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Timeless Leadership Advice From Iconic Trailblazers

If you take advice from anyone, let it be these business leaders and trailblazers. Their individual successes are reason enough to put value in the ideas they share. 

The internet is riddled with leadership quotes and inspirational ideas. We’ve distilled that wisdom into this guide so you can access it quickly and easily.

1. “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

The renowned civil rights leader reminds us that it’s not enough to follow the crowd – you have to bring ideas to the table and convince people of their value. While managers do need to know what employees, customers, and even stakeholders are feeling and desiring, it’s also vital to respond to that information with an idea people can get behind.

2. “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao-Tzu

Here’s an ego-check for everyone. Managers and the majority of leaders are facilitators, so they tend to do the majority of their work behind the scenes. In an office environment, that means they’re empowering the employees doing the detailed work and making sure they can clear any hurdles that appear. 

Just remember not to be so undetectable that you can’t prove your worth to your superiors!

3. “As we look forward to the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” – Bill Gates

Following up on Lao-Tzu, Bill Gates highlights the great importance of helping others do their jobs well. There’s power in numbers, so those who can empower large collectives will have more strength to get things done. 

4. “No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all for himself or get all the credit for doing it.” – Andrew Carnegie

If you accept a manager title for the glory, you’re in it for the wrong reasons. Sure, you might get greater respect from higher-ups and others because of the title, but the actual benefits, the ones that will make you satisfied with your work, will come from the sense of a team effort. 

This quote also reminds us to focus on the end goal and not on who gets the credit for the work that gets done. 

5. “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” – Rosalynn Carter

Much like the quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., that started this collection, this quote from a former United States First Lady focuses on the importance of having a singular vision and winning people over to it. 

Following the crowd is never the right response, especially in business. Although trends might inform your decisions, imagination and vision are what will make them really effective and set them apart.

6. “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” -Edith Wharton

When you aren’t the star player, you can still do a lot to make the team better. If there’s a particular part of a project that’s more important, then other contributors can put their efforts toward highlighting the priority. 

This is particularly important for managers whose work might be invisible when done properly. You don’t have to be the main source of light, but you can still diffuse the glow.

7. “Leaders are made, they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.” – Vince Lombardi

A quote for all purposes, this wisdom from football coach Vince Lombardi gets rid of the limiting idea that talented people are just born that way and everyone else is doomed to mediocrity. It also prompts us to focus on practicing what we want to excel out. Although many quotes sound similar, this one is a bit more inspirational than the tired old “practice makes perfect” and sayings of its ilk. 

8. “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.” – John Kenneth Gailbraith

An economist and diplomat, John Kenneth Gailbraith focused on macro trends, making this quote especially impactful. As you problem-solve at work, try to discover and respond directly to the main anxiety your team or customers are experiencing. When nothing else seems to respond to their feelings, you’ll be much appreciated for helping provide a solution.

9. “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln

Turning a popular conception somewhat on its head, the 16th US President pushes us to rethink how we conceive of character. Despite what many movies and TV shows would have us believe, it’s not just difficulty that makes us stronger – dealing with immense responsibility and making behavioral choices when there’s no one holding us accountable also reveal the kind of people we are.

10. “I will tell you King’s First Law of Recognition: you never get it when you want it, and then when it comes, you get too much.” Billie Jean King

Famous tennis star Billie Jean King knew plenty about dealing with attention. As she indicates in this quote, it never comes when you expect it, and when it’s negative or unexpected, attention seems to consume everything around you. 

In business, this is kind of like when the most groundbreaking part of a project is ignored and everyone instead pays attention to a minor aesthetic detail, gushing over it. There are other examples, to be sure, but managers would still do well to keep this law of attention in mind for both customers and company executives. 

11. “Great leaders take much responsibility and little credit.” – Tyler Winklevoss

As touched upon earlier, managers and other leaders work best when they aren’t getting in others’ way to try and take credit for work done. This quote from Facebook predecessor HarvardConnection co-founder Tyler Winklevoss adds that leaders should take more than their fair share of the blame and criticism to shield their subordinates.

A woman watches as a man sitting next to her points to a notebook with a pen.
Most business leaders agree teamwork is an essential key to success.

12. “There are two kinds of stones, as everyone knows, one of which rolls.” – Amelia Earhart

Famed aviator Amelia Earhart rephrases the classic rolling stone proverb in this quote, implying that she was very much of the rolling kind. What makes this quote so interesting for managers and other professionals is that Amelia managed to build fame and renown – moss, so to speak – although she was constantly in motion on long-distance flights. 

A stationary stone might be the bedrock your team needs for support, or perhaps a rolling stone is more versatile and agile to respond to new problems. 

