8 Inspiring Leaders in History

Popular does not mean great.

Leadership is not a popularity contest (although it is to others). Leadership encompasses a range of competencies, but true leadership is far more than skills, position, authority, and accolades. 

You can call yourself a leader or assume leadership for one reason or another, but what’s significant is, do people see you as one? Or, more importantly, does your team consider you one?

We read a lot of articles talking about the top qualities of a leader that range from being agile to being a visionary depending on the latest trending buzzword. But there are basic traits that a true leader naturally exhibits. There is no switch you can turn on or off. No valve to increase or reduce intensity. Like honour, it’s either you have it, or you don’t. 

What can distinguish an average leader from an exceptional leader?

Here are EIGHT distinguished people who exemplify the best of the traits

  1. Maharaja Ranjit Singh

    BBC World Histories Magazine recently conducted a poll on the “Greatest Leader of All Time,” and Maharaja Singh topped the poll. Thirty-eight percent of the 5,000 respondents voted in his favour and in the process, surpassed all the other well-known world leaders, past and present. 

    Maharaja Singh is a 19th-century ruler of the Sikh Empire in India. Many say he was more than a leader and conqueror. His reign, branded as the Golden Age for Punjab and northwest India, was marked with tolerance, unity, freedom, cooperation, and prosperity. 

    There were rare incidences of corruption, bribery, robbery, but not one person was sentenced to death in the 40 years that he ruled. Everybody felt safe for their lives and properties. Leaders of the 21st century can learn a lot from his leadership style. 
  2. Nelson Mandela 

    Everybody knows Nelson Mandela. 

    This gentleman won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for his work in the peaceful end of the apartheid regime in South Africa. He preached and modeled an attitude of forgiveness. After being imprisoned for 27 years for protesting apartheid, he held no grudge against people who persecuted him. Eighteen years were spent within harsh cell conditions (no bed and plumbing) and hard labour within the Robben Island prison. He was denied the opportunity to witness the funeral of his mother and son, but he held no resentment. He said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” 

    In 1989, F.W. de Klerk became South Africa president, and dismantled apartheid. He suspended executions, and in 1990 ordered the release of Nelson Mandela. Mandela said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” 
  3. Steve Jobs 

    This man is not called the Apple genius and tech visionary for nothing. He revolutionised mobile technology. When the world was happy with their keypadded phones, Steve Jobs was envisioning a touchscreen phone. He wanted to “get rid” of the keypad. 

    What was once just a science fiction movie marvel, touchscreens are now the norm – laptops, car IVI, ATMs, check-out counters, etc. all because of this man’s vision and dogged persistence.
  4. Winston Churchill

    Empathy and accountability rank high in Winston Churchill’s traits. These gave him the courage to stand beside his men, to take the bullet for them, as they took the bullet for him.

    In one ambush incident, the Boers (Afrikaner colonies of the South African Republic)tried to derail Churchill’s train by placing rocks on the tracks. Sharpshooters waited to ambush the survivors, but Churchill took command, and amidst bullets, walked among the survivors to tell them to, “keep cool, men.”

    There was one evening, as Churchill was driving into the country, a major bombing began to hit London. He ordered to turn around his car to be with the people and share the danger. Instead of running away from the danger, he ran towards it to be with the people. He visited the bomb-devastated city and was never ashamed to show emotions and weep with the people.

    “I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone…That is the will of Parliament and the nation…we shall not flag or fail.” – We Shall Fight on the Beaches, Winston Churchill
  5. Colin Powell 

    Colin Powell is the first Black U.S. Secretary of State. He was referred to as “one of the finest Americans never to be president.” 

    He earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Twice. It is the highest civilian honour bestowed by the U.S. President to an individual who made a meritorious contribution to the security and national interests of the United States, world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. 

    He defined good leadership as “the art of getting people to do more than the science of management says is possible. If the science of management says that the capacity of this organisation is at 100 percent, good leaders take it to 110 percent.”

    “Leadership is all about people. It is not about organisations. It is not about plans. It is not about strategies. It is all about people — motivating people to get the job done. You have to be people-centered. People are the followers.

    Trust is the essence of leadership. Why do people follow you in the first place as a leader? Two reasons: One, they have to. They have no choice. You pay them. You have authority over them. Don’t make any mistake about this, any of you. Because they have to follow you, they have no choice. They’re in an organisation and they have to follow you.

    And that’s a foundation. But the real thing you’re after is not their following you because they have to, but they’re following you because they want to. And how do you make them want to follow you? You create conditions of trust within an organisation, a bond between people.” – Why Leadership Matters in the Department of State, 2003 Leadership Lecture
  6. Theodore Roosevelt

    „…the man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic – the man who actually does the work, even if roughly and imperfectly, not the man who only talks or writes about how it ought to be done.“ (1891)

    One of Theodore Roosevelt’s (the 26th U.S. President) motto was “action, action and still more action,” according to one of his close associates. As President, he was not satisfied with working behind the desk, but being inside the arena. 

    One proof of his hardcore character became evident on October 14,1912, when before his speech to a crowd in Milwaukee a man named John Schrank shot him in the chest. With bullet fragments lodged in his torso, TR continued to deliver his promised speech. The 50-page speech manuscript tucked inside his breast pocket stopped the bullet from piercing through his heart. Showing his wound to the crowd he said, “You see, it takes more than one bullet to kill a Bull Moose.” It took him 84 minutes to deliver his speech and only when it was done that he agreed to be brought to the hospital. “I give you my word, I do not care a rap about being shot; not a rap,” he said. 

    What a resolute character of a man!
  7. Abraham Lincoln

    Abraham Lincoln is the United State’s 16th President. He is known for abolishing slavery during his time and led his country through the Civil War. Also known for his communication skills which proved very well in his drafting and eloquent delivery of his iconic speech, the Gettysburg Address. 

    He is also called “Honest Abe.“ While working as a store clerk one day, he inadvertently overcharged a customer by six cents. After the store closed that night, he purposely walked three miles to get right with the customer and returned the money. He worked diligently to maintain his integrity as a lawyer, politician, and later as a president.

    “Character is what you are in the dark.” – Dwight L. Moody

    Abraham Lincoln remains thetop US President in this year’s C-SPAN’s “Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership.”
  8. Jesus Christ

    Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of a leader. He is ALL that, and then some. In these days of overbearing authorities and bullies, of who is good, better, or best, it will do good for a leader to attempt to model Jesus’ meekness.  

    Jesus has all the power in the world, yet when he could have easily stopped all the torture and shame done to Him, He chose not to – for a greater purpose. That is definitely not cowardice, timidity, or weakness. It is strength under control, the antithesis of self-assertiveness. 

    When a leader has all the power to bring someone down, yet chooses self-control, demonstrates humility and patience to promote peace, unity, and cooperation, that is meekness in action. When clearly you have the upper hand yet you choose to shake hands, it is meekness in action. 

    Jesus was not popular during his time. But he is undeniably great, absolutely the Gold Standard of Leadership.


Not everyone is born a natural leader. You cannot give what you do not have. But this doesn’t mean it is not achievable. Admission of lack is the first step of growth. Leadership is a lifelong apprenticeship. It is refined by time through experience, exposure, training, mentoring, and continuous education

Whether born or made, all leaders must continue to learn and sharpen their skills. It starts by “knowing thyself.” 

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