During my doctoral studies in leadership development, one question framed more conversations than almost any other: do great leaders form in any age and under any circumstance—or do contrary circumstances actually “summon” leaders to step forward? For example, would we have ever heard of attorney Abraham Lincoln had we never had a civil war to fight or a union to preserve? Do the times make the person or does the person make the times? I could make an argument for both.
Former president Harry Truman once said, “Men make history, and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”
Perhaps the answer is in the middle. The raw material lies within many people in every generation to become effective leaders—but they may never respond to the need for their leadership. It is both nature and nurture that beckons a leader to step forward. Some may take initiative and some may play it safe.
Four Common Characteristics of Extraordinary Leaders
So what is it that history-changing leaders have in common? In any era, are there common characteristics that surface in the men and women who change the course of history in a positive way? I believe we see four distinct commonalities:
1. They welcome crises and face them head on.
Those who improved history did not shrink from challenges. While few people actually enjoy negative experiences, extraordinary leaders have the backbone to walk toward them to address them rather than walk away to avoid them. During the dark days leading up to World War II, Neville Chamberlain served as prime minister of England. He believed naively that the U.K. could negotiate with Adolf Hitler and never have to enter conflict. Winston Churchill recognized that Hitler’s appetite for control of Europe was all consuming—and met the challenge of Nazi Germany head on.
2. They see their context as a place to serve people not to secure power.
Extraordinary leaders are motivated by something different than the average person. Those who’ve improved history did not see leadership as a place to accumulate power or gain status but rather to give and to serve. It’s easy to tell the difference. Emperor Constantine wasn’t a horrible man, but his legacy was moving and naming the capital of Rome after himself. On the other hand, while Pope Francis isn’t perfect, his motives tend to be serving and improving the world for the underserved. It’s a timeless trait of transformational leaders.
3. They leveraged their own strengths and style to reach a goal.
Still another quality of extraordinary leaders is—they don’t merely imitate other leaders but find their unique style. While they learn timeless principles from past leaders, they use their own strengths and personal style to achieve their mission. When I study and view footage from the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. stands apart because he was his own person. He was a rhetorical leader who leveraged his words, passion and willingness to sacrifice to move the needle for equal rights in America. On the other hand, while Jesse Jackson was and is a good man, it seemed he merely tried to imitate King, without his presence, moral authority and primary gifts.
4. They balanced the past and future in their decisions.
Those who improve history don’t merely consider today but consider their heritage and the future they hope for the people they influence. This enables them to work for a future they may never see, but know future generations will. Malcolm X labored for minorities, but did not have the patience for peaceful demonstrations; he felt you fight fire with fire. On the other hand Nelson Mandela patiently waited to make his mark on South Africa; Mother Teresa patiently sacrificed for the poor in Calcutta. They didn’t make a difference overnight, but over time. They kept the big picture and the long-term in mind as they led. And their legacy is solid.
I realize you might not see yourself as a “Mother Teresa,” or a “Nelson Mandela.” I believe, however, that these four characteristics can be applied by you and me in our current context, however large or small. I love the words of Leonard Sweet, who said: “Every policy decision should be subject to this as a litmus test: will the coming generations praise us or curse us for doing this?”
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