The C-Suite’s Favorite Leadership Phrases—and How They Shaped Executives

By Brian O'Connell September 8, 2021
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The C-Suite’s Favorite Leadership Phrases—and How They Shaped Executives

​From Napoleon Bonaparte ("A leader is a giver of hope.") to Steve Jobs ("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."), history is chock-full of inspirational phrases from famed leaders that resonate with today's corporate executives.

What phrases shaped the leadership mindset of today's C-suite-level leaders? Here's an inside look at some of the best leadership phrases in history, from the executives who embraced them.

Leader: Gary Mangiofico, executive professor of organizational theory and management at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School in Malibu, Calif.

The Quote: "The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make the system's weaknesses irrelevant."- Peter Drucker.

The Impact: "This quote has always served to keep me grounded as to the purpose of my leadership, regardless of the circumstances," said Mangiofico, a former vice president at Johnson & Johnson Health Care Services. "As a leader, we're consistently called upon to guide, support, direct and make decisions constantly. While there are countless descriptions and characterizations of leadership, in this one quote Peter Drucker distills the 'how to lead' theme that has helped my focus on a daily basis."

Mangiofico said he's had to "earn his privilege" to lead people each day.

"I've found by building and aligning the strengths of people and our organizational design, I can convene people who are engaged, empowered and deliver extraordinary achievements on the job," he said. "We may manage the elements of an organization, but at the end of the day, we lead people, and this simple but powerful phrase has shaped how I deliver as a leader."

Leader: Katherine Daniel, SHRM-SCP, founder at Montani Consulting in Wilmington, N.C.

The Quote: "The speed of the boss is the speed of the team." - Lee Iacocca.

The Impact: "The simplicity of this statement makes it easy to remember," Daniel said. "In less than a dozen words, it communicates the standard of leadership, a reminder to leaders of their impact and a reminder to team members to model the behavior of leaders."

It's not only about speed. "While that's certainly important in business, leaders should display many other attributes," Daniel noted. "For example, instead of speed, you could insert attentiveness, attitude, focus on growth, or enthusiasm. Any of these attributes can be replaced within this quote to further reiterate the impact of leadership. The quote reminds me to be accountable for the behavior I want to see from my team."

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Leader: Mary Sullivan, former executive at Vanguard Group and Charles Schwab, founder of Sweet but Fearless, a career transitioning firm for women in Kirkland, Wash.

The Quote: "It is more important to know than to tell." - Vijay Kapur (a former executive leader who worked with Sullivan).

The Impact: "As you move up the corporate ladder into more executive positions, you will be privy to more corporate and personnel information," Sullivan said. "You're part of strategic decisions that can potentially move the stock market if shared or leaked prematurely."

Having more information requires business leaders to be more responsible.

"That's what the quote represents, to me—the power is in knowing and containing information prudently, not in sharing and telling everyone what you know," Sullivan added. "I was so inspired by his advice. It really helped me understand the difference in mindset and application as you progress in your career."

The quote also shone a light on the issues of leadership and trust.

"One of the best ways to be a great leader is to be trusted," she added. "No one wants to tell you a conversation is confidential. You should be able to discern that by 'knowing and not telling.' Newer leaders especially need to learn this art, as they are just experiencing being at the senior table and having access to confidential information. By sharing this quote with my teams throughout my career, we've all avoided problems."

Leader: Jared Pope, CEO and co-founder of Work Shield, a workplace harassment and discrimination resolution firm in Dallas.

The Quote: "Attitude reflects leadership." - From the movie "Remember the Titans."

The Impact: In the movie "Remember the Titans," the team's football captain calls out the unfavorable behavior of a teammate, and the teammate replies, "Attitude reflects leadership, captain."

"Leadership involves taking personal responsibility even when it seems to be easy to point fingers and blame others when things go wrong," Pope said. "From leading a company to coaching energetic second-grade boys on the soccer field, I know my attitude greatly impacts my effectiveness as a leader, and my attitude and behavior tell a story about what I value."

Pope said he values an inclusive and safe workplace for his team, so he must lead by example, as the quote attests. "I must set the right attitude and engage in the inclusive behaviors myself," he noted. "How can I expect my team to mimic the behaviors and actions that contribute to an inclusive culture if I don't demonstrate them myself?"

Leader: Barry Flink, executive vice president at Flex HR, an Atlanta-based management consulting firm that offers senior-level human resource services.

The Quote: "Love your direct reports and compliment them daily." - John Teets, former CEO of the Greyhound Corporation.

The Impact: "Say 'thank you' to as many employees [in person] as practical," Flink said. "Over the 20 years I've been with Flex HR, I did this every time I was in the office. A nice payoff was one of our associates saved my life with her donation of one of her kidneys."

Leader: Navarre Trousselot, CEO of Navexa, a software development company based in Melbourne, Australia.

The Quote: "When people talk, listen completely." - Ernest Hemingway.

The Impact: The Hemingway quote seems like a simple, obvious statement, but it has deeper meaning than that, Trousselot said.

"It's so easy to get carried away with your own ambitions and plans and completely disregard what people are saying," he said. "This is one of the most common problems in business today. Leaders have their own agenda and often are completely oblivious to their people's thoughts and feelings."

Trousselot said he always listens attentively to what others have to say and tries to act accordingly. "This doesn't mean I always complied with other's suggestions, but I took them into account when making the final decision," he said. "Also, listening helps team members reach a compromise that can [potentially] satisfy everyone working on a big issue."

This mindset has reaped immediate dividends at Navexa. "I've never had issues with my employees, and we've managed to establish a relationship of trust and respect," he said. "Just as I listened to them, they also listened to me, and it's worked out wonderfully for the entire team."

Leader: Pam Kehaly, CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona.

The Quote: "Do well by doing good." – Benjamin Franklin.

The Impact: Kehaly said she's used the Franklin philosophy to help guide her actions, the company's actions and employees' actions. "I believe that a company that puts customer and community well-being above all will thrive in the long run," she said.

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, Inc., 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2004).

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