31 Military Leadership Quotes to Inspire Leadership in the Workplace

Be inspired with these quotes from great military leaders, tacticians, and motivators

The Meetingnotes Team
April 24, 2024

Despite comprising just 8% of the entire U.S. population, military veterans own around 30% of U.S. businesses

But the disproportionate number of business leaders with military backgrounds is neither a coincidence nor a surprise. No business has existed longer than the business of war. 

This unfortunate reality means that military people are among the best leaders around.

And, while the stereotypical military person isn’t known for soliloquies, famous quotes from great military leaders are easy to find.

Below, you can find our curation of 31 of the best military leadership quotes. If you want leadership insights applicable to the business world, look no further. 

Types of military quotes in this post:

<div id="1"></div>

Famous Military Quotes on the Nature of Leadership

When his Commanding Officer was killed, Major Dick Winters was thrust into command the moment he landed at Normandy on D-Day. He assembled his fellow troops, destroyed a battery of German howitzers and earned the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts. 

He summarized leadership like this:

I may not have been the best combat commander, but I always strove to be. My men depended on me to carefully analyze every tactical situation, to maximize the resources that I had at my disposal, to think under pressure, and then to lead them by personal example.
— Major Dick Winters

Another, more modern military man’s quote provides another perspective on what makes a good commander. In his 2001 HBR article, “Leadership in a Combat Zone,” Lieutenant General William Pagonis, Director of Logistics during the Gulf War, wrote:

Owning the facts is a prerequisite to leadership. But there are millions of technocrats out there with lots of facts in their quivers and little leadership potential. In many cases, what they are missing is empathy. No one is a leader who can’t put himself or herself in the other person’s shoes. Empathy and expertise command respect.
—  Lieutenant General, William Pagonis

Just remember: While stories like Winters storming the beach at Normandy are compelling, former fighter pilot and astronaut, Chris Hadfield, reminds us that leadership is a grind:

Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine.
— Chris Hadfield, Astronaut 

<div id="2"></div>

Famous Generals on Listening and Rooting Out Problems

When things go wrong in your command, start wading for the reason in increasingly larger concentric circles around your own desk.
— General Bruce C. Clarke

Things will go wrong. And they’ll often be beyond your direct control. But as a leader, you own those issues. Usually, addressing issues beyond your control boils down to effective communication

A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.
— General of the Army, Douglas MacArthur

As MacArthur explains, leadership is lonely. But leaders don’t shrink. Nor do they aim to protect their egos by insisting on their own way. And as well they should because, as Stonewall Jackson famously said:

If officers desire to have control over their commands, they must remain habitually with them, industriously attend to their instruction and comfort, and in battle lead them well.
— Stonewall Jackson

<div id="3"></div>

When Management Fails to Lead

New managers, and some old ones, tend to conflate managing a team with leading a team. But leadership should be seen as distinct from management. Remember this quote during your next executive team meeting.

Leadership is of the spirit, compounded of personality and vision: its practice is an art. Management is of the mind, more a matter of accurate calculation, of statistics, of methods, timetables and routine; its practice is a science. Managers are necessary; leaders are essential.
— Field Marshal Sir Bill Slim, Governor General of Australia

When leadership is conflated with management, the result is less than ideal.

You manage things; you lead people. We went overboard on management and forgot about leadership. It might help if we ran the MBAs out of Washington.
— Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hooper

<div id="4"></div>

Military Leaders on Communication

Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.
— Colin Powell, US general and statesman

When General Stanley McChrystal became leader of the Joint Special Operations task force in 2003, he realized that there were significant communication gaps and silos between the front line and the decision-makers back at HQ. To try and address this, he started to rethink the “Operations and Intelligence Brief” (or O&I meetings) to facilitate the sharing of information

That synchronized cycle — what we called our “battle rhythm” — was fueled by the O&I, which pumped information and context throughout our Task Force
— General (Retired) McChrystal in his book Team of Teams

Lieutenant General William Pagonis structured his workday around two key meetings, the daily stand-up at the start of the day and a more indepth “sit-down” meeting at the end. He used these meetings as a way to formalize communication and complement the chain of command. Reflecting back on the importance of communication, Pagonis wrote in “Leadership in the Combat Zone”:

Leaders must be motivators, educators, role models, sounding boards, confessors, and cheerleaders—they must be accessible, and they must aggressively pursue contact with colleagues and subordinates.
— Lieutenant General, William Pagonis

After a 29 year military career, Pagonis made the switch to industry where he became executive vice president of supply chain management at Sears Roebuck & Co. Here, he implemented some of the same processes and continued running the same stand-up and sit-down meetings.

