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Words to Live By: 10 Famous Quotes to Help Leaders Develop a Strong Culture

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager

The past two years have been exceptionally challenging for business executives. But hurdles to lead effectively and consistency regardless of circumstances are nothing new. CEOs have always needed to master many characteristics amid a perpetually changing business world to unite and motivate their team and remain competitive in the market.

The nuanced and far-reaching subject of leadership has inspired a library of books on the topic, and practically every authority has weighed in with their thoughts. Most of these influencers understand that being a good leader goes beyond the nuts and bolts of effective operations and visionary planning.

They’re also keenly aware that how leaders conduct themselves ultimately translates to the formation of their organization’s culture. As the leader operates, so do their people. The culture that CEOs generate has a tremendous impact on how successful they are in their role.

This article highlights ten of the behaviors that CultureWise CEO David J. Friedman advises leaders to embody and coach to develop the kind of company culture that drives success. Each behavior is paired with an inspirational quote about leadership that illustrates its importance.

1.  Act with Integrity

“It is true that integrity alone won’t make you a leader, but without integrity, you will never be one.”—Zig Ziglar

A World War II veteran, Hilary Hinton “Zig” Ziglar (1926-2012) became the top salesperson in several organizations before striking out on his own as a motivational speaker and trainer.  He wrote over two dozen books and amassed a following of millions who were encouraged by his lessons for success.

Ziglar stressed many aspects that strong leaders need, including perseverance, preparedness, and innovation. But his core philosophy was rooted in the premise that treating others fairly is imperative for CEOs if they want their company to experience ongoing success. Integrity, he maintained, is the only sustainable avenue in business.

Integrity isn’t something leaders can practice occasionally and expect to earn the trust of their employees and customers. But CEOs who consistently act with integrity are committed to doing the right thing in every action they take and decision they make. Moreover, they don’t hedge on telling the truth and aren’t afraid to admit mistakes.

This kind of leadership sets the tone and example for everyone in the company. Consequently, integrity becomes ingrained in the company’s culture.

2. Be a Lifelong Learner

“You don’t really start getting old until you stop learning.”—Bill Gates

We’ve all seen companies that get stuck after reaching a certain pinnacle of success. Their leaders figured out a method to achieve their goals and assumed they were experts at what they did. Then they rested on their laurels as competitors pressed on. Before they knew it, they became obsolete.

It’s not that these people aren’t smart. They simply fail to understand that there’s always something new to learn to improve how they run their business. Microsoft founder Bill Gates (b.1965) knows better. The voracious reader absorbs as much information as he can on multiple topics that influence his many projects. He’s not doing it to get richer—he continuously pursues learning to remain a visionary thinker and be the best at what he does.

The most innovative and adaptive leaders are always eager to absorb new information. They admit they always have room to improve and seek out every opportunity to become a greater expert. When executives exemplify and encourage constant learning and development, their staff and company will be on a path of continuous improvement.

 3. Take Ownership

“Ninety-nine percent of all failures come from people who have a habit of making excuses.”—George Washington Carver

People who take ownership don’t shy from assuming responsibility and hold themselves accountable for outcomes. Leaders who do this are relentless about finding ways to get things done and inspire their team to do the same. There is no room for excuses and blame when leaders adhere to and influence others to adopt this mindset.

George Washington Carver (c.1861-1943) never backed down from pursuing his goals despite overwhelming obstacles. Born into slavery and frequently hindered from typical paths of achievement, Carver persevered in his dream to become an expert in farming and land management. As a professor and influencer, his innovative research and experiments revolutionized American agricultural practices and training when agriculture was Americans’ largest occupation.

Leaders like Carver chart their course and take ownership of it. They respond to situations by relentlessly looking for solutions rather than explaining why they’re impossible. They don’t wait for others to solve problems, and they see things through. Consequently, they inspire others to rise to the challenges they face.

4. Walk in Others’ Shoes

“Without empathy, it is not possible to get the best from your team—it is the key to everything.”—Satya Nadella

Many leaders learned the importance of empathy during the pandemic as they navigated harrowing months with their staff. They got to know their employees on a more personal level and gained a better understanding of their perspectives. The crisis opened these executives’ eyes to what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (b.1967) has long understood as vital to any organization’s ability to be a market leader.