13. “In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” – Sheryl Sandburg

The gender barrier is an unfortunate carryover from history. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandburg not only looks to a brighter future with this prediction but also gives us a great framework for escaping imposed classifications

14. “Look over your shoulder now and then to make sure someone’s following you.” – Henry Gilmer

Think about looking over your shoulder as a status check to make sure you’re making an impact on others rather than as a paranoid glance to make sure no one is following you. If your ideas are as good as you hope they are, then they should be making an impact. Maybe that’s not a physical following, but this quote reminds us to make sure our work is having an effect somewhere.

15. “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” – John C. Maxwell

The author of several books on leadership uses strong phrasing to center the importance of compassion and dedication in the business world. If you’re a dispassionate figure arbitrarily monitoring progress or handing out tasks, people aren’t going to want to listen to you, and at the first sign they don’t have to, they’ll ignore you completely. 

16. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The author of the beloved French story “The Little Prince,” de Saint-Exupery uses an analogy to illustrate the futility of approaching projects from a purely logical point of view. To motivate employees, it’s far more effective to inspire them with the end result of their work than to simply parcel out the project. 

17. “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” – Helen Keller

Far from being simply fatalistic, this quote from Helen Keller is more of a statement about how disadvantageous it is to work from a place of fear. Risk is a natural part of our working lives, and as this quote points out, failing to take risks won’t save you from whatever you’re fearing, be it failure, change, or what have you. Lean into that risk and use it to inform the work and you’ll be in a much better position to face whatever you’re fearing.

18. “The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands.” – Robert M. Pirsig

Author of “Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” Robert M. Pirsig is talking about changing yourself before you endeavor to change others. Managers won’t have much to offer their teams if they haven’t taken the time to build their own skills and understanding of the world. Remember, this is an ongoing process, not something you do just once. 

19. “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of being.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Managing is all about helping people reach their potential. Goethe recommends treating people not as you wish to be treated, but as you would treat them if their full potential was realized. 

What might that look like? Perhaps it’s giving them more responsibility, or asking for their input more often. The choices are many, but the important thing is to give people space to realize their potential. 

20. “You manage things; you lead people.” – Grace Murray Hopper

Another vital point for managers to understand. You might manage a busy schedule or a project, but you aren’t managing people in the same way. Humanity is a key component of effective management, not the least because the people you’re leading will listen to you much more if you treat them like people rather than objects, tasks, or ideals. 

21. “I am incapable of conceiving infinity, and yet I do not accept finity.” – Simone de Beauvoir

A simple way of recognizing the way insistence plays a role in motivating our imagination, this quote is great for illustrating how hard-headedness can be great. It also shows how certain innate concepts are powerful in our minds. 

Although you might not be able to understand something, there might be aspects of it that you have a very good conception of. Look at new ideas from this perspective and you’re more likely to find an actionable path.

22. “Fires can’t be made with dead embers, nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men. Enthusiasm in our daily work lightens effort and turns every labor into pleasant tasks.” – James Baldwin

Inspiration is key to job satisfaction and motivation. But don’t think of employees as permanently spiritless beings. It’s the manager’s job to give them spirit and enthusiasm. If the fire starts to go out, find a way to bring energy levels up and give them a reason to hit the ground running again. 

23. “I prefer to amuse people in the hope that they will learn, than to teach them in the hope that they will have fun.” – Walt Disney

In the age of design thinking and user-centered design, this quote is particularly applicable. Didacticism is rarely appealing no matter who your audience is, so it’s better to try and build something appealing that will teach people incidentally than creating a platform for scolding or education that no one will enjoy using. 

If there’s anyone who can boast a successful implementation of this idea, it’s the original Imagineer himself. 

24. “Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.” – Sara Blakely

A nice mantra for avoiding the potential paralysis of fear, this quote also highlights how taking a different approach also sets you apart from the competition. That’s not to say you should revel in complete ignorance, but if you aren’t as experienced as another team, you shouldn’t let that stop you. 

Imaginative solutions are more likely to come to mind when you’re under immense pressure, kind of like you would be facing a bigger or more experienced competitor. Small businesses facing up against big corporations for market share know this challenge well – and they’d do well to turn their disadvantaged into a unique asset.

25. “Tolerance and compassion are active, not passive states, born of the capacity to listen, to observe, and to respect others.” – Indira Gandhi

The best part of this quote from India’s first and only female Prime Minister to date is that it reminds readers to treat emotions as actions, not simply as feelings. If you want employees to see you as an understanding and compassionate leader, then you need to do things that are supportive and caring. 

Don’t just say things that sound nice. Even if you really feel compassion, it’s not worth much if it doesn’t lead to concrete action.

A woman in a peach sports jacket and glasses smiles at the camera.
Self-guided work leads to increased satisfaction.


Inspiration from great leaders and innovators is a great way to spark your imagination. To manage effectively, taking knowledge from past trailblazers and putting it into practice not only connects you with the past but also puts you on the cutting edge with the best of them. 

Take the leadership quotes in this guide to heart and use them to inspire your team and spur them on to great work on your next project.

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