Look at any significant turning point in history, and you’re most likely to find a military leader involved. Much of the history of the world revolves around warfare and conquest. From the domination of the Roman Empire to the globe-spanning destruction of World War II, military leaders have impacted our way of life in ways that are almost impossible to measure.
Along the way, these famous generals and military minds have demonstrated exceptional leadership skills. How did they accomplish such seemingly impossible feats? Why did so many people follow them?
The answers lie in how they excelled as leaders.
While today’s leaders shouldn’t follow every trait of a military leader, they can learn essential lessons on how to influence others. And while some generals used their talents for terrible deeds, you can still take the positive and apply them to problems you face today. Read on to discover the leadership traits and skills that led some of the best military leaders to greatness.
Who Are the Most Famous Military Leaders of All Time?
The most famous military leaders in history are:
- Alexander the Great
- Genghis Khan
- Napoleon Bonaparte
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
Learn more below about who these leaders are, what leadership skills they excelled in, and why they are still used as models for great leadership today.
1. Alexander the Great
There is nothing impossible to him who will try.Alexander The Great
Great military leaders can change the world, and nobody best exemplifies this than Alexander the Great. Considered one of the top generals of all time, Alexander the Great succeeded for several reasons. One of his most admirable traits was his clear vision. Part of his vision came from his world-class education. His teacher was none other than Aristotle, who had learned from Plato, who had learned from Socrates. Filled with incredible knowledge of science and philosophy, Alexander took his wisdom and intellect to the battlefield.
Beyond that, Alexander’s preparation included what he inherited from his father, King Philip II. Philip had gathered a massive army at his command and conquered much of Greece. Once Philip became the victim of a political assassination, Alexander took charge, determined not to squander his father’s resources.
But Alexander’s father gave him much more than an army and political allies. He also shared with him a vision to rule over Asia. Greece had already been victims of invasion by the Persian Empire, and Philip wanted nothing more than to return the favor. After Philip’s death, Alexander carried on that vision and led his army through northeast Africa and the Middle East.
With the right amount of resources at his disposal and a firm goal in mind, Alexander conquered his opponents almost at will. He subdued his enemies and never wavered in his determination. Furthermore, he built or renamed many cities during his conquests, including Alexandria in Egypt.
Alexander was victorious at nearly every point, getting as far as the Ganges River in India. At the height of his power, Alexander died at age 32. Experts still dispute the cause of his death, but it was likely from an illness like malaria or typhoid fever. Despite his young age, he had created one of the largest empires ever to exist. Much of it was thanks to having a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish.
2. Genghis Khan
When it was wet, we bore the wet together, when it was cold, we bore the cold together.Genghis Khan
To be clear, Genghis Khan was a brute. Like other military leaders, he thrived on conquest. In fact, many experts believe that the Mongolian invasions in the 13th century eliminated 11 percent of the world’s population at the time. Even so, you might be surprised by what you can learn from his reign.
One of Genghis Khan’s defining attributes was his ability to unite other people. Before he came along, the tribes of the Eurasian steppe, while skilled in battle, were not unified. Genghis Khan (or his birth name Temujin) brought everyone under one banner, often through conquest and subjugation.
Khan had a goal of conquering the world, and as the Mongol armies swept through Asia and even into Europe, it certainly looked like he could do it. He did have a difficult task in keeping so many different peoples and cultures unified. To do this, he developed several strategies, some of which were unheard of at the time.
To maintain order and unite those he conquered, he:
- Enacted Freedom of Religion: Genghis Khan wanted to ensure his subjects didn’t rise up in rebellion. Part of that was granting people the freedom to worship however they wanted. As long as they followed his law, they wouldn’t have to worry.
- Outlawed Slavery: Having been enslaved to a rival clan, Khan knew the horrors of slavery. As such, he made slavery illegal.
- Established Merit-Based Promotions: Before Khan came along, military leaders usually rose to those positions based on their social standing. Genghis Khan had a different strategy. Instead, he rewarded people based on the work they did in battle, as well as their loyalty to his regime.
- Emphasized Universal Law and Education: Genghis Khan also united people by establishing a universal legal and writing system. This ensured effective communication and understanding, regardless of a person’s background.
All of these strategies helped to unify a diverse multitude of people. Additionally, Genghis Khan established free trade routes so goods could get from one place to another easily. This free flow of goods and information made it easier for different people and tribes to feel like one large community.
3. Napoleon Bonaparte
Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte truly earned his reputation as a military mastermind and one of the greatest generals of all time. He achieved incredible feats of victory through his brilliant strategic prowess. Napoleon’s leadership qualities led him to conquer much of Europe. During his career, he fought in 60 battles and only lost seven, most of them being at the end of his military career.
To win battle after battle, Napoleon employed revolutionary strategies that allowed him to defeat forces much larger than his own. Part of his strategic mindset came from studying some of the best generals in history and how they used their powers. Napoleon looked at what made military leaders like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar so successful and determined how to evolve those tactics. He developed strategies that had his soldiers hitting fast and hard, exposing the flank of his enemy. Napoleon also learned all he could about the lands he intended to capture, going so far as to study the geography and culture of a place before setting foot there. Combining these tactics with the latest warfare technology, Napoleon became almost unstoppable.
Napoleon also understood the importance of what happened between battles. He was an unmatched organizer and ensured his troops had plenty of food and equipment. As he once famously put it, “An army marches on its stomach.” The French general also used his unparalleled charisma to win more followers, including forces sent to oppose him. It’s clear from his successes that Napoleon was almost always one step ahead of his opponent.
4. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in blood of his followers and sacrifices of his friends.Dwight D. Eisenhower
Unlike the others on this list, Dwight D. Eisenhower didn’t oversee domineering conquests. As one of the most famous generals in modern history, Eisenhower led unified armed forces against fascist armies during World War II. General Eisenhower didn’t just command the United States Marine Corps or Navy. He was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe. Through his leadership, the Allies achieved total victory over the Axis powers.
Eisenhower accomplished these victories in part by practicing strengths-based leadership—delegating responsibilities to others and placing people in roles and positions where they could maximize their strengths. However, perhaps one of the most striking leadership traits Eisenhower displayed was his humility. Though he commanded huge armies, Eisenhower often only saw himself as a regular soldier. This allowed him to connect with those under his command. As he once said, “Always take your job seriously, but never yourself.”
Eisenhower also took accountability for everything that happened underneath him. He knew he had ultimate responsibility in the war effort and took that duty seriously. In the lead-up to the famous D-Day invasion of Europe, Eisenhower wrote a speech he intended to give should the invasion turn into a failure. In that speech, he would take full responsibility for the defeat. He wrote, “My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
Eisenhower never shielded away from blame. He knew that if he took ownership and showed accountability for his actions, everyone around him would do the same. In that way, he encouraged everyone to be a leader like him.
Good Leadership Counts No Matter the Era
While everyone listed above is a military leader, they all handled their responsibilities differently. Each one is a product of their personal and cultural identities. They held true to what they felt their purpose was and used their unique talents to influence others.
Again, that doesn’t mean all leaders should act like military conquerors. Different leadership styles can be used for both good and bad. Focus on the good, and you’ll find the results you achieve can benefit others tremendously.
There are many different leadership styles to choose from. The best style will differ depending on the situation and the person. Pick the style that works best for you and stay humble and focused as you seek to unite others for a common cause.
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