Lessons Small Business Owners Can Learn From Historical Leaders

lessons for small business owners

History has given us great personalities who went on to become famous leaders. The times they lived in might be different from ours, but their message still holds relevance. They exhibited such exemplary leadership skills, their personalities could not remain isolated within their times. These leaders have greatly impacted many of the modern leadership learnings, that have been absorbed by small business owners to even top level corporate CEOs.

To make your small business truly stand out and become the industry leader, learn leadership lessons from some of the greatest world leaders:

Genghis Khan – Change the world, but change it gradually

He might have been one of the most ruthless kings in history, but he did get the job done. As an owner of a small business, the reality is the odds are stacked against you. The pressure to deliver is unparalleled – you only get one chance, and no matter what, you have to deliver. The great Mongol emperor was ambitious but not blind. He built a great empire but slowly and steadily. Learn from someone who came from nowhere and went on to spread the Mongol empire over Europe and Asia, changing world history and culture in the process.

Small businesses need to see change as an inevitable but gradual process. Do not jump the gun, take your time, plan out your business plan, and execute it with precision. Just like Genghis Khan, as a small business owner you need to be patient, be a persistent learner, keep experimenting, and constantly revising so that you are able to deliver.

Mahatma Gandhi  – Learn to say no

Mahatma Gandhi was one of the prolific leaders in helping India gain its independence. Along the way, Gandhi taught the world many words of wisdom, one of which was learning to say ‘NO’.

Small businesses often tend to be people-pleasing, but that’s not a great idea. When you keep saying ‘Yes’ to everything and anything, you are taking on more commitments than you can handle. With limited resources, you end up failing to deliver on your promises. Saying no to someone is not easy, but sometimes it’s necessary.

Here are a few ways you can say no without hurting the sentiments of the other person:

  • Don’t wait to give your decision – When you say no to someone, do not wait until the last minute, make it quick and easy. Wasting people’s time by leaving them hanging for days and weeks will worsen the situation.
  • Give clarifications – Don’t over do it, but provide brief reasons as to why you will not able to say yes to the commitment.
  • Do not mince words – Refrain yourself from using: let’s see, I am not sure, probably, maybe.


Martin Luther King Jr. –
Great leaders do not sugar coat reality

Martin Luther King Jr. saw the ugly realities that existed in his times, he did not shy away from them, he took them head-on. The same way, small businesses cannot shy away from their realities or weaknesses. Instead of hiding it, face it and convert those limitations into opportunities.

Your passion for your small business might be admirable, but it shouldn’t make you blind to reality. If you face criticism, learn from it. See where you lack and work to improve it. Sugarcoating your shortcomings is going to backfire on you.

Collect customer feedback to identify and get rid of the roadblocks that hamper customer experience, helping to reduce your churn rate. Use the feedback insights to keep making changes to your business. At the same time, keep measuring customer satisfaction to see if the new changes are translating into a positive customer experience.

To make your feedback process more efficient, here are few things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t make immediate changes – Take the time to study them and then gradually implement the insights.
  • Always give focus on negative reviews – More than the positive ones, look at the negative customer opinions and do not be discouraged by them.
  • Keep at it – Conduct feedback as many times as possible. It keeps your business on top of things, all the time.


Nelson Mandela – Sell strength not fear

Nelson Mandela, the revolutionary politician and former president of South Africa, always believed in the power of courage. When at the height of apartheid, he embraced strength to his people, instead of selling them fear.

As a small business owner, you have a responsibility of encouraging employees and stakeholders to have faith in rough times. When you show fear, people will have doubts about your leadership abilities. Panicking will not help you solve any problem when you are cool headed and in control of your emotions, you are in a better mental state to find solutions.

Showcasing your vulnerability might sound romantic to some, but as leaders, you can’t afford to be the weak link. You have to project a stronger personality, that encourages people to trust your judgments. Here are few ways by which you can show a more authoritative personality:

  • Don’t allow excuses – Whether it’s you or your employees, you should not entertain yourself with excuses. (Privately) call people out on their excuses, and hold them accountable.
  • Allow pauses when you speak – When you break your speech pattern with a small pause, it shows that you are in control and know what you are talking about. Pauses also help in providing a reference for emphasis.
  • Build a high EQ – As leaders, you need to have a high emotional intelligence to project yourself as a strong leader. It’s when you are in control of your emotions, you are better at managing your employees’ emotions.


Muhammad Ali – It’s not showing off if it’s true  

Muhammad Ali, the most flamboyant boxer known to the sports world, was a fast talker who people found endearing. Why? Because he didn’t sell fluff, he preceded his talks with his actions. And he made sure that the world knew about his golden moments.

Don’t get me wrong, you should be humble, but at the same time don’t feel guilty about your success. Small business owners need to understand that the more they spread the word about their achievements, the more eyeballs they will be able to garner. That’s how you get recognized as an industry leader.

Not every business can do what you achieved, always remember that. This kind of appreciation motivates your employees as well, it encourages them to work harder, with more passion. Don’t feel guilty, this success has come to you because the foundation of your business has always remained strong. So, work hard and enjoy the laurels.


Wrapping up

These are just a handful of world leaders that history has produced. The way they lived their lives can teach you a lot about how to lead your small business. That being said, learning is just the beginning, to become a genuine leader you have to execute the lessons learned. It’s not easy, I agree, but neither is it impossible. In the end, isn’t that the whole point of leadership doing something others can’t?


Author’s bio:
Niraj is the founder of Hiver, an app that turns Gmail into a powerful customer support and collaboration tool. When not working at Hiver on programming or support, Niraj likes to play guitar. Connect with him on Twitter at @nirajr.

Comments (6)

  • Gregory Michael Howard Jul 27, 2017 at 09:07 AM

    I would add Jesus Christ, treat others the way you want to be treated, that goes far in business

    • Kimberly de Silva Jul 28, 2017 at 09:07 AM

      Words to live by, Gregory! Thanks:)

    • Kimberly de Silva Jul 28, 2017 at 09:07 AM

      Words to live by, Gregory! Thanks:)

  • Fred Jul 27, 2017 at 23:07 PM

    awesome info, I definitely would not have included Genghis Khan, the guy was evil, it would be like using Hitler as a positive example in something “he failed as an artist but never gave up and eventually led a nation” lol

    • Kimberly de Silva Jul 28, 2017 at 09:07 AM

      You make a good point, Fred! I definitely agree with you that the example, and the leader, is controversial. This quote pretty much sums it up: “Although known for the brutality of his campaigns, Genghis Khan is also credited with bringing the Silk Road under one cohesive political environment. This brought communication and trade from Northeast Asia into Muslim Southwest Asia and Christian Europe, thus expanding the horizons of all three cultural areas.”

    • Kimberly de Silva Jul 28, 2017 at 09:07 AM

      You make a good point, Fred! I definitely agree with you that the example, and the leader, is controversial. This quote pretty much sums it up: “Although known for the brutality of his campaigns, Genghis Khan is also credited with bringing the Silk Road under one cohesive political environment. This brought communication and trade from Northeast Asia into Muslim Southwest Asia and Christian Europe, thus expanding the horizons of all three cultural areas.”

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