What You Can Learn from 5 of America’s Greatest Leaders

America has been home to some of history’s most famous minds and thinkers, and it’s not because of what we put in the water.

Leaders are not born, they’re made. So it’s no surprise that self-starters from Andrew Carnegie to Oprah Winfrey have made their impact in the United States.

But what can you learn about business from Harriet Tubman, or about video conferencing from Benjamin Franklin? Below, we explore why these great leaders were the way they were — and what you can do to absorb their most powerful messages:

From Benjamin Franklin: Self-Awareness

What good shall I do this day?

The story: Who better to start with than ‘The First American?’ Benjamin Franklin was one of 17 half-siblings through Josiah Franklin and shaped for life in the clergy. But Franklin took it upon himself to learn a number of trades — so many, in fact, that he’s been called the ‘American da Vinci.’ First learning printing and publishing in New England, Franklin moved to Philadelphia at age 17 — at his own behest — to start life fresh.

In his own memoirs, Franklin explained a unique daily practice: he would review the day’s events and evaluate his performance in a plethora of virtues, like temperance (“eat not do dullness”) and resolution (“perform without fail what you resolve.”)

The result of this practice was an extraordinarily self-aware man who achieved great things in a variety of fields: diplomacy, science, publishing, and, of course, politics. Whatever Franklin’s faults, he had no problem looking at them honestly, judging himself like a teacher evaluating a student’s homework.

The lesson: It’s possible to take any idea and turn it into something tangible that you can practice every day. That includes any role — your role as a manager, your role as a remote worker, your role as a friend. Self-awareness is not just something people possess; in Franklin’s case, it was a skill he actively cultivated through daily practice and review of his most cherished virtues.

From Muhammad Ali: Determination

Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare.

The story: Born Cassius Clay in 1942, Muhammad Ali earned a legacy as one of America’s greatest competitors through sheer determination inside the ring — and outside.

In the ring, Ali won the title of Fighter of the Year a record six times, eventually named the 20th century’s greatest athlete by Sports Illustrated. According to Ali, his determination in the gym was such that he never started counting his repetitions until the pain set in.

Outside the ring, Ali was just as determined as an individual, protesting the Vietnam War by refusing to submit to the draft — a decision that cost him years in the middle of his boxing career while earning him enmity from broad sections of the public. Ali’s determination to live according to the principles of peace were perhaps more painful than any session in the gym, yet his protests left a lasting legacy.

According to New York Times columnist William Rhoden, Ali changed the definition of what it meant to be a great athlete: “Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough.”

The lesson: Determination is not just the ability to make a decision and see it through. Determination can be as simple as sticking to your most cherished beliefs when the world wants to see you behave differently.

From Andrew Carnegie: Over-Deliver, No Matter Where You Are

There is a power under your control that is greater than poverty, greater than the lack of education, greater than all your fears and superstitions combined. It is the power to take possession of your own mind and direct it to whatever ends you may desire.

The story: Born to a poor Scottish family in the mid-19th century, it was no coincidence that Andrew Carnegie found opportunity in America: in almost every case, he went looking for it.

While you might think of Andrew Carnegie as a towering tycoon of the gilded age (he was) or a pioneering philanthropist who popularized the idea of giving back one’s money (he was), perhaps the most intriguing era of his life was when Carnegie was still a young Scottish immigrant living with his family.

Carnegie was involved early on with telegraph offices, serving as a delivery boy in Pittsburgh. Carnegie took the time to memorize locations across the entire city, cutting back on the time it would take to make his deliveries. His ambition led him to promotions, which in turn landed him business contacts he never would have made if he had been content with the first job he received.

The lesson: It doesn’t matter where you are in your business, or what your role on the team may be. There will always be an opportunity to over-deliver on your assignments and become more valuable to a company than what you receive in your paycheck. Carnegie’s dedication to being the very best at even the humblest of jobs was no coincidence: it was an active decision that led Carnegie into a world of business contacts, powerful friends, and eventually, staggering generosity.

From Harriet Tubman: Embrace the Hard Journey Once in a While

I bring you one of the best and bravest persons on this continent — General Tubman as we call her.” – John Brown, describing Tubman

The story: Harriet Tubman rightly became one of the leading figures in the abolitionist movement. But whereas leaders like Frederick Douglass utilized their talent for leadership in other ways, Tubman always had her boots on the ground. After a controversial act in 1850 required escaped slaves captured in the North to be returned to slaveholders in the south, Tubman simply re-adjusted her strategy and worked to get escaped slaves all the way to British North America, or modern-day Canada.

We all know that story. But what you might not know about Tubman was her fierce dedication to effectiveness. Capture was, of course, to be avoided at all costs. Because of this, Tubman embraced the harsh, cold winter months, when nights were long and the weather kept other people inside their homes.

By embracing the harshest — but most effective journey — Tubman increased the number of ex-slaves she could lead to freedom, earning her a reputation as a modern-day Moses.

The lesson: Harriet Tubman could have chosen the most comfortable seasons to do her work. But that wouldn’t have been effective. Short summer nights and pleasant weather made her easier to find. Winter was harsher, but more effective.

Hardness for the sake of hardness is never good in business. But when the most effective way to your goal is also the most difficult, you might consider embracing that difficulty. The difficult path might not be the most pleasant, but it can often be the simplest and most direct route in achieving what you need to achieve in business.

In video conferencing, it’s not always easy to have hard meetings, especially when you’re travelling. But those hard meetings, once accomplished, leave you free to tackle other areas of business with a lightened load.

From Oprah Winfrey: Listening Can Be One of Your Most Potent Tools

Listen. Pay attention. Treasure every moment.

The story: Oprah Winfrey is a modern-day leader who’s turned a local talk show into a multimedia empire. That kind of success is never by coincidence. For years, Oprah Winfrey used the spotlight of her show to highlight different guests and topics in a way that appealed to her millions of daytime viewers. The fact that she kept her finger on the pulse of the nation is no coincidence, either. In fact, there’s one uncanny ability Oprah Winfrey has that can be hard to identify: listening.

Simply put, one of Winfrey’s most powerful skills is the ability to listen effectively. That, combined with her tremendous platform, has made her one of the most famous interviewers in history. She landed the famous Lance Armstrong confession interview in which the iconic athlete confessed to cheating to win the Tour de France. It was through Winfrey’s ability to listen — to stay in touch with what people were feeling — that separated her from the crowd.

The Lesson: In online conferencing and in business, it’s always more important to listen than to wait for the other person to finish. If someone is taking the time to relate something to you, the least you can do for them is take the time to consider what that might be. Online conferencing is one way to do this. Stop the interruptions and the long-winded opportunities to hear yourself talk — and start becoming more interested in other people. It’s a far better way to use meetings effectively. It’s also a better way to relate to people.


Do you have any examples of famous leaders in American history who inspire you? Share their stories — and yours — below!

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