Leadership quotes to inspire you in the new year

Today’s leaders may not have the gravitas of Winston Churchill, the eloquence of Abraham Lincoln, or the wit of Mark Twain. To be candid, seemingly none of them do.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t say a few words now and then worth remembering to help inspire us in the year ahead. Sometimes they remind us about simple leadership truths that are all too easy to forget. Other times it’s what they said in the act of doing something courageous that puts our worlds into perspective. Even if you don’t agree with their politics, their practices or their celebrity, their words can help us think about how we might want leaders to lead in 2012.

Here, we look back at ten memorable moments from the past year to help us resolve what we could do better in the year ahead. Most of the quotes below don’t include the word “leadership.” But they do help remind us that the past is a good teacher and that, as Churchill famously said, if we don’t learn from it, we will be doomed to repeat it.

1. “To be clear: I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” —Jon Huntsman

GOP candidate Jon Huntsman may not come anywhere close to winning the Republican nomination next year. But his willingness to speak out (or tweet) on this topic at a time when our economy must put legitimate science and technology first shows a willingness to buck the tide of his party. We should all be willing to be called crazy more often.

2. “As my social status in Japan is getting higher, I believe that is one of the responsibilities, to provide for those people who are in need." golfer Ryo Ishikawa, on his decision to donate all of his 2011 earnings to earthquake relief in Japan

Ishikawa’s quote is memorable for two reasons. One is his use of the word “responsibility” to describe what he believes he owes the Japanese people because his status in the golf world has risen. The second is his remarkable willingness to donate all of his earnings of last year to earthquake relief. So many people in power are paid far more handsomely than Ishikawa, and yet we don’t know of many who have made such generous gestures.

3. “I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it.” —President Barack Obama

Obama’s most notable speech of the year may have been the more recent one he made about economic issues and the middle class in Kansas. But his January speech at the Tucson memorial following Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting (and 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green’s death) included this reminder that leaders have a responsibility to future generations, not only to create a world that’s better off, but to create one that retains the values we teach our children.

4. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.” —Elizabeth Warren

Whether you agree with her political views or not—or the larger context of her speech that went viral on the web—Warren has a point that should resonate with leaders. No success is reached completely on one’s own, and credit should be given where credit is due. We achieve great things with the help of others.

5. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” —Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, quoting Proverbs 27:17

Tebow’s on-field evangelism rubs plenty of people the wrong way. But the words he uses to talk to his team are notable among a celebrity sports-star set driven much more by ego than humility. Leaders should expect their teams to hold them accountable; and teams should expect the stars among them to remember they got there not just because of their talents, but because of the people around them.

“I hate that word. It's just a terrible word. It's not something you want to be associated with—worst thing you can be called in golf, apart from ‘cheat.’” Rory McIlroy, on the other c-word (“choke”), after his final-round meltdown at the 2011 Masters 

McIlroy’s complete coming apart at the end of the Masters tournament may have been embarrassing. But his win months later at the U.S. Open is a reminder of how we can all learn from our failures and use them to fuel future wins. A “choke” may be one of the worst things you can be called in golf, but it’s better than not recovering, and McIlroy did.

7. “I believe that part of that leadership is understanding, articulating, and believing in that which is special and unique in the people that you serve.” —Gov. Chris Christie

The New Jersey governor hit star status in 2011, as GOP voters dissatisfied with the current field urged him to run. These words, spoken during his American Enterprise Institute speech in February, may not have been as well remembered as his lines from the speech about leaders needing to do the “big things.” But as a governor who later decided not to run for president partly because he made a commitment to the people of his state, it’s a reminder that practicing servant leadership has the potential to take you farther than simply serving yourself.

8. “The sky is not the limit.” —Gabrielle Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly

Giffords may not have spoken these words herself. But Kelly’s invoking of the space program mantra during Giffords’ first interview well encapsulates the congresswoman’s incredible efforts to claw her way back from her tragic shooting in Arizona in January. The task of rebuilding her life after being shot in the head puts our own challenges into perspective, as well as reminds us that so much more is actually possible than we think.

9. “For God and country, Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.” unidentified member of the Navy SEALs, just after killing terrorism mastermind Osama bin Laden

We may not know who said these words. But we do know that in a moment of heroism, the person who said them was taking a great risk for something larger than self. Even if we can’t all be such heroes in our daily lives, we can resolve to take risks for the benefit of the greater good.

10. “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” —Steve Jobs

Ok, so Steve Jobs actually said these words in 2005, when he gave a commencement speech at Stanford University. But they became famous in 2011 following the Apple CEO’s death in October. We should all remember that big ideas and bold visions come from those unsatisfied with the world around them and unwilling to worry too much about taking risks. Despite his faults—and there were many—we should all aspire to the kind of wide-eyed wonder Jobs had of the world. His last words, according to his sister, were simply “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

More from On Leadership:

The year’s best leadership books

Pattie Sellers and the rolodex that redefined power

PHOTOS | Top ten places to work in government

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter:

@post_lead | @jenamcgregor | @lily_cunningham

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

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