The most successful leaders in history

What makes a successful leader? For some it’s measured by the bottom line; for others by company culture, connection and purpose. For the best it’s a combination of all of these, and then some.

In their book, Primal Leadership, authors Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee outline six key leadership styles: visionary, coaching, affiliative, democratic, pace-setting and commanding.

But as David Noble, business coach and co-author of Real Time Leadership, points out, what’s most important is matching the right leadership style to the right environment. “We have seen successful leaders in every one of the key leadership styles, but we’ve also seen examples where each of these styles can fail spectacularly,” he says. “Leaders must be able to align their style to what is needed in the moment to unlock performance, and they need to be flexible enough to change their style as conditions change.”

“Inspiring leaders also need to be great human beings, with strong character strengths and values like perspective, generosity and inclusiveness,” Noble says. “What leaders emanate as people is as important as what they say and do.”

So what is it about CEOs such as Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Mary Barra that have made them so successful? “According to our research and experience, these CEOs have at least two big things in common,” says Ed O’Malley, president and CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation and co-author of When Everyone Leads: How the Toughest Challenges Get Seen and Solved. “First, they shoot for the moon (or Mars in Musk’s case). They have big, audacious, time-bound visions. They don’t convey the ‘how,’ but they make the direction clear. They know that one of the most important leadership tasks for anyone in authority is to set clear, provocative and bold direction.

“Second, they unleash a culture of leadership throughout their organisations. They know the toughest challenges can’t be solved by them alone, that their work is to create a culture where innovation, experimentation, and disruption thrive.”

So how have these qualities played out in history? From changing the world through affordable cars to sending humans to space, we’ve taken a deep dive into the success stories and personal characteristics of some of the most inspiring businesspeople of the past 100-plus years.

Henry Ford
Industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company

Few can claim to have transformed the world in quite the same way as Henry Ford. The first to bring the assembly line to car manufacturing – lowering production time from half a day to 93 minutes – he made cars for the masses, founding the Ford Motor Company in 1903.

The Model T was rolled out in 1908, and 10 years later, they accounted for half of all cars in the US. That was in large part thanks to their relative affordability; by 1924, they were selling for less than $300 (or around $5,200 in today’s money). By 1927, the company had produced more than 15 million of them.

These moves have been credited with major historic developments – including leading to the creation of the US’s interstate highway system. It wasn’t just Ford’s focus on technical innovation that propelled the company to success, though. While some have pointed to his autocratic, even ‘dictatorial’ leadership – making most of the business’s decisions himself – others have praised his collaborative, people-orientated approach.

He raised workers’ salaries – doubling them in 1914 to a then unusual $5 a day – and lowered daily hours from nine to eight hours, introducing the 40-hour working week with three daily shifts to keep production going round the clock. As well as motivating employees, these moves meant boosting productivity, lowering turnover and capturing and retaining the best talent. Ford also made various other moves – from bringing the entire car manufacturing process under one roof to transforming the way vehicles were sold, forming a network of dealers across the country. He was also notoriously service-driven, pursuing his conviction that “a business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.”

This approach clearly paid off; Ford Motor Company was the first manufacturer to begin production again after World War II and one of the first to go global, launching in 33 countries. The success hasn’t waned since; today the company is the second-biggest car manufacturer in the US and the fourth largest in the world, with more than 180,000 employees, an annual production of more than four million cars and revenues of $136bn in 2021.

Ford proved the power of throwing out the rulebook and pursuing a vision, however against the grain. “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t – you’re right,” he notoriously once said. He was a leader that certainly thought he could – and few would deny that he was right in his conviction.

Steve Jobs
Entrepreneur, designer and media proprietor

Creative, passionate, ruthless, innovative, inspiring and a relentless perfectionist – these are just a few of the words that have been used to describe the leadership of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs; and despite his oft-demanding, autocratic leadership, it would be a challenge to claim it didn’t work.

When Jobs took over as CEO of Apple in 1997 – having left 12 years earlier to found new firm NeXT – he joined a company that appeared to be on its last legs. Stock prices had plunged, board members had failed to find a buyer and losses that year had racked up to no less than $1bn. Michael Dell had reportedly stated that if it were up to him, he would “shut Apple down and give the money back to shareholders.”

Jobs didn’t waste time in taking action; he slimmed the 350 projects then in development to just 50, and then reduced them to a further 10 (with laptops and desktops for consumers and professionals at the core). “If we want to move forward and see Apple healthy and prospering again, we have to let go of a few things”, he said at the time, putting the emphasis on creating a new brand rather than competing with Microsoft.

He focused on design and simplicity – homing in on aesthetics in a way no other tech company had, exemplified in the Apple mouse – and invested in advertising, producing the ‘Think Different’ campaign to reflect Apple’s outside-of-the-box ethos. The iPod, iTunes and iPhone all followed, bringing a new consumer base to the brand that further propelled the company’s success. It clearly worked; Apple became the world’s first trillion-dollar company in 2018, and the first to hit the $3trn mark in early 2022, making it the most valuable firm on the planet by market capitalisation.

