I love rankings and polls. I especially enjoy them during college football season as hundreds of so-called pundits tell us who the best teams in America are. Of all the college football polls, the Coaches Poll and the Associated Press Poll are the most widely read among them. Each of those polls ranks 25 teams each week during the season. In that spirit, I am ranking my top 25 leadership quotes.

I made the decision not to include quotes from the Bible. Jesus, Paul, and Proverbs would have dominated the list. Here are my top 25 quotes, at least for now.

  1. The nation will find it very hard to look up to the leaders who are keeping their ears to the ground. —Sir Winston Churchill
  2. In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock. —Thomas Jefferson (see comment below regarding the authenticity of this quote)
  3. Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations. —Peter Drucker
  4. The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant. —Max DePree
  5. Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm. —Publilius Syrus
  6. He who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander. —Aristotle
  7. 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
  8. A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent. —Douglas MacArthur
  9. Leaders aren’t born; they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal. —Vince Lombardi
  10. If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. —John Quincy Adams
  11. No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent. —Abraham Lincoln
  12. We live in a society obsessed with public opinion. But leadership has never been about popularity. —Marco Rubio
  13. Whatever you are, be a good one. —Abraham Lincoln
  14. To have long term success as a coach or in any position of leadership, you have to be obsessed in some way. —Pat Riley
  15. Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality. —Warren Bennis
  16. The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it. —Theodore Roosevelt
  17. Leaders think and talk about the solutions. Followers think and talk about the problems. —Brian Tracy
  18. Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity. —General George Patton
  19. A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd. —Max Lucado
  20. I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody. —Herbert Swope
  21. You manage things; you lead people. —Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper
  22. Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy. —Norman Schwarzkopf
  23. Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. —John F. Kennedy
  24. The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership. —Harvey Firestone
  25. 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

What do you think of my list? I think I missed a few good ones by Margaret Thatcher. I’ll probably add her quotes in the future. What would you add?


  1. Tory says

    Excellent. I would like to make an appeal to the committee to bump that Jefferson quote up a little higher. Great insight. I will throw in one more:

    “If Bill had been a local potentate centuries before, and his city was under siege, and he had been told by the randy and imperious besieger to ‘Surrender all your gold, and let us ravish all your women,’ Bill would have appeared above the city gates to say something along the lines of ‘Okay!'” (Evangellyfish, p. 146).

    • Tory says

      That quote is by Doug Wilson… And in case its not obvious, its meant to be a bad example of leadership. Thought I would offer that clarity before anyone went and did likewise.

  2. Fredericka DeBerry says

    You really, really need more quotes from women. May I suggest this one?
    We’re living in a whole new social and economic order with a whole new set of problems and challenges. Old assumptions and old programs don’t work in this new society and the more we try to stretch them to make them fit, the more we will be seen as running away from what is reality.
    Ann Richards

  3. Lee Hughart says

    I was reading the list and when I read that quote of Thomas Jefferson. It didn’t sound like Jefferson. Jefferson was very much into styles, especially landscape and architectural; and opinionated about quality of one over another. I am a history geek and American primarily. I have read enough Jefferson (not a lot) and that era to know it sounded too modern and not his style. Sure enough it is not Jefferson. It has been passed on as Jeff’s since the 1970’s. The Adams’ qoute was actually a derivative from Dolly Parton! Passed on as Adams. If find that particularly humorous..

    I know this makes me sound like an internet troll. AS a researcher and stats man, I hope you take this in its good intention. In our Post-modern culture most will not care if it is not true, but we are to be truth tellers as followers of Jesus. So….

    Many implications to what we say and use as tools in our apologetics and witnessing to informed skeptics, especially New Atheists, who will jump on any falsehood to disprove The Gospel.

    Here is the source info.
    Source – Monticello

    Sources consulted (searching “stand like a rock” and “swim with the current”):
    Papers of Thomas Jefferson Digital Edition
    Hathi Trust Digital Library
    Google Books
    America’s Historical Newspapers
    19th Century United States Newspapers
    America Periodicals Series Online
    Earliest known appearance in print: 1891 (as the second variation) [1]

    Earliest known appearance in print, attributed to Jefferson: 1973 (as the first variation) [2]

    Comments: It is clear that the quotation came into use at least as early as the 19th century, although when it was used, it was not attributed to a particular author and was often referred to as an “old adage.” It is not clear where the phrase originated from, but there is no proof that Jefferson ever uttered these words. It appears that the phrase became connected to Jefferson around 1973, and from then on, it is almost always attributed to him when quoted – usually in the context of homemaking or education.
    – Elizabeth Huff, June 8, 2011

    On John Adams:


  4. Doug says

    Pithy leadership quote for a crazy-busy smartphone-distracted world from missionary martyr Jim Elliott – “wherever you are, be all there”

    • Robert says

      I have to disagree, I am currently motivated and lead to action by perhaps the greatest quote he has given us.
      “Change” ~ Barack Obama

      Purposefully taken out of context to fulfill the humorous intent of the contributor.

  5. Fatma Ali says

    A great quote in leadership is “The worst of guardians is a cruel ruler. Beware of becoming one of them.”
    Prophet Muhammad

  6. Robert says

    I am a retired Navy Chief, as such Leadership, Motivation, and Inspiration are three primary keys to the way of life and Mentorship I was raised with from age 20 – 41. When I was lifted by great actions of my peers and subordinates and peers, and accepted by my mentors to become a Chief, is when I truly began to understand on a deeper level how these pieces work together. I have been led and inspired by some truly great leaders. I have borrowed a quote from late in my career while working as an instructor at a reserve center. My Commanding Officer was being advised by his Executive Officer about a decision that was absolutely necessary, but would change everything about how we did business with 34 other commands subordinate to us.
    “I am not here to be popular, I am here to be effective.” ~ Capt. Steve Zivovic USN ret.

  7. says

    Great list! Thanks for sharing. I always say, ‘When I talk to managers I get the feeling that they’re important. When I talk to leaders I get the feeling that I’m important.” Although I wrote it myself, there have probably been more people who said it.

    If you want more inspiration on quotes, check out my page at I’ve posted more than 280 quotes on leadership.


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