As someone heavily engaged not only in the study of leadership, but also its practice, I didn’t think I could be so surprised by the results of a survey regarding the greatest leader of all time.
But I was. To make matters worse and to add to my humbling, I not only failed to recognize the leader who came in first—I was also unfamiliar with who came in second!
A poll of more than 5,000 readers of BBC World Histories magazine placed one of my natural picks, Winston Churchill, in third place with only 7% of the vote. In second with 25% was African independence fighter Amílcar Cabral, who brought together more than one million Guineans to free themselves from Portuguese occupation and inspired many other African countries to rise and fight for independence.
The greatest leader of all time? According to 38% polled, the honor goes to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh Empire. And after educating myself on his life and accomplishments I would agree that he was a great leader. The greatest? Nah. With full admission of my Western cultural bias, give me Churchill or Lincoln (who, by the way, came in fourth in the polling). But great? Without a doubt.
As I was reading about the survey of who was the “greatest,” my mind went to a story Mark Twain once told of a man who died and met Saint Peter at the Gates of Heaven.
Knowing that Peter was very wise, he asked a question that he had wondered about his whole life. He said: “I have been interested in military history for many years. I’ve read everything I could, studied, went to battlefields and walked the grounds.
“Who was the greatest general of all time?”
Peter said: “Oh, that’s easy. It’s that man right over there.”
He looked over and he actually knew the man!
“You have to be mistaken,” he said. “I knew that man on Earth. He was just a common, everyday guy—he managed a store near my house.”
Peter said: “That’s right. But he would have been the greatest general of all time, if he had been a general.”
What could you be? What are you meant to be? I can think of few things sadder than coming to the end of your life and realizing what could have been.
So, let’s have fun conversations about who was the greatest leader of all time, but let’s spend even more time reflecting on how we can become the greatest at who God made us to be.
James Emery White
Mark Bridge, “Sikh Warrior Maharaja Ranjit Singh Beats Winston Churchill as the Greatest Leader of All Time,” The Times of London, March 4, 2020, read online.
Mark Twain story adapted from Adapted from Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.