<div id="5"></div>

Inspirational Military Quotes

Leadership can be a grind, so here are some fantastic inspirational, instructive, and motivational military quotes to reinvigorate you.

No man is a leader until he is ratified in the minds and hearts of his men.
— The Soldier’s Handbook
An army of sheep led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by a sheep.
— Alexander the Great
Who dares, wins. Who sweats, wins. Who plans, wins.
— British Special Air Service (SAS) 
We're all one team - and together, we're strong and we're in this together.
— Bo Brabo, former Director Human Resources Services in the US Army and Chief of HR Operations with the White House Communications Agency, on the Supermanagers Podcast 
Read over and over again the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus, Turenne, Eugene and Frederic…This is the only way to become a great general and master the secrets of the art of war…
— Napoleon Bonaparte
Facta non verba (Translation: Deeds, not words)
— Canadian Joint Task Force
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts
— Winston S. Churchill
Don't stop trying or fighting for what you believe in the first time someone tells you no.
—General (Retired) Ann Dunwoody in her book, A Higher Standard: Leadership Strategies from America’s First Female Four-star General.
Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.
— Dwight D. Eisenhower
Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end.
— Field Marshal Douglas Haig
Attract the right people. Let them know what they have to do. Give them the tools to do the job. And when they get it done, your job as a leader is to make sure they get the credit for it.
— General (Retired) Rick Hillier, former Chief of Defence Staff for the Canadian Forces
Men mean more than guns in the rating of a ship
—John Paul Jones, Naval commander during Revolutionary War
Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.
— General George S. Patton
There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.
— Colin Powell
Leadership consists of picking good men and helping them do their best”
— Admiral Chester W. Nimitz
Step one of inspiring your team is really to help them to get bought into the leader, but step two is to help them get bought into the mission
— Former Commanding Officer US Marine Corps David Robinson on the Supermanagers Podcast 
The truth is that you always know the right thing to do. The tough part is doing it.
— General Norman Schwarzkopf 
leader leads by example, not by force.
— Sun Tzu, Chinese military general
Discipline is the soul of an army.
— George Washington
All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavor to find out what you don’t know by what you do do; that’s what I call ‘guessing what was on the other side of the hill
— Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington

Oleta Crain’s Silent Story of Military Leadership

As great as the quotes listed above are, many of the greatest leaders’ words were never documented. Take Oleta Crain for example, who in 1943, became one of three black women to enter officer training for the United States Army. 

During training, Crain and her company were barred from the barracks and forced to sleep in private rooms. They were also given the run-around at the pool where they needed to train; schedules would change at the last minute. And after marching drills, instructors said Crain’s troops’ voices were too high and their steps too short to execute their drills.

But Major Crain silenced the critics. She taught her troops to lengthen their strides and deliver deep-voiced commands. And she demanded fair treatment, persuading her commander to end the pool’s segregation. 

After the war, Crain was the only female Black officer to be retained by the military. 

And when she retired from active duty in 1964, Crain became the regional administrator of the Women’s Bureau. While there she continued to advocate for women’s employment rights. Throughout her career, she fought for civil rights in the military, especially for Black women. And she served as proof positive that, while quotes inspire, actions move us.

Applying Learnings to the Workplace

Military leaders have shown themselves to be effective tacticians and motivators who offer interesting insights into leadership

Business leaders might not need to execute complex military strategy, sail ships, or fly fighter jets, but there are some takeaways from the experiences of these military leaders that can be applied to every day. Whether it’s implementing daily stand-up meetings like Lieutenant General Pagonis, rooting out problems like General Bruce C. Clarke, or even motivating the team with inspirational words like so many of the leaders quoted above, there is a lot of insight to be shared. 

Don't let unproductive meetings slow you down

See the impact of fewer, shorter meetings, increased accountability, and enhanced productivity with Fellow.

Get started with Fellow todayGet started with Fellow today

Got something to contribute?

Become a contributor, and add your unique take on these topics to our website.
Become a contributor