The Greatest Leader who ever Lived

By Neil Hart

Who is the best leader who ever lived?

Its a great question really, as it gets such a healthy debate going! Have you ever asked yourself this question? All students of leadership should work through all the examples of great leadership world over to find the answer to this one.

Whenever I speak on leadership I always ask the audience this one question. Inevitably as the arguing starts the group has to problem solve and so need to identify what criteria it will use before agreeing to who was the best leader of all time. So let’s look at this for a moment: what criteria would you use?

This is how I look at it: greatest influence. Longest time. Why these two? Well we know that there is no leadership without influence. There is of course good and bad leadership. (Hitler – strong leader with very bad influence. ) Maxwell says leadership is influence. I agree, but only partly. Leadership is influence over the necessary time required. Adding in the time factor disqualifies many leaders who failed to handoff leadership to successors, to generations. Many admired leaders could not create sustainable succession plans, and so their legacy is limited to that period of time.

With these 2 simple criteria: greatest influence, longest, time we can then look at history and say, who is the greatest leader of all time? Let’s look at a few:

What about Winston Churchill? British Prime Minister and leader during the WW II. The now popular ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’, came from Churchill. He led during turbulent times and captured the imagination of millions. Let’s give him a score on our two criteria:

Influencial extent: 500 million people (influence over USA, Britain and other countries.)

Over what time?: 25 years (his legacy continued for some time.)

Nelson Mandela? What a great, humble man. I had the privilege of working with ‘Madiba’ on a project and I was greatly moved by him during that time. I am indelibly marked by his spirit of forgiveness which shone through all he did. Even though he was in prison for 27 years, his legacy was felt throughout that time and beyond.

Influencial extent: 1 billion people? (known by nearly the whole world, influenced many in reconciliation.

Over what time?: 50 years (his legacy continued strongly for 20 years after South African independence but has begun waning).

Prophet Mohammed? I would have put Gandhi in next but actually Mohammend has had greater influence. Born AD 570 and grew as a shepherd and camelherder. He wrote the Quran and gained followers and eventually influenced nations. By his death the entire Arabian peninsula had converted to Islam. 100 years later (handoff of leadership) islam had reached the Atlantic in one direction and borders of China in the other. This success was due in large part to the military and political abilities of Muhammad’s successors, the caliphs.

Influencial extent: 1.6 billion people (number of Muslims today)

Over what time?: 1400 years

Now here comes the undisputed greatest leader of all time.

For a moment forget any religious context you may have from your upbringing and just think of this: one man, 2.2 billion followers and growing, 2000 years!

Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem in Judea, Middle East. So profound was his birth that history records that Herod the Great (details of his life are recorded in the works of the 1st century CE Roman–Jewish historian Josephus) murdered ever boy under the age of 2 in the region to try and destroy this new birth. Something more than just history was about to unfold.

Jesus did not put pen to paper to author any books, wrote no speeches and grew up as a carpenter in a small town.

For only 3 years (from about the age of 30) he was a public figure. He was a great storyteller (using parables as his main means of teaching). So powerful were his words that many people recorded them in writing and through oral tradition. He spend most of his public leadership with only 12 men. His handoff was incredible: before his resurrection he stood with only a small group of men and women and commissioned them to continue his teachings. They obviously did!

Influencial extent: 2.2 billion people

Over what time?: 2000 years

Think of this: a mostly unknown figure with only a very short public stint and no bestsellers! How is it possible that this man can be the undisputed greatest influencer over the longest period of time that the world has ever, and probably will ever, see? Well there is the small detail that He is the Son of God, but because Jesus chose to submit to human form there are many human leadership aspects that we can learn from.

Of all of them there is one fundamental and critical difference in how Jesus led compared with all other leaders I have studied: servant leadership. Its so simple and basic-sounding its almost disappointing! But its also so compelling and profound that as a leader if you do not learn this you will be missing the greatest leadership lesson of your whole life.

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