Do the most successful people in history have certain traits in common that made them great leaders? Certainly there are glaring similarities, but is there a formula at work that makes certain leaders rise to the top of their fields? And does the formula change depending on where or when they lived?
Author Robert Greene, who wrote the bestselling book The 48 Laws of Power, spends a lot of time studying and interviewing influential people. In his most recent book, Mastery, he analyzed the secret to greatness for some of the most successful figures in history. What he found was that while the way people go about becoming successful has changed through the years, many of today's leaders share the same characteristics of those historical figures we revere: passion, drive, dedication and vision.
Let's dig a little deeper to see just how the times they lived in helped create the traits that turned people into history's greatest leaders.
The Power of Freedom
In pre-modern times, people weren't given much choice about the type of career they would pursue. A person's occupation was generally set at birth and was dependent on the class they were born into and whether they were male or female. Nonetheless, according to Greene, "you would [still] find eccentric types in history, like a Da Vinci or a Mozart, who would suddenly pop up and have a great desire to pursue what they loved." These individuals did whatever was necessary, Greene adds, to overcome the obstacles in their paths in order to have the freedom to follow their dreams. It wasn't—and still isn't—an easy feat to go beyond the norm.
And while there’s a tremendous freedom in the modern world to choose not only what we do but where we do it and with whom, Greene says the leaders we most often hear about exude a similar passion that eccentric types in the past did. They don't accept the status quo or follow in the footsteps of others. They also aren't just focused on one industry; like Da Vinci, they try to learn as much as they can about other areas of interest in order to improve their own work.
Technology, especially the Internet, has opened up new opportunities to today's leaders—leaders who have the kind of pioneering spirit that existed when there was still so much to discover about the world. It's ignited a new kind of passion, Greene says, and allowed leaders to expand their influence even farther and work with people all over the world. After all, passion is passion—it's recognizable no matter where and when you grew up.
Intense Drive and Dedication
There’s no denying it: Competition today in the business world is tough. We're surrounded by intelligent, driven people 24/7, thanks to the technology that's been created over the past 100 years.
So how can we succeed despite the competition? “You can’t be afraid of challenging yourself,” Greene says. “Young people in their 20s—they emphasize money too much. Learning is the goal you’re after. In the end, that will allow you to make a lot more money, and you won’t end up in these dead ends that people often end up in in their 30s. They don’t feel challenged. They’re bored, and they’re tuning out.”
That's what makes the most successful people different—they aren't worried about what others think about them and therefore rarely go into a field just for the money. If you're going to have the drive to follow something you love, Greene notes, you can't put too much energy into wondering what others might think about you.
The greatest leaders in the past had the same intense drive and dedication we see in leaders today. They didn't listen to what others thought of their career choice. For example, Greene says, Charles Darwin's father, a wealthy doctor and financier, didn't think his son would amount to much. The younger Darwin was a wanderer, liked sailing on boats, loved nature and, when compared to his cousin, didn't have as high of an IQ. To pursue his early interest in nature, Darwin abandoned his medical education at the University of Edinburgh against his father's wishes. Ignoring what others thought about him and dedicating himself to pursuing his passion helped Darwin become one of the greatest scientists who ever lived.
In any era, there are new challenges to deal with when wanting to pursue what you love. Despite these obstacles, the most successful people forge ahead and often come out on top.
Accurate Predictions of the Future
There's no doubt that the world is moving faster than ever: In a few short years, an entire industry can move overseas or be wiped out by robots. The secret to success is to be able to look into the future and choose an industry that has staying power.
But how do you do that? Greene suggests making connections between different fields of knowledge to see how different industries are affecting one another. How is science affecting business? How is technology affecting business? What needs will people have in the near future that are yet to be explored? The greatest modern leaders and those from the past were able to have this kind of vision.
Greene points to Google's founders as an example of a great success story. Sergey Brin and Larry Page had no background in business, and that actually helped them set themselves apart—it was their outsider perspectives that allowed them to create Google. No matter which field you’re in, Greene suggests taking the time to learn about other fields and then using that knowledge to make a unique connection. Not sure which fields to investigate? Try pursuing an interest in something that isn’t directly related to what you do but that you still find intriguing.
The way we approach work has changed dramatically over the past few hundred years. Technology has become a part of who we are and what we do, and we need to learn how to focus and not let the distractions stop us from achieving our highest potential. While the world has changed, those who rise to the top have not. No matter where and when they lived, these influential figures continue to demonstrate that through passion, drive, dedication and an ability to foresee what's next, you can gain the recognition that only a select few have achieved.
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