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Words to Live & Work By: The C-Suite's Favorite Leadership Quotes

Words have power, and great words have superpowers. Just ask any executive.

A group of people walking across a crosswalk.

History is chock full of inspirational phrases and quotes that help motivate workplace leaders. From Napoleon ("A leader is a giver of hope") to Peter Drucker ("Leadership is defined by results, not attributes"), C-suite executives often draw on words from the past to help guide their decisions for the future.

Which phrases shaped the leadership mindset of today's leaders, and how do those leaders translate the words from ideology to reality?

The SHRM Executive Network asked a group of company leaders to identify their favorite management quotes and to explain how they have embraced those phrases in their career and leadership roles:


"You can have everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want." —Zig Ziglar

"This quote resonates with me. It emphasizes the importance of understanding the needs and goals of others to effectively lead and manage them," says Rod McDermott, CEO of McDermott + Bull, an executive search firm in Irvine, Calif.

To apply this message to his management philosophy, McDermott strives to establish personal connections with team members and understand their aspirations. He prioritizes open communication and works to address any barriers that are holding back his team.

"If you think this way, it removes self-interest," McDermott says. "You stop thinking about your fears and desires. Instead, you focus on how you can help others live their best lives."


"Of all the things I've done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal." —Walt Disney

Lacey McLaughlin, president of LLM Consulting Group, an executive coaching firm in Pasadena, Calif., prioritizes teamwork, whether in managing her own team or consulting with leaders at other organizations

"Anyone can have a grand vision, but a leader is someone who can inspire a group of people and help them meet that goal," McLaughlin says. That's where the Disney quote comes into play.

"One of my favorite developments is seeing leaders recognize the value of their teams," McLaughlin says.

For example, McLaughlin was working with a production company executive who wasn't having success with his top-down leadership. Wanting to improve results, the leader completely changed his management style.

"Instead of offering dictates, the leader began meeting with the team, listening to their thoughts, offering feedback to the team and then collaborating to execute their goals," McLaughlin says. "In a short period of time, the company boosted revenue and surpassed strategic goals."


"Change is scary, but changing is necessary." —Anonymous

Seena Mortazavi, CEO of Chronus, a software services company in Seattle, finds business inspiration from historical leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

"There are always lessons to be learned from the past," Mortazavi says. "I'm particularly impacted by people who went through dark days and managed to come out on the other side to make the world a better place."

The "change is scary" adage helps Mortazavi think through key decisions with an open mindset. It also reminds him to keep challenging the status quo at his company, which strives for constant innovation.

"Most of the time, change is scary," Mortazavi says. "But change is something we embrace to further our mission."


"Your role as a leader is to bring out the best in others, even when they know more than you." —Wanda T. Wallace

"Fake it until you make it" is not a winning leadership philosophy in the workplace. If you're high up in an organization, there are many details about procedures and products that you can't possibly know.

That why Max Wesman, COO of GoodHire, a background check company in San Francisco, says it's important to be willing to ask important questions and empower those below you to speak up and make key decisions.  

"As Wallace says, it remains our fundamental responsibility to direct, inspire and encourage employees to bring out the inner passion for what they do and channel it to their work," says Wesman. "Even if I manage multiple functions, for questions or matters very specific to one department, say, finance, I need to pull out someone from the accounting team who knows more than me in this area."

Wesman has also embraced the famous Steve Jobs quote, "The only way to do great work is to love what you do."

"This has profoundly shaped my philosophy at work because, in truth, you can only sustain your challenging role as a manager if you have passion for what you do and love the impact it creates," he says.


"Not everybody can be famous, but everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service." —Martin Luther King Jr.

"The irony associated with embracing this mindset is that when you stop thinking of yourself and instead focus on the needs of others, you get so much in return," says Gerry Goldberg, CEO of GYL Financial Synergies in West Hartford, Conn.

He says that prioritizing the "we over me" mindset and embracing servant leadership are practices that he works to instill at his company.  

"The servant leader concept contemplates a leader that is focused on the growth and well-being of employees and other stakeholders in the organization, as opposed to the self-interest of the leader," Goldberg says. "Every day brings with it an opportunity to do good and to do right. This is true in our personal and professional lives."


Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw Hill, 2004).


25 More Great Historical Quotes on Leadership

  1. "You manage things; you lead people." —Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper
  2. "Where there is no vision, the people perish." —Proverbs 29:18
  3. "No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it." –Andrew Carnegie
  4. "Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others." —Jack Welch
  5. "He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander." —Aristotle
  6. "Become the kind of leader that people would follow voluntarily, even if you had no title or position." —Brian Tracy
  7. "You don't lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case." —Ken Kesey
  8. "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." —Harry S. Truman
  9. "People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision." —John Maxwell
  10. "It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership." —Nelson Mandela
  11. "The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes." —Tony Blair
  12. "A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be." —Rosalynn Carter
  13. "Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it's amazing what they can accomplish." —Sam Walton
  14. "A ruler should be slow to punish and swift to reward." —Ovid
  15. "A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd." —Max Lucado
  16. "The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority." –Ken Blanchard
  17. "Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you'll be criticized anyway." —Eleanor Roosevelt
  18. "My job is not to be nice to people. My job is to push these great workers that we have and make them even better." —Steve Jobs
  19. "Leaders aren't born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work." —Vince Lombardi
  20. "Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers who can cut through argument, debate and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand." —Gen. Colin Powell
  21. "In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock." —Thomas Jefferson
  22. "Leadership cannot just go along to get along. Leadership must meet the moral challenge of the day." —Jesse Jackson
  23. "Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing." —Tom Peters
  24. "Not the cry, but the flight of a wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow." —Chinese proverb
  25. "Earn your leadership every day." —Michael Jordan

Source: 365 Best Inspirational Quotes: Daily Motivation for Your Best Year Ever (Wholehearted Leadership Press, 2nd edition, 2014), edited by K.E. Kruse.


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