Leadership Quotes

People love quotes so much that entire websites and even books are dedicated to collecting our favorites. But why? What is it about a quote that makes us want to come back to it, to share it with others, to adopt it as our personal mantra?

Well, when it comes to quotes about leadership, it might be that these phrases not only impart a bit of wisdom we want to carry with us in the hopes that it may lead us well, but that a few simple words also somehow capture the life of the speaker, their accomplishments, and their insights. Quotes serve as metonym, or stand-ins, for the people we admire, whose lives serve as aspirational examples for our own.

In this spirit, we asked four thought leaders in the industry–John Mattone, Melissa Lamson, Morag Barrett, and Richard Banfield–for their favorite quotes on leadership. Their answers were:

“We’re here to put a dent in the universe.” –Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs needs no introduction, but just in case: In 1976, he and business partner Steve Wozniak founded Apple, which went on to revolutionize personal computing, mobile communication, and more, becoming the world’s largest information technology company in the process.

Jobs’ quote above stands out to leadership coach John Mattone, who previously worked with the Apple cofounder, because it emphasizes the change in perspective that’s necessary for leaders to succeed. “Many people, their mentality is not big,” says Mattone. “Most people’s mentality, when they wake up in the morning, is small. People just go to work, they enter a zone, and then they go home.”

“The notion of thinking differently, thinking big–that’s fuel,” he says, stressing that you need fuel to launch the big ideas that make leaders stand out.

“Leadership is an action, not a position.” –Donald McGannon

Once head of the now-defunct Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, Donald McGannon may no longer be that much of a household name, but his influence endures. Led by only his morals, McGannon banned cigarette advertising on Westinghouse stations years before it was law, lobbied the Federal Communications Commission to keep half an hour of each prime time evening for smaller local stations, and founded the Broadcast Skills Bank to train and employ underrepresented people in television and radio.

In other words, McGannon understood that leaders are meant to help their communities, not fleece them–and that’s what leadership coach Melissa Lamson appreciates about his quote. “A lot of people strive for power, money, or the title of ‘leadership,’” says Lamson, who’s worked with companies like SpaceX, SAP, and LinkedIn. “But being a leader is truly an act of service to the people being led. Great leaders act in such a way that the people following them know they have support and commitment.”

“Leaders empower others, inspire them, foster their independence and individual success,” she says, describing actions akin to those McGannon himself took and would no doubt advocate.

“What got you here won’t get you there.” –Marshall Goldsmith

Author, educator, and coach Marshall Goldsmith has been teaching current and aspiring leaders since 1976, first at Loyola Marymount University’s College of Business and now Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. Penning dozens of volumes and guiding hundreds of workshops on leadership, his contributions to the industry have been recognized by Inc., Forbes, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, and more.

Aside from also being the title of Goldsmith’s third book, the quote above is a favorite of Morag Barrett, leadership coach and author of her own book, Cultivate: The Power of Winning Relationship. What Barrett appreciates about Goldsmith’s words are how they ground leadership in learning. “As we move to a new leadership level or join a new team, the quote reminds us to pay attention to not keep doing what we have always done, the things that got us promoted or got us the new job,” she says. “Instead, that is the very time to re-evaluate and identify what new skills and knowledge need to be learned to ensure success, and which old skills and behaviors need to be unlearned.”

Barrett and Goldsmith both underscore the ever-evolving requirements of leadership, which propell so many leaders to continue learning, either through reading books, studying with coaches, or enrolling in formal academic programs in organizational leadership or business management.

“Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.” –Ernest Shackleton (Apocryphal)

Another person who needs no introduction, but shall receive one nonetheless, Ernest Shackleton was a British explorer who, in the early 20th century, famously made three expeditions into the Antarctic. The first two expeditions set new records for reaching the farthest southern latitudes. The third, in which he sought to cross the Antarctic from sea to sea via the South Pole, ended in tragedy when, on the second attempt, Shackleton died of a heart attack.

As someone whose feats were of mythic proportion, Shackleton’s life unsurprisingly grew its own mythology. One example, now considered apocryphal, involves the line above, which he supposedly used to recruit for one of his voyages.

Historically accurate or not, the line still speaks to Richard Banfield, CEO of the design firm Fresh Tilled Soil and co-author of Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams. To Banfield, “Anyone who has the courage to write this type of request, and anyone who has the courage to respond, understands leadership.” And it’s true, of course: Among the many skills and characteristics that leadership demands, courage cannot be discounted.