In his book, Hit Refresh, Nadella discusses why walking in others’ shoes—not just employees but also coworkers, customers, and industry partners—is crucial in a company’s culture. “Ideas excite me,” he says, “but empathy grounds and centers me.” By prioritizing empathy. Nadella has become a principled leader who understands how to connect with and bring out the best in his team.

In his first book, Fundamentally Different, David Friedman explains that understanding other people’s worlds, knowing their challenges and frustrations, and seeing things from their point of view allows us to anticipate and meet their needs more effectively. Thus, when leaders understand and meet their employees’ needs, the staff is primed to treat all stakeholders accordingly. Empathy is contagious.

5. Be Humble

“The X Factor of great leadership is not personality; it’s humility.”—Jim Collins

Leadership expert and author Jim Collins (b.1958) believes that only one dimension separates great leaders from good ones. Humility is what he terms “the signature dimension.”

Humble leaders can set their egos aside. They don’t need to take credit for their organization’s successes, giving kudos instead to others instrumental in the achievements. They don’t claim to know everything. They don’t take things personally and let their emotions get the better of them. And they use their personal ambition to make the company better instead of making themselves more successful.

After studying hundreds of companies, Collins concluded that humble leaders rise to the top because they run their businesses in the spirit of service and motivate their team to do the same.

The qualities of such leaders foster a team-first mentality in their company’s culture. They create an atmosphere in which organizational goals trump individual agendas. As a result, their people are inspired to collaborate, communicate, and help one another succeed.

6. Show Meaningful Appreciation

“Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free and worth a fortune.”—Sam Walton

Walmart tycoon Sam Walton (1918-1992) understood that his companies’ success rested in the hands of the people who worked for him. Appreciating everything his “associates” did for the organization was one of his ten rules for building a business.

In the quote above, Walton identified three components of acknowledgment: compliments should be well-chosen, well-timed, and sincere. David Friedman fleshes out those concepts more definitively when he helps clients improve their culture. To show meaningful appreciation, leaders should:

  • Be specific. Tell the person exactly what was appreciated. Details matter.
  • Be timely. The closer your acknowledgment is to the action being recognized, the more effective it is for the recipient.
  • Describe the impact. Beyond noting what the person did, explain the impact their behavior had on others and the company.
  • Use the appropriate forum. Understand your team members—some thrive on public recognition, and others prefer to be acknowledged privately. Honoring their preferences makes the acknowledgment more meaningful.

Showing meaningful appreciation not only makes the recipient feel good; doing so also encourages them to continue to perform at a high level. Recognition is a highly effective way for leaders to bring out the best in their people. As Sam Walton put it, “If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.”

7. Embrace Change

“In life, change is inevitable. In business, change is vital.”—Warren G. Bennis

Often companies hit a formula for success and stick with the same method indefinitely. Perhaps their leaders spent a significant amount of time and effort developing the process that made them successful. Or they simply feel comfortable and safe following a tried-and-true routine to generate business. As a result, they don’t deviate from what got them to where they are “because we’ve always done it this way.”  

But even the most successful products, services, or ideas exist in a constantly evolving world and business environment. To remain competitive, leaders must be willing to not only adapt but also anticipate new developments and act proactively.

Pioneer leadership expert Warren G. Bennis (1925-2014) wrote over thirty books on the subject and founded the Leadership Institute at USC. He maintained that CEOs must embrace change and challenge the status quo to succeed. Great leaders, he taught, have a curiosity and willingness to try new things. They aren’t reckless, but they understand that thoughtful risk-taking opens a world of opportunity.

Leaders who stubbornly hold on to old ways of doing things will build teams of like-minded employees and will inevitably watch the world pass their business by. But forward-thinking, flexible leaders inspire their people to be excited by the possibilities that change brings. Their organizations are resiliently poised to stay at the forefront of their field.

