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What It Means To Be a Leader, According to U.S. Presidents

To be President of the United States is to be many things: a representative of a country of more than 330 million people, the figurehead of a political party, commander in chief of the U.S. military, chief diplomat of the U.S., and economic and legislative manager. On any given day, the President’s many roles can be distilled into one critical task: lead.

Serving as the leader of a major world power is no small feat, and over the course of the United States’  two-plus centuries as a nation, U.S. Presidents have had countless approaches to the concepts of leadership and power.

These differing leadership styles can be attributed to individual differences as well as the context of their time in office, including social upheaval, war, the changing climate, and advances in technology and medicine, to name a few.

From the Civil War era to the mid-aughts, we’ve gathered quotes from Presidents that encompass their views on leadership: what it means, why it’s important, and what it takes to be a good captain of the third-most-populous nation on the planet.

The ultimate test of leadership is not the polls you take, but the risks you take … The greatest defeat of all would be to live without courage, for that would hardly be living at all.
Gerald Ford

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America demands and deserves big things from us, and nothing big ever came from being small.
Bill Clinton

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The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one who gets the people to do the greatest things.
Ronald Reagan

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A self-respecting man must insist on his rights; otherwise he neither deserves nor receives the respect of others.
Theodore Roosevelt

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Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.
Barack Obama

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A good leader can’t get too far ahead of his followers.
Franklin D. Roosevelt

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Two commanders on the same field are always one too many.
Ulysses S. Grant

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Our real luck lies within ourselves. It is a question of character. It depends on whether we follow the inward light of conscience. Such men rise above the realm of temporary circumstance. They are great even in defeat.
Calvin Coolidge

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For courage, not complacency, is our need today. Leadership, not salesmanship. And the only valid test of leadership is the ability to lead and lead vigorously.
John F. Kennedy

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The job of getting people really wanting to do something is the essence of leadership. And one of the things a leader needs occasionally is the inspiration he gets from the people he leads.
Dwight D. Eisenhower

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Leadership to me means duty, honor, country. It means character, and it means listening from time to time.
George W. Bush

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We have to inspire our children and grandchildren to take on challenges and risks that at first may seem to be overwhelming or even impossible. They need to understand that the only failure is not trying.
Jimmy Carter

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Do you covet honor? You will never get it by serving yourself. Do you covet distinction? You will get it only as the servant of mankind … You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.
Woodrow Wilson

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Featured image credit: Images Press/ Archive Photos via Getty Images

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About the Author
Melanie Davis-McAfee
M. Davis-McAfee is a freelance writer, musician, and devoted cat mom of three living in southwest Kentucky.
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