Leaders to Leader

Lessons from the Great American Leaders & How They Apply Now

The Ability to Make Bold Strategic Shifts

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Herb Kelleher, Founder and Past CEO – Southwest Airlines

One attribute displayed by the great leaders was their vision and how it correlated with their self-beliefs, determination and conviction. Their vision dramatically contrasts with the commonly used vision statements utilized by most companies today. They weren’t linked to their current economic activities, but were life-long visions that defined who they were and what they wanted to achieve with their lives.

The great leaders were truly visionary and their visions served as a compass and as a source of strength, drive and determination during very difficult times. One prominent example is George Washington, whose personal vision of service to his country, and his acute sense of duty was a driving force that enabled him to endure many failures and disappointments during the American Revolution, and served him until his death.

The strength of Washington’s vision was compelling, and explains his prominence in history. Even among the great leaders, few were comparable.

As contrasted to many contemporary leaders, the great leaders developed influential and resolute visions, which contributed to their professional credibility and high levels of trust and confidence. There is evidence that the strength and belief in their personal visions allowed them to place their failure and adversities into the proper context, and reinforced their persistence to succeed. This strengthened their professional credibility.

Beyond the development of strong life-long visions, the great leaders were able to transition into visionary leadership that affected their creative and strategic thinking. It was said of Steven Bechtel (Bechtel) that he had “the ability to make bold strategic shifts, particularly when a company is doing well, is the hallmark of visionary corporate leadership, and Steve possessed it… He was so far ahead of his own people that sometimes it was hard to understand what he was really thinking about… It took vision. And that vision was 99 percent Steve.”[1]

The strength of many of the great leader’s visions created enduring ones that became deeply embedded in the cultures of their companies. “To a large degree, the measure of George Westinghouse could be found in his vision of ethics, work, and fair play that became embodied in the mission and vision of Westinghouse Electric and his other companies…

With the exceptions of Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, and a handful of others, few company founders have left such a defining mark on corporate culture.” [2]

William Hewlett and David Packard (Hewlett Packard), William McKnight (3M), Andy Grove (Intel) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon), all created corporate cultures that were strongly influenced and shaped by their personal visions.

The correlation of vision with critical thinking and intellectual honesty is illustrated by Fred Smith (FedEx), who commented, “The common trait of people who supposedly have vision is that they spend a lot of time reading and gathering information, and then synthesize it until they come up with an idea.” [3]

The question arises, how does professional credibility correlate with a leader’s vision? Without the bonds of credibility, trust and confidence, leaders will be unable to attract others to follow their vision, no matter how strong it may be.

Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines) supports this belief when he stated, “A leader’s vision is only as good as the degree to which it is accepted by the followers. First you need to hire people with the potential to adopt the vision. The vision is an important part of the hiring process.” [4]

Arthur Blank (Home Depot) made similar observations when he said, “You need a leader with a vision who can inspire people, someone who will hire and surround himself or herself with people who are even smarter than he or she is, and then give these people the financial and human resources they need to be successful, and the sense of responsibility that goes with that.” [5]

Conversely, Al Dunlap (Sunbeam) was compelled to offer key managers incentives, such as extravagant salaries and bonuses to execute his plans. He was unable to attract others to follow his vision without bribing them.

Most leadership development programs begin with the concept of vision and its importance. Effective leaders do need to have a vision, but there is a difference between having a vision statement, and being a visionary leader driven by his or her vision. One is tactical. The other is strategic.


  1. History of Family Leadership — Stephen D. Bechtel Sr. (Bechtel Company Website) Accessed March 31, 2010
  2. Skrabec, Jr., Quentin R., George Westinghouse: Gentle Genius (Algora Publishing, New York, 2007) p 222
  3. Federal Express’s Fred Smith (Inc. Magazine) October 1, 1986
  4. Gibson, Jane Whitney, Blackwell Charles W., Flying High with Herb Kelleher: A Profile in Charismatic Leadership (Journal of Leadership Studies) January 22, 1999
  5. An Interview with Arthur M. Blank, Owner and CEO, Atlanta Falcons and Chairman, The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation (Leaders Magazine)

For more information on this topic and to read a free chapter, refer to Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It by Timothy F. Bednarz (Majorium Business Press, Stevens Point, WI 2011).

Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D. | Author | Publisher | Majorium Business Press
Author of Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Finalist – 2011 Foreword Reviews‘ Book of the Year)
Linkedin | Facebook | Twitter | Web| Blog | Catalog |800.654.4935 | 715.342.1018

Copyright © 2012 Timothy F. Bednarz, All Rights Reserved

2 Responses

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  1. Thank you for this excellent post about great leaders. The one thing I’d add is that these leaders also lead with their minds and their hearts.


    October 31, 2012 at 11:58 am

  2. Timothy, you’re right that great leadership goes well beyond managing a balance sheet, it also incorporates vision, and deep seated beliefs. But I absolutely agree with Herb Kelleher that no leader can force people to follow him or her. Find people who share and understand your vision at the recruitment stage and half the battle is won. Without that shared vision, any leadership becomes a matter of procedure rather than passion.

    Ara Ohanian

    November 1, 2012 at 5:24 am

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