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What do great leaders do differently?

What makes someone stand out as a leader?
What are the things that really make the difference in people happiness and getting results?
In this post, I want to dive into a big topic: what defines leadership?

Because in complicated matters, a well-picked quote conveys a message much simpler then an explanation in new words ever could, I’ve decided to not do all of the talking myself. Instead, I’m giving the floor to some of the worlds greatest minds.
I’ve set this up as a top 10 and we’re working our way from 10 to 1 to keep it exciting ☺
Let’s have it! 10 things great leaders do differently:

10. In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.

Thomas Jefferson

This is an area where things often go wrong. A lot of leaders think they have to be either pragmatic or rock steady. And this quote beautifully displays that you should be both, but in different situations.

9. It is absurd that a man should rule others, who cannot rule himself.

Latin proverb

This is completely up my alley of course. As was probably clear from my post on Speaking your Truth, I strongly believe that to be a great leader, you should know yourself really well. And with knowing yourself ideally comes managing yourself really well too.

It’s horrible to see that so many managers are held prison by their quirks and fears, taking it out on the people that work for them.
To be able to lead others, really means to be able to lead yourself first.

8. The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.

Theodore Roosevelt

And read my post on how to effectively delegate tasks

7. No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.

Abraham Lincoln

Great leaders realize that a management or executive position is basically just a role they have and that other people have other roles that are just as valuable. That’s why leaders need ‘buy in’ from their employees before they can accomplish anything. And buy in is most valuable when it’s buy in to the person (and not just a topic or project). So smart and effective leaders take time to build a connection with their reports that will continue while projects change.

6. You manage things, you lead people

Grace Murray Hopper

People so often ask me about the difference between management and leadership, and this quote by rear admiral Murray Hopper pretty much sums it up for me.

A leader is fully aware of the fact that she’s working with people who have their own experiences, talents, fears and opinions. So to be able to get them to do anything in a way that is remotely like what she would have preferred, she’ll have to connect, inspire and engage them.
This has absolutely nothing to do with shoving paper, targets or next month’s sale.

5. Leaders must be close enough to relate to others, but far enough ahead to motivate them.

John C. Maxwell

This is about finding the right balance between being a real person and being an inspiration. And although the most optimum balance will differ from situation to situation and person to person, all great leaders succeed in finding the balance that works for them, their company and their team.
Read on to learn what I think is the most valuable thing great leaders do.

4. Isn’t it great that nobody needs to wait a single moment, before starting to change the world.

Anne Frank

It is, Anne, and what a great philosopher you where at age 14.
Of course I could have picked another favorite of mine to convey this message (yes, I do mean Gandhi’s famous quote), but I believe that when in doubt, it’s best to pick a woman ☺

This quote – in regards to leadership – means to me that great leaders are fully aware of the fact that they are in a position to change things for the better. This is not something unique to leaders, as Anne says: we can all take steps to change the world. But you can not be a great leader when you don’t fully appreciate the fact that YOU can make ALL the difference. To one person or to many, that’s different in every situation. But with our actions we shape our world, as the Buddha once said.

3. Never allow a person to tell you no, who doesn’t have the power to say yes.

Eleanor Roosevelt

This I never fully realized while I was leading teams, and I must admit that I stumbled on no’s that shouldn’t have meant anything to me, if I would have taken Eleanor’s advice. And that’s a BIG mistake. So keep this in mind whenever you hear ‘no’ and push on until you either get a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ from someone who can actually make a decision.

2. Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.

Jack Welch

To focus on the second part (as the first part is more or less the same as #9): helping your reports or employees to grow is of great value and it’s also a very smart thing to do. Not only do you help others to get better and find out what they’re really good at, but it also builds confidence and connection, it gives you the opportunity to groom your successor (so you can move up) and to get great results (because you’re not doing everything yourself, right?!).

1. It’s better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory. You take the front line when there is danger.

Nelson Mandela

I believe this really is the most important thing to do when you want to be a great leader. Letting go of your own ego to empower others is a beautiful thing. This doesn’t mean that I believe great leaders should make themselves invisible because they’re always hiding when things go well. On the contrary, really. But when push comes to shove: you never see truly great leaders take all the credit for themselves. Or put the blame for a failure on an employee. That’s just not what makes people and leaders GREAT.
To summarize all this, I’ll give you one more, as a bonus:

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.
The last is to say thank you.
In between, the leader is a servant.

Max DePree


In this post, I’ve shared a few that really resonate with my view on leadership.
And now I want to hear from you!

Who has inspired you or changed your perspective on leadership?
I challenge you to make me change my list by posting the brilliant quotes that changed you in the comment area below.


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