Martin Luther King, Jr

Ten Greatest Leaders in History and How to Apply Their Skills

Revised: February 23, 2024

As you seek to develop your leadership style and hone the core competencies required to take on advanced roles, you can look to some of history's most famous world leaders for inspiration. Throughout the past, the great leaders of all time acted as beacons of hope, uniting those around them to enact change — and they did so by relying on a unique set of leadership skills.

What Makes a Great Leader?

Throughout history, many of the great world leaders have shared traits, resulting in a leadership pattern that professionals can look to for inspiration during complex times. Some of the qualities of a great leader —including being authentic, open-minded, creative, and strategic — can be found in almost every one of history's most famous world leaders. 

Ability to Make Difficult Decisions

At the end of the day, an organization’s leadership is required to make the most difficult and impactful decisions. According to LinkedIn, leaders can improve their decision-making skills by relying on a thoughtful and strategic process, including:

  • Identifying the need behind making the decision.
  • Gathering data and relevant information to support the final decision.
  • Generating multiple options and solutions for consideration.
  • Evaluating options in collaboration with high-level team members.
  • Implementing and communicating the decision.

Ability to Inspire Others

Leaders must be able to inspire those around them. People are only motivated to follow their leaders if they are truly excited about the opportunities ahead. By outlining a clear vision and explaining the benefits everyone could enjoy, leaders can naturally inspire those who look to them for guidance.

Persistence and Determination

The fact of the matter is that leaders will occasionally fail. Whether they make a few missteps early in their career or inadvertently commit an epic blunder at a pivotal moment, effective leaders must acknowledge when they fall short. Only then can they rise to the occasion and showcase the resilience and determination required by the most trying moments. This is one of the best ways to lead by example.

Integrity and Moral Values

Leaders who act with integrity and operate based on a well-developed moral compass are often more respected by their peers. People are more likely to value the input of a leader who is honest, transparent, kind, and compassionate. Throughout history, it's clear that values-based leadership has been the most effective way of ruling a nation or guiding people toward change.

1. Hatshepsut - The Female Pharaoh of Egypt (1507–1458 B.C.E.)

Throughout ancient Egyptian history, there were few female rulers — allowing Hatshepsut to stand out as one of the most iconic leaders from this era. According to Britannica, Hatshepsut was able to acquire unprecedented power for a woman of her time, and her unique leadership style allowed her to create a peaceful era in which relationships were built based on trade rather than war. Through her confidence and commitment to enacting change in tangible ways, Hatshepsut led Egypt through several of its most prominent building programs, including the Karnak temple complex and Amon-Re temple.

2. Julius Caesar - Dictator of Rome (100-44 B.C.E.)

Described by Britannica as a military and political genius, Julius Caesar is largely considered to be the most famous Roman leader. Through his strategic thinking and actionable decision-making, Caesar could address the issues with Rome's existing power structure and bring the empire under the rule of a dictatorship.

3. Cleopatra VII - The Last Ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt (69–30 B.C.E.)

While many chapters of modern history have inaccurately described Cleopatra VII as a seductive temptress whose illicit affairs cost Egypt its rule, the reality of the matter is she was one of the most effective and dynamic rulers of Egypt's Ptolemaic Kingdom. According to the World History Encyclopedia, Cleopatra led Egypt through some of its most challenging periods thanks to her steady, diplomatic approach to leadership.

4. Wu Zetian - Empress of China (624–705 C.E.)

Empress Wu Zetian was the only female empress of China, and though her rule lasted for just 15 years, she is still considered to be one of the most effective rulers of the ancient empire. According to the Association for Asian Studies, Empress Wu Zetian led China through the Tang Dynasty, which is widely heralded as the Golden Era. She is known for her political prowess, yet many have said she was a ruthless leader. Modern historians believe that her ruthlessness was exaggerated by those who opposed female leadership.

5. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)

As the daughter of the infamous King Henry VII, the rule of Queen Elizabeth I was never guaranteed. She came to the throne after years of tumult and unrest, yet she was able to unite the country through her powerful leadership skills. The Elizabethan Age is considered one of the most monumental eras in English history, as this is when England emerged as a notable power in Europe. Queen Elizabeth relied on courage and shrewdness to unite her people behind a common cause of greatness from 1558 to 1603.

6. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

Rising to power in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte was an aristocratic noble who became the French Emperor. According to the Palace of Versailles, Napoleon was a truly inspirational leader, often encouraging the French people to believe in his concept of destiny. However, his greed and insatiable desire to expand the French empire ultimately led to his downfall.

7. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

Elected as the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln worked throughout his administration to unite a country that was torn apart by civil war. Lincoln was beloved for his humble nature and quiet leadership style and is most widely known for his issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, freeing all enslaved people in the Confederacy. 

8. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

Mahatma Gandhi began his career in India as a lawyer, but he soon became heavily involved with social activism. Gandhi became the face of the nationalist movement in opposition to British rule in India, ultimately helping the country achieve freedom from colonial rule. Unlike many leaders who came before him, Gandhi inspired people to oppose oppressive rule through a peaceful, nonviolent approach.

9. Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

Serving as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II, Winston Churchill became the voice of a nation during one of its most destructive and tumultuous periods. Churchill is considered a hero of the war effort because he was able to rely on his dynamic leadership approach to unite the country and bring England to victory in the face of major setbacks. According to the International Churchill Society, Churchill is best known for his strategic and passionate leadership style.

10. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

Known for spearheading the civil rights movement and inspiring Americans to reach for greater equality for all, Martin Luther King Jr. became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Martin Luther King Jr. is best known for his commitment to a nonviolent approach to social change through collective action. He was a key figure in organizing the Montgomery bus boycotts as well as the March on Washington. 

How to Apply These Leadership Skills to Advance Your Professional Career

When it comes to developing your own leadership identity, it's important to reflect on your strengths and weaknesses. By focusing on what lies within, you will be able to hone the competencies needed for you to become an effective and impactful leader. In addition to self-reflection, you can look to the greatest leaders in history for inspiration. You can apply these leadership skills to your career when you:

Assess Your Strengths

Determining your strengths will help you align with a leadership style that complements your personality. You can assess your leadership skills by completing a self-assessment questionnaire, seeking objective feedback from people you trust, and working with a mentor to identify your strengths.

Build a Strong Team

Great leaders do not lead in a vacuum. They build a team of trusted individuals to complement their leadership style and allow them to develop a strategic plan and move forward. As you seek to elevate your career, nurture and develop a professional network of contacts to help you reach your leadership goals.

Set Clear Goals and Objectives

To accomplish your professional goals and achieve a leadership position, you should create a strategic growth plan. By outlining clear goals and objectives, you can develop both short- and long-term plans that allow you to reach new heights within your career. As evidenced by some of the best world leaders, the ability to create a strategic plan is critical to your success.

Balance Accountability With Flexibility

In many respects, accountability is the hallmark of leadership. Leaders are only capable of inspiring and motivating others when they are willing to be transparent and hold themselves accountable for their actions. As an accountable leader, it's only natural that you expect the same of those around you.

However, remember to balance that sense of accountability with flexibility. As a leader, you should be able to look at the situation from multiple perspectives and keep empathy at the forefront of your leadership style. Flexibility and adaptability will allow you to become the kind of leader people genuinely respect.

Respond Effectively to Crisis Situations

Leaders are often put to the test during crises, and you must adapt accordingly and respond effectively to guide your team through challenging moments. According to the Harvard Business Review, the best way to lead through a crisis is to:

  • Communicate clearly, frequently, and effectively throughout the crisis. Ensure everyone is aware of the top priorities.
  • Make precise decisions as swiftly as possible, and delegate to everyone on the team.
  • Seek engagement throughout the crisis from your most valuable stakeholders. This can serve as a guiding light and help determine your next course of action.

Pursue Further Education

All leaders should self-identify as lifelong learners. The very idea of leadership requires individuals to be accepting of the fact that they are constantly growing and developing. Education should play a critical role in your overall leadership strategy. Whether enrolling in professional development courses, completing certificate programs, or pursuing a graduate degree, you will find that competency-based educational programs allow you to improve your skills as you adopt a leadership style. Investing in your education is truly an investment in yourself, both on a personal and professional level.

Advance Your Leadership Skills Today

While you can look to inspiring leaders in history as you begin to form your leadership identity, one of the best ways to hone the core competencies required of senior-level positions is to pursue a graduate degree. At Champlain College Online, we offer an online master's degree in leadership that allows you to develop an actionable leadership foundation you can build upon throughout your career. Our curriculum emphasizes progressive management techniques and powerful approaches to leadership so you can learn how to build adaptive strategies for any organization while cultivating a positive workplace culture. Request more information about our online leadership degree programs today.


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