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The Most Inspiring Leadership Moments And Decisions In History

Updated October 25, 2019 4.1k votes 765 voters 25.2k views13 items

List RulesVote up the most inspiring decisions by historic leaders.

What makes someone an inspiring leader? Is it all about the speeches with pomp and circumstance or can leaders inspire with silence? Being a bold leader entails ditching norms, doing something unconventional, or making unlikely decisions that lead to otherwise unattainable outcomes. Based on this rubric, the boldest leadership decisions in history include two generals who destroyed their own ships so their men couldn't retreat, a POW who took extreme measures to avoid being used in enemy propaganda, and an emperor who dared his enemies to shoot him in the chest.

These aren't your average leaders; it takes guts to send your enemy a white flag to use when they surrender, or to leap into battle to inspire troops to protect you. Then there are those leadership moments that might have seemed minor at the time - like refusing to give up your seat on the bus - but ended up inspiring millions.

Just like the many strange coincidences in history that seem fictional, some of these leadership moments sound too crazy to be true.

  • James Stockdale Wounded Himself To Avoid Being Used In Anti-American Propaganda
    Photo: Nickolay Stanev / Shutterstock

    American Admiral James Stockdale spent seven years as a POW in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where he endured repeated abuse that involved being locked in leg irons and kept in solitary confinement. In 1969, after nearly four years as a prisoner of war, Stockdale learned his Viet Cong (VC) captors were planning to use him in propaganda to prove POWs did not experience mistreatment.

    Rather than serve the VC's propaganda machine, Stockdale used a wooden stool and razor to beat up his face. This way, his adversaries could not portray him as an "unharmed prisoner." Stockdale's actions and intense patriotism reportedly convinced the VC to treat POWs more humanely.

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  • Martin Luther King Jr. Improvised 'I Have A Dream'
    Photo: Atomazul / Shutterstock

    In one of the most famous speeches of the 20th century, Martin Luther King Jr., declared, "I have a dream." King gave the speech in 1963 during the March on Washington, but most people are unaware that King improvised the famous line.

    After MLK spent several minutes reading his prepared speech, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was in the crowd, called out, "Tell 'em about the 'dream.'"

    King looked up from his speech and began speaking without a script: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." His inspiring words shaped the Civil Rights movement for generations.

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  • General Guan Yu Played Chess During An Operation With No Anesthesia
    Photo: Lin Xiu Xiu / Shutterstock

    Generals do more than lead people on the battlefield; their leadership extends to moments between wars. Chinese general Guan Yu demonstrated this when he endured an operation without any anesthesia. After a poisoned arrow struck Guan Yu, a doctor advised him to undergo a procedure to remove the harmful substance. As the doctor scraped toxins off the general's bones, Guan Yu played chess.

    Guan Yu led the Chinese army to multiple victories before he died around 220 CE. Many viewed the general with such high esteem that his people supposedly deified him after his death.

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  • Queen Elizabeth I Rejected Gender Norms And Vowed To Fight For England
    Photo: Everett - Art / Shutterstock

    Queen Elizabeth I of England was a female monarch who succeeded another female monarch. She came to power in 1558, the same year John Knox published a book - The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women - that criticized the concept of women ruling.

    Elizabeth knew many in England hated the idea of a female ruler. She even acknowledged that in her famous Tilbury speech, given in 1588 as Spain's armada threatened to invade. Elizabeth declared, "I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too."

    She also said, "I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field." The English won the battle, and Elizabeth became one of the most revered rulers in history.

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