Working for Jobs wasn’t easy, according to some. He was known for his high expectations, perfectionism and desire for control, as well as an acute eye for detail (as an example, he reportedly noticed the second ‘o’ in the Google logo on the iPhone had a slightly different colour gradient and immediately assigned a team to it). “In the Macintosh Division, you had to prove yourself every day, or Jobs got rid of you,” wrote former Apple employee Guy Kawasaki in a CNBC article.
“He demanded excellence and kept you at the top of your game. It wasn’t easy to work for him; it was sometimes unpleasant and always scary, but it drove many of us to do the finest work of our careers.” Yet despite his demanding style, Jobs was passionate about what he did, and remained involved on every level throughout his career.

“Like many successful leaders, Jobs showed incredible grit, going through every wall and overcoming every setback despite the odds being against him,” says David Noble. “He had a big vision that set him apart from the pack – not just 10x dreams but 1,000x, and he set out a step-by-step pathway that would let teams and organisations know they were winning.”

His focus on innovation, artistry and challenging the status quo made him one of the most inspiring thinkers in history, preaching a philosophy summed up in his oft-quoted words: “Life can be so much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call ‘life’ was made up by people who were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

And the world wasn’t either.

Mary Barra
Chair and CEO of General Motors

When Mary Barra stepped up to the CEO throne at General Motors in 2014, she took on something of a challenge. It wasn’t just that she was the first woman to lead one of America’s top three car-makers (or one of the few females to head up any Fortune 500 company, for that matter). She had something of a turnaround job on her hands.

Just five years earlier, General Motors had filed for the biggest industrial bankruptcy in history – listing $82bn in assets and $173bn in liabilities – and got through five CEOs in the space of six years. Then a month into her tenure, GM was forced to recall 2.6 million vehicles due to a flaw in the switches (causing issues in airbag deployment). The crisis led to multiple accidents and more than 100 deaths, and a number of employees were dismissed.

Through honesty and transparency, Barra managed to navigate the crisis, publicly acknowledging the issue and launching a comprehensive investigation. She set about making various company changes, putting accountability top of the agenda and creating the ‘Speak Up for Safety’ programme to encourage employees to report issues. She also pulled the company from several markets including Western Europe, Russia, South Africa and India to home in on bigger money-making regions.

Since the crisis, Barra has continued to implement strategic changes – not least around the topic of sustainability. In 2016, GM introduced the Chevrolet Bolt EV with a battery that claims to outlast Tesla’s. The company has pledged to add 30 new electric vehicles to the fleet by 2025, with the vision of becoming fully electric by 2035. The firm is also investing in autonomous cars.

Barra is also a champion of equality, and there’s proof in the pudding; Equileap’s 2018 Global Report on Gender Equality found that GM was one of just two global businesses with no gender pay gap across the company. In 2020, she commissioned an Inclusion Advisory Board to encourage greater inclusivity, and she’s also a member of the OneTen coalition, whose goal is to cultivate economic opportunities for black talent in the US.

Many put Barra’s success down to her people-first approach and her ability to understand different perspectives, developed from first-hand experience working in a number of areas at GM – from engineering to human resources to product development. “My first job at General Motors was as a quality inspector on the assembly line,” she told Esquire. “I was checking fits between hoods and fenders. I had a little scale and clipboard. At one point, I was probably examining 60 jobs an hour during an eight-hour shift. A job like that teaches you to value all the people who do those type of roles.”

She’s also long been a preacher of hard work. “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” she told Michigan Daily. “If you work hard, and you care about people and you have passion in what you do, you’ll do well.”

And she has a clear, powerful vision. “Under Barra’s leadership, GM envisions a world with zero crashes, to save lives; zero emissions, so future generations can inherit a healthier planet; and zero congestion, so customers get back a precious commodity – time,” reads her biography page on the GM website.

That formula has clearly paid off. Barra is number four on the current Forbes’ list of ‘The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women,’ and has been the highest-paid chief executive of the Big Three automakers for several consecutive years (earning $29.1m in 2021). GM brought in revenues of $127bn in 2021, holding the largest share of the auto market in the US at around 15 percent, according to Statista. That’s a far cry from the company’s position in 2009, when an article in The Economist stated that “no one believes that GM will ever return to its former glory.” Barra has proven the power of leadership in turning a company around, even when all hope seemed to be lost.

Sheryl Sandberg
Business executive, former COO of Facebook/Meta

When it comes to women in tech, Sheryl Sandberg is something of a pioneer. When she joined Facebook as COO in 2008 following a stint at Google, she helped revenues grow nearly 2,400 percent in the space of four years – from $153m in 2007 to $3.7bn in 2011 – bolstered largely by her focus on digital and mobile advertising. When Facebook went public in 2012, the company raised $16bn (with a valuation of $104bn), making it one of the largest IPOs in the history of the internet. By the time Sandberg announced in June 2022 she’d be leaving the company (now Meta), year-on-year revenue totalled more than $119bn.

