Throughout history, human societies have been shaped and determined by their leaders. Whether triumphing by conquest or political maneuvering, or succeeding by self-belief, these figures are the powerful elite that others have sought, or been compelled, to follow.
Leaders take many forms, from monarchs and dictators to social reformers and revolutionaries to prophets and spiritual guides.
Styles of leadership are equally diverse, some achieving and sustaining their authority through fear and brutality, while others inspire loyalty through benevolence or shared ideals and aspirations.
What unites all great leaders, however, is their ability to influence people, whether briefly, such as John F. Kennedy, or throughout their lifetime, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine during her 66-year reign over France and England.While the legacies of many leaders have faded over time, a notable few have
left an indelible mark on the world. The most enduring of these legacies belong to spiritual leaders, such as Muhammad, Moses, and Jesus Christ, whose teachings continue to shape the lives of billions of followers around the world, millennia after their own lifetimes. A number of other leaders also live on in spiritual form as cherished national icons, such as Boudicca, Joan of Arc, and Saladin, whose achievements have become legendary. They endure in people’s minds as much for the principles they represent as for the historical facts of their stories.
The effect of power For some leaders, traces of their influence can still be seen in national, geographic, and political boundaries.
The vast empires created by Alexander the Great, Suleiman the Magnificent,
and Genghis Khan, for example, may have fallen, but the achievements of Qin Shi Huang, Charlemagne, and Otto Von Bismarck endure as modern-day China, France, and Germany. Similarly, through the leadership of George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, and Kwame Nkrumah, the US, India, and Ghana became new, independent countries. Another mark of successful leadership is advancement, where courageous rulers have led their society to a brighter future by challenging the current regime. As president, Abraham Lincoln released
millions of slaves in the US and turned his country away from slavery; Cuba was freed from capitalist corruption by Fidel
Castro’s revolution; while in South Africa, Nelson Mandela overthrew apartheid, finally granting equality to the country’s black majority.
Leaders can be defined neither by gender nor by race. Some of the great leaders have been female, including Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Emmeline Pankhurst, who all worked toward achieving equality for women. As a result of their initiatives, Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, and Angela Merkel were able to forge political careers that saw them become the first elected female leaders of the UK, Pakistan, and Germany, respectively. The civil rights movement in the
US, given voice by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, successfully
campaigned for black equality and brought the issue to the world stage.
A position of leadership inevitably carries great power, which can be
misused and even abused, as witnessed in Adolf Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and other minorities during World WarII, devastating Europe for generations. Wielding power does not guarantee success, as seen in communist Russia and China, where Joseph Stalin’s and failed reforms and political ambitions cost the lives of tens of millions of their own people. However, leaders can and do evolve. In their early lives, entrepreneurs such as John D. Rockefeller, Li Ka-shing, and
Bill Gates led their businesses to global success and earned themselves vast fortunes. Each then used his personal wealth to fund philanthropic projects and, in doing so, improved the lives of those less fortunate, acquiring new supporters around the world.Changing notion of leadership As societies change, so, too, does the concept of leadership. However, the one, indisputable uniting quality among all the leaders that appear in this book is ambition—these are people who, even if their leadership was inherited, chose to make decisions in order to effect change. They accepted, welcomed, or fought for their position,
and they were not afraid to stand up for what they believed in, whether that be to mankind’s advantage or detriment. These are people who lived exceptional lives, many of which still continue to influence lives today.
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