Great leadership quotes inspire and guide us. They become part of our mainstream language and instilled in our culture. We accept them as a reflection of the ideal, aspire to live them and use them when teaching others about leadership.
But sometimes a quote takes root that sends us in the wrong direction. Frequently these are from highly respected leaders who are often quoted. Not bothering to think critically, we just assume everything they say is on target.
Or it might be that the quote is pithy, and we like the way it sounds. The problem with a catchy slogan is that the form supersedes content.
These 10 “worst leadership quotes” are included on many “best leadership quotes” lists. Although these particular quotes miss the mark, you can find many other excellent quotes by each of these leaders.
“Managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing.” ~ Warren Bennis
Leadership is not about a job title or role. There are lot of managers who are doing a great job leading. The issue is the behavior, not the role: Management is about doing things right. Leadership is about doing the right thing.
Organizations need front-line and middle managers to provide leadership, not just to manage the status quo. This quote is a putdown of managers and perpetuates the mindset that managers don’t provide leadership.
“Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.” ~ General George Patton
This might make sense in the heat of battle, but fails as a general leadership principle. Leadership is not about bulldozing. It requires engaging people and building understanding.
There is a nugget of truth in this statement – if you’re not leading or following, then you’re either standing still or going in circles. But telling people to move or get out of the way is not the way to mobilize them.
“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” ~ General Dwight Eisenhower
Leadership is not about manipulating people into doing what you want done. It’s not about trying to get people to want what you want. It’s not about you. Leadership involves finding out what people want and need and helping them get there.
“Leadership is getting people to work for you when they are not obligated.” ~ Fred Smith
Motivating people to do their work might be what management is about, but it’s not about leadership. Leadership is about going somewhere. Also, as noted above, good leadership is not about “getting people to do something.”
“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.” ~ Colin Powell
Your focus as a leader should be strategic, not tactical. When your primary focus is on solving problems that people bring to you, you keep them dependent on you. Help them learn to solve problems on their own and only elevate the strategic ones, or your time will be consumed with fighting fires, and you won’t have time to lead them anywhere.
“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” ~ John Maxwell
This is an example of a catchy slogan that lacks substance. The truth is leaders can’t figure all this out on their own, and we need to stop perpetuating that myth.
“First get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats, and then figure out where to drive.” ~ Jim Collins
There are several problems here. First, as Wally Bock points out, “how can you know the characteristics of ‘the right people’ until you know where you’re going?” Another significant problem is promoting the idea that leaders should focus on bringing in new talent and pruning those who aren’t performing. Leaders should focus on development and do everything they can to develop the team they have into high performers before they think about replacing them.
Finally, the bus analogy is way off-base. Buses have only one driver and everyone else is a passenger. Organizations don’t need passengers. Leaders need to help their team develop the skills to drive their own vehicles and create a shared vision to ensure they are all driving in the same direction.
“Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others.” ~ Robert Louis Stevenson
The attitude that leaders should hide their concerns is erroneous. Research shows that when leaders share their feelings, it actually increases trust. According to Bill George, people want to be led by someone “real.” At issue is not whether to show your concerns, but how you do it. If you use emotional intelligence, you can authentically share your fears and become a stronger leader.
“My job is not to be easy on people. My job is to make them better.” ~ Steve Jobs
This might make sense if you are a parent, but “tough love” and leadership are a dangerous combination. If leaders think of themselves as parents, their team will act like dependent children, not responsible adults. It’s not your job to be easy or tough on people or to grow them up.
The second part of this statement is true – it IS your job to make them better. But how you do that has nothing to do with being tough or easy. You do that by enabling them to do their job – clarifying direction and priorities, supporting their development, providing resources and removing barriers. (p.s. Avoid the temptation to misuse this quote as an excuse for rude behavior.)
“In the simplest terms, a leader is one who knows where he wants to go, and gets up and goes.” ~ John Erskine
If you follow this advice, you should at least look over your shoulder every once in awhile. “If you think you’re leading and no one is following you, then you’re only taking a walk.” ~ Afghan proverb
Some Leadership Quotes That Hit the Mark
If you’d like to check out some pithy leadership quotes that work, here are my favorites: The 40 Best Leadership Quotes.
On the Bennis comment – agree it is Leadership and Management not leaders and managers; but on the Eisenhower comment I read that a different way. Not because you want them to, but because ‘he wants to do it’. I don’t read manipulation into that. Provided it is genuine / authentic I think that is about creating possibility, about influence and persuasion, not manipulation.