But Sandberg’s work wasn’t only limited to the business side of things. When she joined Facebook’s board in 2012, she became the first woman to do so, and she’s been a proponent of gender equality ever since. She shot into the limelight in 2013 with her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead – homing in on the systemic and societal barriers preventing women from taking up leadership roles – and later established the Lean In Foundation (now part of the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation), overseeing grants and projects designed to help women across the world reach their goals; more than 50,000 women have since launched Lean In Circles across the globe.

Throughout her leadership, Sandberg emphasised the importance of confidence and self-worth, as well as supporting others. “The more women help one another, the more we help ourselves,” she wrote in Lean In. “Acting like a coalition truly does produce results. Any coalition of support must also include men, many of whom care about gender inequality as much as women do.” She’s also been vocal about her vision for a future where “there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.”

Sandberg has also garnered acclaim for supporting various philanthropic efforts – reportedly using around $100m of her Facebook stock to fund the Lean In Foundation and other charitable causes – and has been open about her ambition to use her power to better the world. “Leadership is not bullying and leadership is not aggression,” she told ABC News. “Leadership is the expectation that you can use your voice for good, that you can make the world a better place.”

Her career hasn’t been without criticism, however. As the face of a company linked to a number of data breaches, she’s come under fire from critics; in 2018, reports surfaced claiming that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had accessed data from more than 50 million Facebook users and used it to target voters, encouraging them to support Trump in the 2016 election. It led to widespread concerns over Facebook’s privacy, and a number of other accusations have cast a further shadow on the reputation of both Sandberg and the wider company. But Meta still counts more than three billion people among its user base, ranks the 12th most valuable company in the world and brings in annual revenues of over $100bn. Much of that is down to Sandberg and her willingness to “sit at the table,” create opportunities and ultimately challenge what it means to be a successful leader in today’s world – and many will long remember her legacy, in spite of the darker moments.

Elon Musk
Business magnate and CEO of SpaceX, Tesla and Twitter

If there’s one leader truly unafraid of pushing the boundaries, it’s Elon Musk. From his mission to get humans to Mars to his focus on electric cars, Musk doesn’t take impossible for an answer – and his controversial persona has only added to the intrigue.

From founding Paypal in the early 2000s (sold to eBay in 2002 for $1.5bn) to launching SpaceX and Tesla, he’s never been short of ideas – and the support to get him there. And against the odds, both have taken off somewhat spectacularly; in 2008, SpaceX won a $1.6bn NASA contract, two years later becoming the first private company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft. Last September the company made history once again when it sent four passengers into space on the Inspiration4 rocket, marking the first ever orbit crewed solely by space tourists. Tesla has meanwhile become the biggest electric vehicle brand in the world, with sales of its Model 3 topping one million units globally in 2021 and revenue hitting $53bn.

As with Jobs, Musk’s leadership style hasn’t been without its critics; employees have pointed to his high expectations and tendency to make the decisions while micro-managing (Musk himself called himself a “nano-manager” in an interview with The Wall Street Journal). An anonymous former employee told Business Insider that “there was only one decision-maker at Tesla, and it’s Elon Musk.”

When he took over Twitter in October, he came under fire from far and wide for his drastic approach, including major cuts to the workforce and other controversial moves.

But others have praised his relentless drive, and an ability to motivate and inspire teams even in the face of failure. When Falcon One was lost during its mission in 2008, for example, Musk gave a speech that saw “the energy of the building go from despair and defeat to a massive buzz of determination,” in the words of former SpaceX head of talent acquisition Dolly Singh. “It was the most impressive display of leadership that I have ever witnessed,” she wrote in a post on Quora.

It’s perhaps that talent for boundary-pushing that has got Musk an almost cult-like following and given him a net-worth of $241bn; making him the richest person in the world. As with Jobs, it’s also his constant drive to question the status quo. “If something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it,” he reportedly once said.

“The advice I would give is to not blindly follow trends,” he told CNBC. “Question and challenge the status quo.” Musk’s ambitions don’t end with his visions around electric vehicles, SpaceX and Twitter, of course.

He has spoken about launching a flying car at Tesla, and through another of his ventures, The Boring Company, is working on Hyperloop – an ultra-high-speed public transportation system that would transport passengers between cities in autonomous electric pods at 600mph. Another of his babies, Neuralink, meanwhile aims to integrate AI with the human brain in a way that would “enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs,” in the words of Musk himself, in a recent Twitter post.

These visions might seem out there, but Neuralink already has the backing of Silicon Valley giants including Google parent Alphabet, and the company plans to launch clinical trials in humans in the near future. Realism likely isn’t a word that features in Elonism – and if there’s anyone who can achieve the seemingly impossible, it’s surely Musk.

Only time will tell what impact his Twitter takeover might have, or if we all end up living on Mars – but what is clear is that his bold, controversial visions appear to have skyrocketed him to success, even in the face of at times intense criticism and scrutiny.