8. Lead by Example

“What you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you’re saying.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Most people have worked for someone who tells others to do things a certain way but doesn’t follow their own advice. Nothing erodes confidence and trust faster than a leader who doesn’t “walk the talk.”

Being a standard-bearer isn’t easy. It requires a resolve to emblemize the characteristics that we want to see in others. Essayist, lecturer, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1802) spent his life embodying the ideals he hoped society would adopt. The point he makes in the above quote is that no matter what someone says, what they do is what people remember and react to.

Employees need and respect leaders who live up to the qualities they expect from their staff. As David Friedman points out in Culture by Design:

“Our people are observing us every minute of every day, consciously and unconsciously, and they’re taking their cue from us about what really matters. We can talk all day long, but how we respond to situations will have more impact than anything we say.”

Employers set expectations of how they want their staff to act. Whether or not their employees live up to these standards directly correlates to the conduct of their boss. By leading by example, CEOs can generate a positive, high-performing company culture.

9. Listen Generously

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”—Bernard Baruch

Financier, statesman, and presidential advisor Bernard Baruch (1870-1965) knew a lot of successful people. The fact that he identified listening as a common trait in his circle of influencers speaks volumes. He knew that a good listener does more than accommodate the speaker. They pay close attention to understand what they’re hearing and grow wiser from the information they absorb.

But generous listening isn’t something that comes naturally to most people. As a result, they miss out on gaining meaningful information and developing valuable relationships. David Friedman identifies several reasons why people fail to listen well:

  • Judgment: We try to determine whether we agree with the speaker while they’re talking, which interferes with our ability to absorb what’s being said.
  • Volleying: Instead of listening, we stop talking just long enough to give the other person a turn to speak. Meanwhile, we’re thinking about the next thing to say.
  • Close-mindedness: We let the other person “have their say” when our minds are already locked into our point of view.
  • Presumption: We think we know what the other person will say and tune out or even start finishing their sentences.
  • Multi-tasking: We are checking our phones or other devices while people speak.

Too often, leaders get wrapped up in what they want to get across to their people and fail to open the channel for effective listening. But they reap many benefits if they minimize the human tendency to listen on autopilot. As Friedman notes, generous listening gives leaders a much broader view of situations and people, which in turn provides them with greater choices for how to approach almost everything.

10. Invest in Relationships

“The most important single ingredient in the formula for success is knowing how to get along with people.”—Theodore Roosevelt

Frequently landing on the lists of the top five U.S. presidents, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was also a successful statesman, conservationist, and military leader. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the end to the Russo-Japanese War, more than quadrupled U.S. national forest acreage, and negotiated the route and construction of the Panama Canal. The man knew how to work with others to get things done.

Roosevelt understood the significance of developing relationships with everyone, from world leaders to soldiers under his command. In doing so, he established a level of trust that paved the way for the kind of collaboration and dedication needed to accomplish great things. As a highly impactful leader, he never underestimated the value of knowing how to connect with people.

Understanding what makes others tick and what’s important to them is essential to developing the best outcomes in business. CEOs who invest in relationships with their team members, peers, clients, and other stakeholders increase opportunities for high achievement.  These connections also put them in a far better position to work through difficult issues.

From Words to Action

Research on most renowned leaders reveals that they exhibited the traits described in this article and inspired others to adopt them as well. In so doing, they created the mechanism that propelled them to the top of their field.  

Business leaders who want their companies to excel can take inspiration from the titans quoted in this article. But they must also understand that words alone aren’t sufficient to build great organizations. Beginning with themselves, they must cultivate the behaviors that breed success and become a positive influence on their staff.

Since a company’s culture is the composite of behavioral norms within the organization, leaders have the power and responsibility to define and reinforce the behaviors they value.

In his books, David Friedman has identified specific behaviors that build great leaders and staff. He calls these behaviors “Fundamentals” in his highly effective process to develop extraordinary culture because they are fundamental to individual and organizational success. They are key elements in CultureWise, his unique online system to improve company culture.

Explore the CultureWise website to learn more about the Fundamentals and Friedman’s process to use culture to bring out the best in leaders and employees. And enjoy a complimentary subscription to Culture Matters to stay informed about leadership, culture, and business.