureproofing. Sometimes, bringing in fresh talent is a great way to breathe fresh air into the business and get some new perspectives. But you cannot expect to win if the rest of your team is ill equipped to deliver impact in an evolving business landscape. Be a champion of continuous learning. Encourage and support upskilling amongst your people in order to better prepare them for what lies ahead. That way, you have the right skills and people on your side supporting your vision, and you are demonstrating that you are just as invested in their success as they are in yours.


Kathrin Jansen—Filter through the noise and let the work be your legacy

It’s safe to say that we would not be enjoying many of the post-pandemic freedoms we’re enjoying today and that many more lives would have been lost if not for the work of Kathrin Jansen and her team. Jansen, who recently announced her retirement, is a Senior Vice President and Head of Vaccine Research at Pfizer who is responsible for helping to create both the first vaccine for cervical cancer as well as the COVID-19 vaccine, the latter of which was done in record time.

The development of a COVID-19 vaccine came with various pressures from government bodies, the scientific community, and a global population that was eager to return ‘normal.’ Despite these pressures, Jansen and her team refused to sacrifice quality in exchange for speed. The result was the development of a vaccine that achieved 95% efficacy in under a year.

As a leader, you will regularly face pressure from all sides. You’ll have the C-suite and stakeholders in one ear, and your people and external audiences in another. Great leaders are able to filter through the noise and determine what feedback is worth heeding, and what isn’t right for the business at that moment in time. Listening is critical, but good judgement is essential.

Jansen will be retiring from the company as one of the best in her field, which is likely a goal for any leader. But rather than reaching that point by prioritising her own personal acclaim, Jansen will be leaving behind a remarkable legacy via the work she did throughout her career. Years from now, we may not remember that Kathrin Jansen was behind the Pfizer vaccine, but what we will remember is how the quick development of that vaccine helped change the course of the pandemic and save numerous lives. Some leaders, such as some of the others mentioned here, will have their names remembered beyond their industries and will be included in articles like this one for many years to come. But for most, the work itself is the legacy. As a leader, you have a chance to leave a positive and lasting mark on your organisation, teams, or industry. Your name may not go down in history, but you may create processes, practices, or standards that far outlive you.

The best leaders don’t do what they do for the personal acclaim. Any notoriety should be a side effect of leadership, not the objective. Be great at what you do, and the legacy will follow.


Bill Gates and Steve Jobs— Learn from your setbacks

That said, very few leaders’ names are so entwined with their industry as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are to information technology and no list of leadership lessons would be complete without their inclusion. Both are considered to be two of the most influential entrepreneurs, innovators, and business leaders of all time, but Microsoft and Apple were both far from overnight successes. There were various iterations of their software and devices before they took off, yet both men remained determined to keep going.

We could create a whole article of lessons from just these two men alone, but their leadership has already been extensively covered in articles, books, case studies, documentaries, and more. Instead, we have chosen just one lesson we think will resonate with our executive audience most: it’s okay to fail.

Failure and setbacks are inevitable. You can set a path for yourself, but things will rarely ever go exactly the way you plan they will. It is how you react to these challenges that define you as a leader. Do not allow these bumps in the road to throw you off your course. Learn all you can from them, and keep going. As Gates wrote in his book Business @ the Speed of Thought: “Once you embrace unpleasant news not as negative but as evidence of a need for change, you aren’t defeated by it. You’re learning from it. It’s all in how you approach failures.” Great leaders keep going.


Queen Elizabeth II – Leaders provide stability

Finally, we would be remiss to omit Her Majesty, the late Queen Elizabeth II, who served as Britain’s monarch for 70 years. She reigned through various wars, de-colonisation, 15 Prime Ministers’ and US Presidents’ tenures, the rise of the internet, the entering and exiting of the EU, several recessions and economic crises, numerous scandals, and so much more. It’s very easy to forget she was never meant to be the reigning monarch at all.

While Queen Elizabeth II’s powers skewed more symbolic than actual governing, her 70-year service to the people was longer than any CEO, head of state, or senior executive will ever put in. We, our parents, and even some of our grandparents had all lived under her leadership and many had not really experienced a Britain without her prior to her death. Again, many leaders will never have that long to leave their own impacts, but most will likely weather troubled times during their tenure. If there’s anything to be learned from Queen Elizabeth II, it’s that leaders should provide stability during both times of turmoil and prosperity. Understand that your people will be looking to you as the steading hand, but shouldn’t only see you when there is trouble. Good or bad, win or lose, your people need you. Make sure they aren’t just seeing your face or hearing from you in specific situations.


Final Takeaways

Being a great leader does not mean having your name go down in history. The best that most can hope for is that they set an example that lives on through the organisation for many years to come. What matters most is what you do during the time you spend as a leader. Set clear goals for yourself and others, communicate them clearly, hold yourself and others accountable, lean on your team, and focus on the work. If you do that, you’ll be well on the path to leaving a lasting impact on those you lead.

If you are interested in honing your own skills as a leader, check out our upcoming leadership-focused webinars and our Leadership Development services.

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