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10 Leadership Lessons From Inspiring Leaders In History

10 Leadership Lessons From Inspiring Leaders In History

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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