The others I agree with.
Great post by the way.
Quotes are a powerful combination of substance and style which makes them easy to digest and understand. We need substance first and then style. But only style and no substance? They better be busted.
I also feel that quotes are a static body of knowledge. Some of these quotes may have made perfect sense in a past context, but when our understanding evolves and context changes, some quotes need to be realigned.
I love quotes and immediately had to open this and find out if I had ever seen or (gasp) used one of the 10 worst. I really like the way you’ve explained why they are weak or defective in their meaning.
I’m hesitant to use quotes these days because they are too often mis-credited. I know because I look them up from more than one source. I know I over think things but when I read a quote it seems like so many of them sound nice the way the words slide together, but I have issues with its conveyed meaning.
I couldn’t agree more with the thrust of this article – there is so much performance advice that seems to become accepted unquestioningly when it comes from an apparently credible source. I share Robert’s view on the Eisenhower quote though.
There seem to be few things that most leadership experts agree on – unsurprising if Barbara Kellerman is right that there are currently 1,500 definitions and 40 theories of leadership – but one exception is that leadership and influence are heavily related.
Why is influence so key? You said it yourself in your comments about the quotes from Fred Smith (“Leadership is about going somewhere”), Colin Powell (“Your focus as a leader should be strategic”, i.e. about direction), Jim Collins (“how can you know the characteristics of ‘the right people’ until you know where you’re going?”) and John Erskine (“If you think you’re leading and no one is following you, then you’re only taking a walk.”). One of the vital roles of a leader is to provide vision/purpose/direction.
The role of the leader then, must be to find a way to get people to want to head in the direction they’ve chosen. Call it influence, or persuasion, if they didn’t want to go there already then leadership will be required. After all, if they already wanted to go there anyway, then what is the leader really doing?
It might help with any “quote” to understand the intentions and motivations of the person who is being quoted. Many quotes are often taken out of context and as such lose their original meaning and purpose. There are numerous examples of this kind of error in journalism and in literature. One of the more familiar might be this one from the Wizard of Oz where the Wizard says to the Scarecrow: “You don’t need brains.”
The context was the Scarecrow asking the Wizard if he could give him brains. The Wizard replied “You don’t need them. You are learning something every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn’t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”
“That may all be true,” said the Scarecrow, “but I shall be very unhappy unless you give me brains.”
I love the idea of critically analyzing quotes instead of just accepting them because some famous person who had some success said it. I think your perspective demonstrates the shift in the concept of leadership that is going on today. Leadership is evolving, as it should, as is the workplace, full of people who demand more involvement, recognition for what they know, and a collegial instead of hierarchical relationship with people at all levels. Leaders need to be asking, “How can we develop their minds, not just their skills, so we can grow the organization together.”
I do want to point out the age and ethnicity of most of the people you quoted (mostly old or gone white men, and many from the military). It’s time we broaden the range of who we quote and listen to.
It’s not just these quotes that illustrate the inadequacies of Leadership as a business concept.
Leadership is the most poorly understood, horrendously executed, and cost inefficient business strategy of all time. It rarely delivers as the panacea most CEOs (etc) expect. Here’s a taste of the confusion….
Someone with terrific leadership skills, in a leadership position, is called a leader.
Someone with lousy leadership skills, in a leadership position, is called a leader.
Someone with terrific leadership skills, not in a leadership position, is often called a troublemaker and feared by those in leadership positions with lousy leadership skills.
Mark, you’ve really hit the nail on the head.
Great post, Jesse – and much food for thought. I had a mentor who said, “Question relentlessly until you’re satisfied with the answer.”
Mark, your last point does not match my experience. More often than not, those in the so-called middle of the pack who show leadership skills are recognized as such and frequently valued and nurtured and grown. It would be a sad, dysfunctional culture to interpret such talent negatively.
Yes Lowell most organisational culture is sad and dysfunctional.
Otherwise why is it that Gallup’s engagement scores don’t really change? Why is it that many business observers cite study after study that show the money spent on “leadership” in the billions and no real change in culture?
The issue has more to do with human nature than it has to do with acquiring leadership skills.
Those organizations that are NOT sad or dysfunctional treat people as respected humans …. before they treat them as valuable employees.
As Jesse’s selection of quotes points out, people in leadership positions run into problems when they treat people as mindless business assets (or human resources)and that, sadly, is far too common.
