Place in history: influential leaders

Documenting the lives of the famous is nothing new, but what turns a figure of authority into a person whose legacy will endure? Vision explores

Nearly 50 years after his assassination in Dallas, Texas, on 22 November 1963, the spirit of John F Kennedy is still regularly evoked by American politicians. Filmmakers, too, continue to be drawn to his story – the latest is Killing Kennedy, a new biopic starring Rob Lowe as the President.

But although his untimely death plays a large part in shaping how he is remembered, this isn't enough to explain his place in history. Youthful and charismatic, JFK was a leader who could make his countrymen feel good about themselves, from his famous 1961 inauguration speech – "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" – to the closing words of his 1963 Berlin speech, in a city divided by the Wall: "Ich bin ein Berliner."

A heartfelt way with words is a defining characteristic of many who have been influential in shaping their country's future. The ailing former South African president Nelson Mandela – whose life has been made into the new film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – has inspired as much with his words as his courage and determination. He has spoken often about the qualities of a good leader, with humility coming high on his list: “A leader. . . is like a shepherd," he wrote in his autobiography of the same title [A Long Walk To Freedom]. "He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realising that all along they are being directed from behind.”

A new book, Zayed: Man Who Built a Nation, takes a look at the life and legacy of another influential leader, nearly 10 years after his death in 2004. The late His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan became President of the newly created United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1971, a position he held for 33 years. HH Sheikh Zayed is remembered by former US President Jimmy Carter as a skilful negotiator who understood the importance of diplomacy. “He never sought credit or approval for his diplomatic efforts. Yet he was tireless.”

Perhaps, then, the character traits these very different leaders share is that of perseverance. Or, as Nelson Mandela put it:  “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”