15 Great Leaders in History and 14 Lessons

How do people become great leaders in history? To answer this question, I read 15 short bios on great leaders in history. The result is 14 similarities that exist between these individuals that make someone great and memorable.

To determine what qualities contribute to great leaders in history, trying to develop a diverse list. After forming this list, I read the accomplishments of each leader and why they were notable. The goal was to learn about the qualities that made a single person great.

To learn about great leaders, comparisons help to identify thematic similarities that transform a person from good to great.

Why should you care about the findings from this inquiry?

Taking the time to learn about historic leaders allows you to learn from the best. When you learn from the best, you can try to duplicate the things that work and have value.

In the end, taking note of the attributes of successful leaders allows you to be more efficient and save you time. You save time by focusing on developing important skills that will take you from ideation to execution.

So, who are the chosen great leaders in history that were examined?

Examples of Great Leaders in History

Dalai Lama

Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.

Alexander the Great

[Tweet “I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.”]

Winston Churchill

[Tweet “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”]

Julius Caesar

It is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

[Tweet “Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.”]

Napoleon Bonaparte

[Tweet “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”]

George Washington

Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.

Mao Zedong

[Tweet “Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed.”]

Abraham Lincoln

[Tweet “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other.”]

Martin Luther King Jr.

[Tweet “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?”]

Nelson Mandela

[Tweet “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”]

Thomas Jefferson

[Tweet “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”]

Benjamin Franklin

[Tweet “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”]

John Adams

[Tweet “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.”]

Mikhail Gorbachev

[Tweet “If what you have done yesterday still looks big to you, you haven’t done much today.”]

14 Lessons from Great Leaders in History

Upon reading the bios about these leaders, the following recurring themes are present. You may not be one of the great leaders in history by developing all these skills to the fullest. However, working on building this skill set will help take you from good to great at a smaller more local level.

Purpose and Goals

Leaders understand their purpose. Leaders take the time to understand how their actions contribute to their overall vision. When presented with things outside the realm of their purpose it is of little consequence. They choose to spend their time and energy that have an impact on their vision.

Great leaders in history learn to say “no.”

Understand Your Values

Leaders take the time to define their values from the start. By defining your values, you are able funnel your energy around projects that are matter to you. The energy you put forth goes to the areas that keep you moving forward.

One accomplishment builds upon another when they are tied to your value.


Many of these great leaders in history are known for their military prowess. Yet, at some point or another, they had to work with others to accomplish their goals. In order to work together, there were times when the leader was required to compromise.

Compromising was not necessary at every turn. They understood who the key players were at certain times and would work together as necessary. Knowing who the influencers are helps you determine whom you should turn to for compromises.

Know the influencers and understand their needs.

Military Leaders

Military leaders face battles. You might not be a military leader but you will face your own battles whether internally or externally.

Increase your odds of winning key battles by increasing your awareness. Pay attention to your team and their needs. Understand what resources are at your disposal. Take time to develop a strategy that leverages the abilities of your team and the resources that are available.

Head of State

The majority of the leaders on this list became head of state. By setting goals and understanding values, these leaders became great leaders in history.

You might not become head of state or even want to for that matter. However, by working on the leadership skill development you will have opportunities for these positions that may have seemed originally out of grasp.

Taking actionable steps to increase your leadership abilities are keys to future success.

Determination and Perseverance

Leadership is not an easy job. With determination and perseverance, leadership becomes easier.

No matter where you start, it takes one day at a time to get where you want to be.

If something matters to you, take the time to track and record your progress. Reward yourself along the way for your achievements. These small rewards will help foster a growth mindset. Reflecting on your progress allows you to keep going as you see how far you have advanced.

Strategic Approach

Great leaders in history know how to play dominoes.

The leaders on this list understand the consequences of their actions. The also appreciate that there are repercussions beyond the task that may have a lasting impact.

Great leaders play the long game. Good leaders play the short game.


Leaders need to be decisive. Leaders do not waste time on trivial decisions but rather make the decisions quick and move on to the next thing.

Leaders use their resources to collect information. After data collection, leaders make decisions and start taking action. Depending on the results and new information, leaders will adjust their plan.


Leaders are not silent. Leaders speak their mind because they understand how their actions move them closer to their goals using values as guidance.

Leaders are able to communicate with others because they understand themselves. They know themselves so well that they are comfortable. They avoid the fear of speaking because they are confident and deliberate as their words match their actions.

Time in Power was Lengthy

Great leaders in history assume power for long periods. They maintain this responsibility because they are consistent over the course of time.

Good leaders are successful. Great leaders are able to reproduce success in different settings.


Great leaders in history have a vision of the way they want things in their lives. Their vision is so clear that they are able to describe to others. This description breeds engagement and action on behalf of the followers.

When a vision becomes clear to your followers, they can serve as surrogates. Having these people communicate your vision allows it to spread. When others communicate your vision, the message goes further than when you are the only one to provide the details of the vision.

Followers that spread your message increase your visionary reach.


Great leaders of our time have laser focus. In today’s fast-paced environment, it is easy to be inundated with messages at every turn. These messages can be distracting to the point where actions are limited.

Focus provides the attention that is necessary to carry out transformation action.

Multifaceted (more than one job)

The great leaders of today have been successful in more than role. They start off making their impact in one area of life. They then take their knowledge and ability and apply it in another area of life.

Life skills are transferable and time and energy spent toward developing these super skills is worthwhile.


Great leaders in history never stop learning. There is an appreciation for learning that allows them to make big significant changes that have lasting impact.

Time spent educating yourself allows you to teach others. Ultimately, your education is one more avenue that that helps you build authority and help others follow your lead.


Great leaders in history can teach you a lot about the necessary skills to be successful in life. Whether you apply these lessons in your professional or personal lives, they are well worth learning. Start making small continual changes in your life and reap the reward that comes with greatness. Start today by sharing this post with others and spread the message.