Great post Jesse. Thanks.
With reference to the first quote, I think it applies to the difference between being effective and being efficient, not to managers and leaders.
Thank you Jesse for another blog that shares your thinking and tweeks our thinking. It is clear why you are on so many “Best of” lists!
Very interesting analysis and got me thinking more critically. A few of the quotes I was familiar with especially the Jim Collins bus metaphor. While I totally agree with your emphasis on development of people, in reality there are some bad hires and they need to get off the bus. I still like the metaphor because we have to get people in the right positions. I didn’t remember that last part because I assume we have the visions and know where we are going. I interviewed a college president who said “This train is going north and if you don’t want to go in that direction it is time to get off!” I like that metaphor also.
WOW! You did it again. Love the way you carefully dissect these statements–a practice I think we should all get in to doing. The quote by John Maxwell has always bothered me. There is an arrogance about it that denies the fact that in today’s complex world, one person does NOT hold all the answers. Thanks, Jesse
What an excellent way to think more deeply about leadership. I do agree with many commenters that some of these quotes, when put into context, might have a slightly different meaning. Even so, I bet it was a great exercise for you to take these well-known sayings and offer your interpretation.
Wonderful, Jesse. I agree with your comments all the way through. In aggregate, these quotations often reinforce the over-emphasis on domination — the overuse of yes to me as the leader, no to you as the follower, fostering simplistic and archaic formulas that undermine a broader, more balanced picture of leadership. That more balanced picture involves — along with a component of self-affirmation — strong elements of service, ethical action, and the building of trust. We are still addicted as a culture to the notion that leadership is fundamentally only about personal confidence and influencing others — with the implication that the leader is ultimately smarter, righter, more passionate and visionary than everyone else. I believe, more accurately, that the true leaders are whole people: they have adequate self-esteem, for sure, but they also care about others and what happens to them, including their growth and development; they are concerned with moral values, like fairness, honesty and other elements of ethical action; and they know the deep importance of authentic relationships and community. They see all of these qualities as interactive, as being inseparable from each other and to be applied situationally in combination with one another.
The best leaders believe that all of us lead and are leaders — for good or ill — in every interaction we have.
Great analysis of these quotes. Noted that many are military and that leadership has evolved. We do need some quotes from some newer leaders. Agree with Michael about Kellerman’s statement on number of theories and definitions. Leadership is a young field and I also think it is contextual. What is done in the military is for their purpose and what is done in business and non-profits is another. I do agree on engaging folks, finding out what they want and need and supporting them in getting there strategically.
thanks for the thought provoking post!
always on the mark Jesse!
Excellent insight, Jesse. Great reminder to not accept all the rhetoric we’re exposed to everyday (e.g. Twitter quotes and the like) without first thinking them through on our own. The wildly successful book, The 48 Laws of Power, also fits this in that many of its “laws” are inherently manipulative and rely on deceit. Power? Yes. The right way to lead & get things accomplished? Not so much!
As always, you get me to think. There were a couple of my favourites in there and now I need to sit back and think about what you’ve written. And be more careful about which quotes and leaders I use as examples.
Thanks for all of that.
Jesse Lynn – Interesting! I think any sound bites have to be taken with a pinch of salt. They may serve a purpose at one time, or for a specific situation but taken out of context they can be meaningless or even misleading. A number are military men I see. In fact they are all men.
As Gary Gruber says it’s important to understand any quote in context. For example there will be some situations where the R.L Stevenson’s quote will be wiser and other times when Bill George’s approach might be better appreciated. For every quote there will be another one that suggests an alternative solution. We tend to use them to illustrate our own points anyway!
There is so much talk about, and study of, “leadership” I always wonder why we have so many bad ones who are allowed to remain in these roles.
Excellent, Jesse! I’m not a huge fan of famous quotes, but there are some that do resonate with me and others that just keep making the rounds. I think I’ve gotten turned off because they’re thrown around as if they stay it all – as if that’s possible in a single sound bite. You’ve hit on more than a few here and I appreciate your reframing. It helps to stop and really think about what the quote conveys, often out of context!
Reading this, I knew some nerves would get pinched. I do believe that context is key, and often in the search for punchy, words can come across and be interpreted in ways that go against the core intention. I particularly have battled with the belittling of managers and glorifying leaders. We all have a role to play and the world we live in is dynamic. Thanks for at least making us stop to think about what we’ve bought into and are selling. That’s the least one can get out of this read, the rest is a bonus.
