7 Powerful Quotes to Improve Your Leadership
I love quotes, more formally known as quotations, those little nuggets of word wisdom that I can keep in my backpack on the trail of life — like a bag of beef jerky that never goes bad, I can pull some out and chew on them for sustenance and pleasure.
The key is to eat wisdom as you’re walking. Don’t just eat it sitting down like we often do with self-help motivational quotes simply because they taste good. Only when you are moving forward do you get the most benefit from nutritious food or wisdom.
I use these quotations to guide my thoughts when I’ve wandered into the forest of uncertainty as a leader. They’re like having a leadership mentor sitting on my shoulder whispering hints when I ask “what should I do?”
Here are a few jerky strips of wisdom that have powered my leadership forward and I think they will yours as well.
Here they are:
#1. “The Man In The Arena” Quote
This quote has probably made the most difference in my long term leadership development because it encouraged me to try new and difficult things even when failure was a real possiblity.
A failure spawned from courage is the noblest kind of failure so it shouldn’t defeat you, but instead encourage you as it’s usually the prerequisite for success. Failure as a result of courage is simply a growing pain.
Teddy Roosevelt, in his 1910 speech ‘Citizen in a Republic’, said:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I’ve cut this one out on a few occasions and kept it in my wallet. It has greatly influenced and encouraged me to lead boldly while not letting the fear of failure stop me.
#2. The “Speak Ill” Quote
This is perhaps the quote that has saved me more heartache and guilt as a leader than any other. It has strengthened relationships with peers, seniors, and those I lead.
“I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a matter of truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasions speak all the good I know of everybody.”
Or more often, in shorter terms, this is paraphrased as in Dale Carnegie’s most famous book as “Speak ill of no man, but all the good you know of everybody.”
This is tough to do if you deal with difficult people, but it’s to your benefit to try. Research has proven a phenomenon called spontaneous trait transference that shows people associate the bad things you say about someone else with you.
I’ve found when I just ignore piling on the verbal negatives, the negativity often diffuses by itself and positive vibes fill that void. A leader should try to avoid the urge to bash or gossip, even the people who may deserve it.
#3. The Optimism and Hope Quote
Leaders meet challenges with optimism and keep despair at bay with hope.
A leader needs to acknowledge reality of course, but there’s a worst and a best way to address reality. A way which inspires hope.
And that way is optimism.
In her fascinating 1903 speech called Optimism, Helen Keller said:
“No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.”
I highly recommend reading the whole essay linked above.
A leader who deals in hope and optimism regardless of the quality of reality, odds, and truth of situation they face is a leader who people will genuinely want to follow.
#4. The “Have a Plan” Quote.
I am a Marine — not active, but ‘once a Marine, always a Marine’ they say. So the following quote from former General and Secretary of State James Mattis is like motivational red meat for me. It’s funny if you look at it that way. Don’t take it too seriously! It may be a little uncouth for most, but seriously, don’t take it so seriously.
To me, it is the ultimate quote in preparing for almost anything.
“Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”
You’ve got it all covered here as a leader. Professionalism, tact, preparation and capability to meet any challenge, but also wisdom to choose the proper level of action to address any given situation. And add humor to that mix.
Maybe the civilian leader version of this could be:
Be polite, be professional, but be willing and able to make tough decisions, step on toes, and take decisive action when needed.
#5. The ‘Change Yourself First’ Quote
This quote was posted in the hallway of one of the headquarters buildings for a unit I was assigned to. It has stuck with me for years and serves as a reminder to prioritize…everything!
It can help prioritize not just your leadership efforts, but your entire life.
Here is the quote:
“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town; as an older man, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realized that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on my town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could have indeed changed the world.”- Unknown (Often attributed to a 12th century monk)
There is no solid source for this quote anywhere I can find over the years looking, but I love it so much I had to include it.
#6. The Purpose and Persistence Quote
The concept of unrecognized genius has always fascinated me. How many Einsteins are out there who lack work ethic or grit which keeps them stuck in obscurity?
On the other hand, how many average people are out with more average intellect who never quit and are full of grit? They will always make more waves on the world than the lazy genius will.
“A purpose is the eternal condition of success. Nothing will take its place. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men of talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is a proverb; the “mute, inglorious Milton” is not a poetic creation. The chance of events, the push of circumstances, will not. The natural unfolding of faculties will not. Education will not; the country is full of unsuccessful educated men; indeed, it is a problem of society what to do with the young men it is turning out of its colleges and professional schools. There is no road to success but through a clear, strong purpose.”
In years since this quote, purpose has been used interchangeably in this quote with persistence. Either word works.
A leader needs a reason to lead — maybe they’d call this a vision or a mission or a goal. A leader also needs the will to never quit (persistence) if they want to maximize their team’s chance of success.
In other words, a leader needs vision and drive.
#7. The “Humility” Quote
I’m not being very humble here by listing a quote of mine with the great leaders above but I feel strongly about it.
Being humble when leading has allowed me the openness to hear new and better ideas. My mind isn’t closed to ideas that could challenge me. This humility spawns vulnerability which helps a leader make well-informed decisions and attracts respect in a way that makes people actually want to follow them.
“Humility is confidence plus vulnerability.”
It resonated a lot with people who read it because I’m so amazing and wise and…wait, nevermind.
A humble leader has the confidence to make decisions but the vulnerability to accept new information.
On the other hand, arrogance often leads to the creation of a close-minded echo chamber of a team in which decisions are made while the leader is partly blinded by their own hand.
Wise quotes, those little nuggets of word jerky, can help sustain and direct your leadership efforts.
If you print one of these out and put in your life backpack, I recommend the Man in the arena quote by Teddy Roosevelt. It gives you inspiration independent of failure or success.
No matter what you do with wise quotes you choose to use, remember they only have meaning when you’re already moving.
Just like wings on a plane, wisdom is useless until you’re moving forward.