Whether at home or at the workplace or in pursuit of our passion, we all want to become better leaders.

But what does it take to get there?

What allows great leaders to overcome hardship, build great teams and innovate radical solutions to challenging situations?

Often, the best lessons can be learned from history. All great leaders throughout history share common characteristics and attributes that not only made them unique, but also helped them lead great movements with innovative ideas.  These individuals were not born leaders; they developed leadership habits and followed the inspiring example of those that came before them.

We can develop and foster the habits of leadership within our own lives too. As aspiring leaders, it is critical that we take the time to reflect and assess our own perspective, capabilities and habits.

Here is a look at some of the greatest leaders of our time and some of the characteristics that make them great.

1. Powerful Persistence – Abraham Lincoln

“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

As the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln is most celebrated for his role in keeping the nation together during the Civil War and signing the Emancipation Proclamation, which helped to end slavery in the United States.  His leadership exemplified determination and is a reminder that great leaders must remain persistent, even when others do not believe in your vision as a leader.

2. Bold Courage – Sandra Day O’Connor

“In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.” ~ Sandra Day O’Connor

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman justice on the Supreme Court.  During her 24 years on the bench, O’Connor served as the swing vote on a number of important cases for controversial issues like abortion, affirmative action, election law, sexual harassment and the death penalty.  She serves as a powerful example for women in the legal profession and is a reminder that great leaders are not afraid to stand for justice, even when their peers do not agree with their beliefs.

3. Humble Sacrifice – Nelson Mandela

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” ~ Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was a visionary leader who believed that forgiveness was more important that revenge.  As the first South African president elected in fully democratic elections, he was his country move past an era of apartheid after serving almost 30 years in prison.  His commitment to justice and peace, even after being imprisoned for so many years, is a reminder that great leaders must often sacrifice their personal comfort to accomplish their goals.

4. Creative Innovation – Eleanor Roosevelt

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

As the wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt helped redefine the role of the First Lady.  Eleanor not only participated in radio broadcasts, she also authored a daily syndicated column, held press conferences to discuss women’s issues and was an active supporter of civil rights policies and New Deal social-welfare programs.  After President Roosevelt’s death, Eleanor continued her humanitarian efforts by helping to develop the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UNICEF.  Her ability to redefine expectations is a reminder that great leaders always look for opportunities to break the mold.

5. Brave Determination – Rosa Parks

“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” ~ Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks, an active member of the civil rights movement who marched on behalf of the Scottsboro boys and was a member of the NAACP, is best known for her act of refusal to give up her bus seat and comply with racists segregation policies in Montgomery, Alabama.  Her defiance helped to inspire the Montgomery bus boycott and propelled the civil rights movement.  Her willingness to stand her ground in the face of unfair laws is a reminder that great leaders do not allow their fear to overcome their purpose.

6. Valuable Networks – Oprah Winfrey

“Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.”  ~ Oprah Winfrey

During a time when women were not readily embraced in the entertainment industry, Oprah Winfrey overcame humble beginnings to build an empire. Oprah Winfrey is best known for The Oprah Winfrey Show, which has won multiple Emmy Awards, is broadcast in 145 countries and has been called the most successful daytime TV program in history.  She has also received Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for her role as Sofia in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple and launched her own network – OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network – in January 2011.  Her influence on culture by celebrating the success of others is a reminder that great leaders surround themselves with individuals who embody their values and are also striving for success.

7. Moving Beyond Comfort – Geoffrey Canada

“The tendency in lots of large organizations is to try and find a comfortable place where you think you can get measured rewards for measured work.” ~ Geoffrey Canada

A social activities and leader in the education sector, Geoffrey Canada has served as the president of the Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem, New York and the Chairman of Children’s Defense Fund’s Board of Directors.  Canada has been committed to improving our education system for over 25 years.  His ability to challenge the outdated business model of public education and create new systems to reach urban students and their families is a reminder that great leaders challenge convention and push the boundaries of comfortable.

8. Leveraging Platforms – Bono

“Real leadership is when everyone else feels in charge.” ~ Bono

As the leader singer of the group U2, Bono leveraged his platform as a world renowned music entertainer to raise global awareness of critical issues like AIDS and poverty. He has persuaded global leaders to increase their support to the world’s poorest countries and enlisted the support of major corporations and brands through his ONE and (RED) campaigns. His ability to challenge the conventional expectations of music performers and entertainers and use his platform to address critical global issues is a reminder that great leaders leverage their platform to reach individuals outside of their normal circle and raise awareness of important issues.

9. Giving More, Taking Less – Angelina Jolie

“If I make a fool of myself, who cares? I’m not frightened by anyone’s perception of me.” ~ Angelina Jolie

Well known as an award winning actress in many popular movies, like Tomb Raider and Wanted and Salt, Angelina Jolie has distinguished herself by becoming a humanitarian and focusing much of her attention on how she can use her influence to give to others. She joined the UN’s refugee agency in 2001 as a goodwill ambassador and then as a special envoy, which has enabled her to take 50 field missions to countries like Iraq, Syria and Pakistan. She has used her global influence to bring attention to women rights issues in war-torn countries and other humanitarian challenges. Her ability to focus on how she can use her position of influence to give more to those in need is a reminder that great leaders give far more than they take.

10. Believing in a Vision – Jeff Bezos

“A company shouldn’t get addicted to being shiny, because shiny doesn’t last.” ~ Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com, is well known for his visionary insight, turning an idea about e-commerce that many did not understand 20 years ago into the worlds No. 2 most admired company with a market value hovering around $175 billion. But his vision is truly defined by his goals of transforming the way people purchase products, not simply to be an online merchant of books. With innovations at Amazon like Amazon Prime and Kindle Unlimited, along with his personal projects like Blue Origin, a human spaceflight company, and his purchase of The Washington Post, Jeff Bezos is continuing to re-imagine the way business will impact the way people communicate. His ability to imagine a future that we have yet to see is a reminder that great leaders believe in bold visions of he future.

Building new habits is not always easy.

Nevertheless, it is important to constantly seek opportunities to grow and strengthen our skills.  As leaders, we must seek opportunities to build reinforcing habits that allow us to be more effective.

These leadership lessons are helpful reminders that can help us expand our influence, strengthen our organizations and advance our careers.

What new habit can you begin building today?

Featured photo credit: Flickr: Creative Commons via flickr.com

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