Great post and great comments….they almost make up another post on their own. The most important lesson I take from reading this is to pause, reflect and think critically about the information I’m consuming….and proposing to others. How deep does the truth run in my own words? How much time have I spent assuring helpful integrity in what I say myself?
Jake, nailed it…critical thinking is paramount. Alfie Kohn (Punished by Rewards)summed it up perfectly:
“There is a time to admire the grace and persuasive power of an influential idea, and a time to fear its hold over us.
The time to worry is when the idea is so widely shared that we no longer even notice it; when it is so deeply rooted that it feels to us like plain common sense.
At the point when objections are not answered any more because they are no longer even raised, we are not in control.
We do not have the idea. It has us.”
Great article. While the whole thrust of the article is great and encourages us to analyse the quotes. I feel the article put most of the quotes out of context. For example am sure the quotes by military personnel were meant for the military. Taking them out of context and critiquing makes them loose their meaning and a user may not benefit from understanding the context of when the quote is applied.
May be as leaders we should encourage people to understand the quotes in context; that I believe is the problem, people not taking time to learn the history of great quotes???
I agree that many quotes are used out of context. When I use quotes – I truly want them to be accurate. I don’t think anyone should quote or re-tweet a quote just because it sound great – it must be accurate and right for your readers. Our greatest asset is our integrity and core values – if it does not line up don’t use the quote. Dr. Laureen Wishom.
I think, as with many quotes, that each can assume certain things are already in place. But as soon as you put all the “rules” into place, and try to explain which quote applies to which situation, or how the quote misses this area, then 99% of all leadership quotes will all be fallible to some degree, and therefore, we should discard them all. But since, I don’t think we should discard them, it’s better to look at the context in which the leader quoted is describing it.
Here’s an example: “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” Did John C. Maxwell in anyway say that the leader knows all the details? No. But what he is saying is that a leader has to know the general direction of a goal, start going towards it, and show others the goal as well, so they can also walk in that direction. Obviously, there are things he will find out along the way with other people. I don’t believe that John C. Maxwell was saying that leaders are supposed to know everything.
I agree context is important, but unfortunately most quotes are shared out of context. The best quotes are those that apply no matter what the context, for example, “Leadership is about going somewhere. If you don’t have a vision, how do you know where you’re going?”
I dislike this article because I feel like a lot of these quotes are taken way out of context. There some spots where the author seems to assume there’s no such thing as a crappy subordinate and in others. Also I don’t think Powell is talking about when people are self-sufficient but when your subordinates don’t trust you, even if you’re interpretation is correct that doesn’t make his quote inaccurate. When you quote Eisenhower you contradict yourself later in the essay. Saying “this is what’s in it for you” isn’t necessarily bad unless you’re lying about the benefits. Dale Carnegie was one of the most well known and respected authorities on this topic he said things nearly identical to what Eisenhower said. As for Steve Jobs’ quote strict parents make self-sufficient kids, parents who spoil their kids are the ones who will never get them to move out of the house. Acting like a parent may not be appropriate in all situations but it’s a logical comparison nonetheless. The first quote is stupid but but Patton’s couldn’t be truer. I feel like the author lacks a firm grasp on how the military operates. It also aggrevates me that you act like the Stevenson quote is aimed at parents right after criticizing Jobs. You criticized Collins and Erskine the same way where Collins actually got right what Erskine did wrong. Not all leaders set good examples, but they should still try to. The expectation here seems to be if your subordinates don’t want to follow you then you’re a crappy leader as if expecting EVERYONE to like you is realistic. As someone who has studied leadership for years and continues to do so I strongly dislike this article.
Just because some people don’t know the context of certain quotes does not mean should perpetuate their beliefs about said innaccurate context.
In my experience, I believe one of the worst “leadership quotes” is the popular cliche “ It’s not about you.“ This phrase is a dismissive and belittling shot taken at people who in actuality it is about. The word about means “pertaining to” among other things. Everyone working together contributes to the success of the whole, it IS about everyone. It’s never all about one member, or letting one member push him or herself over another in importance. It is always about the good of the whole, which means it is about the individual team players who make up the whole. It IS about you and me, because it is about the team, those we serve, and the goals we accomplish together. If there is any leadership quote that I believe should be laid to rest it is this one. Thank you.
Good thoughts Jeff and well said. I think any quote that is demeaning should be laid to rest.