June 14, 2024 / Esther Choy

Leadership is an ever-changing field. The skills a leader needs today are different from the skills needed a generation ago — or even a decade ago. The following seven leadership quotes are from CEOs, founders and senior executives who are rising to the challenge of what it means to be an authentic leader in the 21st century.

Leaders Are Always Learning

Adam Farver, Chairman of the Board of Pella Corporation, ended up in the ICU with a head injury after a severe fall. The doctors believed that he would be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. In a coma, unable to speak or move, he heard his doctors explain his diagnosis, and he vowed to recover. The fight for his life gave Farver a new perspective on his purpose in life and at work.

Before the injury, his sole purpose in life was to win and achieve. But during the dark recovery period, he spent many hours in his hospital bed. Through these long, lonely nights, he imagined having conversations with his grandmother — who had always served as a role model. These prayerful conversations and meditations on her life helped him redefine his purpose as “Gratitude. Grace. Gumption.”

In his leadership quote, he explains how leaders can intentionally shift their own perspective — without going through such a harrowing experience.

“You don’t have to have a brain injury to do a hard reset. It is all about self-reflection and reading a lot of stuff, and thinking about your life’s purpose. What’s most important to you? Who are the people that you idealize or respect the most in terms of their accomplishments? If you go through that daily and really think about those things, even for three minutes a day, it matters.” Adam Farver, Chairman of the Board of Pella Corporation

As the third-generation family business leader, Ariel Bacal faced overwhelming obstacles in his family’s footwear manufacturing and retail business in Colombia and Venezuela: an onslaught of cheaper products, a plunge in currency exchange, and ever-mounting pressures from the fashion footwear industry. After countless pivots and desperate measures, it became clear that the only option left was to close the family business. The company that supported his family for generations closed during his watch. Bacal is intimately acquainted with the sting of failure.

While not everyone has had to bear that particular burden of closing down a family business, most leaders, especially entrepreneurial leaders, have experienced failure in one way or another. What’s so surprising about Bacal is that he shares openly about his failures as a business leader — and how he’s learned from them. Bacal’s leadership quote summarizes a necessary leadership skill for a modern leader: the ability to allow failure to be a teacher, not an obstacle.

“Nobody wants to talk about it. No one wants to hear about it, but you learn much more in failure, than you learn in successes.” Ariel Bacal, Co-founder and Proprietor of BLANX.ME.

Leaders Are Skilled At Defining Success

In her leadership quote, Kalpana Waikar, Founder and CEO of Inspired Indian Cooking, offers some expert advice: set boundaries. When Waikar started her new business, she didn’t want to become enslaved to it. Setting boundaries from the outset puts Waikar at odds with the typical image of an entrepreneur who gives her sweat, blood, and tears — around the clock — to make sure her business grows to the biggest, best version of itself. Waikar’s business has grown, but strategically and slowly, so that it supports Waikar’s lifestyle goals. For Waikar, success looks like a well-balanced life, not just exponential financial growth.

“One thing that I am very particular about is that I wanted to be able to name my lifestyle outside of work and have some flexibility, have the ability to spend time with family and friends if I need to, or travel, or whatever the case may be.” Kalpana Waikar, Founder and CEO of Inspired Indian Cooking

In his quote, Enrico Leta paints a picture of a business leader who was also able to define success for himself. But coming to this place was not easy for Leta. Growing up, he had dreams of joining the family business, a highly successful regional chain of high end supermarkets started by his Italian immigrant grandfather. But the second-generation shareholders made the decision that family members could no longer work in the business. Unmoored from his life-long dream, Leta set off on a journey to find a new career. He fell into finance, but it did not fulfill him. Thus, Leta decided to pivot to be an entrepreneur. His leadership quote shows that today’s leaders must be able to listen to their intuition.

“I was doing well. I was growing [with] the bank that I worked with. But I knew deep inside that that wasn’t for me. I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to create a product that I could touch and feel, that I could serve to other people.” Enrico Leta, Co-founder and Managing Partner at Nuvio Foods

Leaders Understand The Importance of Storytelling

The next three leadership quotes are from leaders in very different industries — an airline, a tech company, and a manufacturer. But their leadership quotes all underpin that a key skill for the 21st century leader is leadership storytelling. Defined as the strategic sequencing of fact and emotion, leadership storytelling is crucial for leading teams effectively, closing deals, and inspiring your audience to move to action.

Shannon Nash, CFO at Wing, explains why storytelling has become a signature piece in her leadership style.

“I tell stories because I think that they empower other people, especially the personal stories. I like to interweave personal stories, because I know that when I was at my lowest points, I got a lot of inspiration from hearing other people’s stories. And so to me, it is like my obligation to pay that forward.” Shannon Nash, CFO at Wing, an Alphabet Company

Glenn Hollister shares how storytelling helps differentiate his sales teams from the crowd. They don’t simply rely on logic to prove their case; they also use storytelling to persuade their audience to move to action.

“I’m an engineer by training. I was in the military for many years before. For much of my life, I felt like the way you convince people is you create a compelling set of logic and facts that when you get to the end, they have to agree. That’s not the way 99% of people work….That’s where story is powerful. People don’t remember all the facts. They don’t remember all the numbers. They remember the story. They remember the why, not all the little details along the way.” Glenn Hollister, Vice President, Sales Strategy & Effectiveness, United Airlines

Kimberly Paxton-Hagner reveals how storytelling has allowed her to become the leader her global company needs to unite teams across time zones and remote home offices.

“[Storytelling] is really important for me. To be able to speak to a lot of different people in our global company, you need to be able to figure out a way to engage quickly, to be concise in your storytelling, but still keep the heart.” Kimberly Paxton Hagner, Co-Owner and Board Chair, Kwik Lok

The Takeaway

These seven leadership quotes from real leaders across industries reveal that true 21st century leaders are able to maintain composure and focus in a challenging landscape by being able to:

  • Maintain the learner’s mindset.
  • Define success for themselves by trusting their own values, purpose, and intuition.
  • Recognize the power of story and use it to connect people.
  • Shape narratives actively, so that everyone can play a role in the story.

Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.

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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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