Maya Angelou on leadership, courage and the creative process


(Photo by Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)

The world lost a great author, poet and civil rights activist Wednesday when Maya Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. It also lost someone who was a great student of leadership and the creative process — who understood what it takes to have the courage to lead, who had close affiliations with some of the most well-known world leaders of her lifetime, and who could articulate the virtues of courage, steadfastness and truth as only a poet can do.

It would be difficult to catalogue everything Angelou wrote or said that relates to leadership, yet below are a few of the most memorable statements that come from her writings, her interviews (particularly with the Paris Review and the Harvard Business Review), and what may have been the most poetic feed in the Twittersphere.

On leadership:

"A leader sees greatness in other people. He nor she can be much of a leader if all she sees is herself."

On dealing with other people:

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

On decision-making:

"I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision."

On the joy of work:

"It is wonderful to celebrate people who work. It is terrible to want to work, but not find work that wants you."

On telling the truth:

"You don't have to tell everything you know, but let what you do say be the truth as you understand it."

On courage:

"One isn’t born with courage. One develops it. And you develop it by doing small, courageous things, in the same way that one wouldn’t set out to pick up 100 pound bag of rice. If that was one’s aim, the person would be advised to pick up a five pound bag, and then a ten pound, and then a 20 pound, and so forth, until one builds up enough muscle to actually pick up 100 pounds. And that’s the same way with courage. You develop courage by doing courageous things, small things, but things that cost you some exertion – mental and, I suppose, spiritual exertion."

More on courage:

"I am convinced that courage is the most important of all the virtues. Because without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently. You can be kind for a while; you can be generous for a while; you can be just for a while, or merciful for a while, even loving for a while. But it is only with courage that you can be persistently and insistently kind and generous and fair."

On how she works:

"I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in. I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty. ... I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there. I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning. Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets. We think they are moldy. But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets. I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything."

On dealing with writer's block:

"There are times when I sit at that bed, on that bed, with Roget’s Thesaurus, the dictionary, and the Bible, and a playing deck of cards. I play solitaire. And sometime in a month of writing, I might use up two or three decks of bicycle cars. Giving my 'little mind' something to do. I got that from my grandmother, who used to say when something would come up, and it would surprise her, she’d say sister, you know, that wasn’t even on my littlest mind. So I really thought that there was a small mind and a large mind. And if I could occupy the small mind, I could then go more quickly down to the big mind."

On knowing when her work is done:

"I know when it’s the best I can do. It may not be the best there is. Another writer may do it much better. But I know when it’s the best I can do. I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, 'No. No, I’m finished. Bye.' And leaving it alone. I will not write it into the ground. I will not write the life out of it. I won’t do that."

On standing by one's principles:

"I have a certain way of being in this world, and I shall not, I shall not be moved."

Read also:

Maya Angelou, writer and poet, dies at 86

Five Mandela tributes that will change the way you think

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · May 28