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Lead Your Team Leadership

What Makes a Great Business Leader?

What Makes a Great Business Leader? Bill Gates / Credit: 3777190317 / Shutterstock.com

While politics and the military have produced some of history's greatest leaders, so has the business community. Throughout time, leadership legends like Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Ray Kroc and Sam Walton have shown that with a combination of hard work, determination and – yes – a little bit of luck, great success is attainable.

The achievements of Ford and Disney have paved the way for today's entrepreneurs, like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett, whose success has been determined not only by the accomplishments of their work, but by the billions of dollars they earned doing it.

Though their leadership styles and characteristics might have been different, the business community's most famous and successful leaders all had at least one thing in common: a knack for getting the best out of others.


Bill Gates

Bill Gates discovered his interest in software and began programming computers at age 13. While a student at Harvard University, he developed a version of the programming language BASIC for the first microcomputer. The Seattle native dropped out of college in 1975 to devote his full attention to his new software development company, Microsoft. Under Gates' leadership, Microsoft has grown to employ nearly 100,000 employees and earn more than $60 billion annually. In 2008, Gates transitioned out of his day-to-day role in the company to spend more time on his global health and education work. He continues to serve as Microsoft's chairman and as an advisor on key development projects.


Warren Buffett

Born in 1930, Warren Buffett was running his first business delivering newspapers and selling horseracing tip sheets at 13-years-old. By the time he reached his twenties, Buffett was working in the investment industry as a salesman and securities analyst. In 1970, he founded Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., anAmerican multinational conglomerate holding company headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska. Buffett has used the company to help finance his investments, which over time have made him more than $60 billion.  Buffett, who still lives in his original five-bedroom house in Omaha, earned the title of the world's richest man in 2008.


Steve Jobs

Born in 1955, Steve Jobs took an interest in electronics at an early age. After dropping out of college after two years in 1974, Jobs joined a group known as the Homebrew Computer Club. It was there where he met Steve Wozniak, who was trying to build a small computer. In 1976, the two launched their own business called the Apple Computer Company. They sold their first personal computer, the Apple IIe,in 1977, and by 1980 the personal computer era was well underway.  Jobs left Apple in 1985, and eventually purchased the computer animation company Pixar. Under his direction, Pixar produced a number of hits, including Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Wall-E. In 2006 Jobs sold Pixar to Disney, which set up his eventual return to Apple.  During his second tenure with the computer company, Jobs is credited with creating a number of new products including the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad. After a string of health-related issues, Job resigned from Apple for good in 2011. He died six weeks later.


Ray Kroc

Born in suburban Chicago in 1902, Ray Kroc had a number of jobs before becoming a fast food giant. Kroc worked as a piano player, a paper cup salesman and a multi-mixer salesman, but it wasn't until he came across a California restaurant that specialized in hamburgers and French fries that his career really took off. In 1955, he founded the McDonald's Corporation, and within three years the restaurant chain had sold more that 100 million hamburgers. Kroc expanded the chain rapidly, instilling a streamlined approach to operation that was used in each of his restaurants. By 1963, McDonald's had sold three billion burgers and opened its 500th store. Five years later, the chain went international. Over his nearly three decades with McDonald's, Kroc amassed a reported $500 million. He continued working at McDonald's until he died in 1984.


Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart started her career as a successful Wall Street stockbroker, but gave up her life in the fast lane in 1973 when the economy turned sour. She began focusing her talents on renovating an old farm in Connecticut and building a catering business. That catering business eventually spawned an entire lifestyle collection that now includes magazines, television shows, websites, home improvement products, home goods, pet products and crafts. Her brand reaches 66 million consumers each month and sells 8,500 products in more than 38,000 retail locations.


Walt Disney

Born in 1901, Walt Disney took an early interest in art. In the early 1920s, Disney started a small commercial art company called Laugh-O-Grams. The company eventually went bankrupt and prompted Disney and fellow animator Ub Iwerks to move to Hollywood.  It was there that Disney turned his sketches of a cartoon mouse named Mickey into an American icon. Mickey made his screen debut in 1928 in Steamboat Willie, the world’s first fully synchronized sound cartoon. In 1932, the film entitled Flowers and Treeswon Disney the first of his 32 personal Academy Awards. Between 1937 and 1942, Disney produced such classic films as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated musical feature, as well as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo andBambi. Disney expanded his cartoon empire in 1955 when he opened the Disneyland amusement park in California. Disney died in 1996 while working on plans for a second theme park, Disney World, which eventually opened five years later in Florida and today is visited by millions of families each year.


Debbi Fields

Debbi Fields was just 20 years old when she opened her first cookie store, Mrs. Fields Chocolate Chippery, in Palo Alto, Calif. in August 1977. Twenty-plus years later, her role had expanded from managing one shop to supervising operations, brand name management, public relations and product development of her company's more than 600 company-owned and franchise Mrs. Fields stores in the United States and 10 foreign countries. In 1989, Fields introduced a state-of-the-art computer system to streamline operations and production schedules for her cookies. In the early 1990s, Fields sold the cookie chain to an investment firm. She has since stayed on with the company as a consultant while authoring several books and appearing as a motivational speaker across the country.


Henry Ford

Henry Ford had two unsuccessful attempts at manufacturing automobiles under his belt before co-founding the Ford Motor Company in 1903. While the company started off slow, it started to make its mark in 1908 with the unveiling of the Model T, which ushered in a new era in personal transportation. Ten years later, half of all cars in the U.S. were Model Ts, helping make Ford the largest automobile manufacturer in the world. While in charge of the motor company, Ford instituted several polices designed to improve life for his employees, including the $5 workday, which at the time doubled the industry standard for a day's wages. In 1945, Ford relinquished control of the company to his grandson, Henry Ford II. He died two years later.


Sam Walton

After his service in the military, Sam Walton began his career in retail. Following a job with J.C. Penney, he left to open his own variety store in Arkansas. On the hunt for something bigger, Walton opened his first Wal-Mart store in Rogers, Ark. The store's popularity resulted in a rapid expansion across the country. By 1970, Wal-Mart employed 1,500 employees in 38 stores, with sales of more than $44 million. Fifteen years later, Wal-Mart employed 104,000 associates in 882 stores with sales of $8.4 billion. In 1991, Fortune magazine named Walton "America's Most Successful Merchant." He died the following year, but not before being honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Marshall Field

Marshall Field began his career at age 17 working as a clerk in a Massachusetts general store. A couple years later, Field moved to Chicago and got a job at Potter Palmer's dry goods store. He eventually took over the store himself, and by 1880 had renamed the business, which catered to women, after himself, spawning Marshall Field's.  It was Field who coined the popular retail terms "the customer is always right" and "give the lady what she wants." Into addition to his successful store, he also invested in real estate and the railroad industry. When Field died in 1906, he left behind an estate valued at nearly $120 million.

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Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer who has nearly 15 years' experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.