Four Types of Leaders

All leaders want to change the status quo, but they use different means.

Effective leaders believe that individuals, organizations, and even nations possess undiscovered talents and untapped resources. They seek to unleash the full potential of their followers, so they can reach higher and go farther than they previously thought possible.

Types of Leaders

I have found it helpful to categorize leaders into the following four types:

  1. Thought leaders
  2. Courageous leaders
  3. Inspirational leaders
  4. Servant leaders

I’ll mention a few leaders who strongly demonstrate each type of leader. However, many leaders are a combination of two or more leadership types. For example, I have cited Martin Luther King, Jr., as an example of an inspirational leader, but certainly, he also was courageous.

Thought Leaders

Thought leaders harness the power of ideas to actualize change. They stretch their followers by helping them envision new possibilities. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “The human mind once stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimension.”

Sometimes a new idea can bring about a paradigm shift, which may provide a new lens for viewing or a radically different context for understanding. At other times, the new idea leads to only incremental change. But all change, whether large or small, starts with a new idea.

For centuries, thought leaders have competed in the marketplace of ideas using books, papers, and oral presentations. They still do, but today they also use the Internet, social media, and other technological advances to disseminate their ideas more rapidly and broadly. E-books, blogs, e-zines, teleseminars, and Webinars have made thought leadership instantaneously available to ordinary citizens.

Examples of thought leaders:

  • Many of Jack Welch’s ideas challenged conventional business practices. Some of his leading-edge ideas included “workout and best practices,” stretch goals, creating boundary-less organization (breaking down all “silos”), and pursuing Six Sigma quality.
  • Steve Jobs was the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple Inc., where he oversaw the development of the iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone, iPad, and numerous other innovations. He has been referred to as the “Father of the Digital Revolution,” “a master of innovation,” and “the master evangelist of the digital age.”
  • Dr. W. Edwards Deming was an American statistician, professor, author, lecturer, and consultant. After World War II, his ideas about quality and process control had a major positive impact and influence on Japanese manufacturing businesses. Subsequently, his concepts and teachings spurred a major quality revolution among American manufacturers and consumers.

Thought leaders attract followers and initiate change by the power of their ideas.  

Courageous Leaders

Courageous leaders bravely pursue a vision in the face of considerable opposition and risks. They have strong convictions about their mission (purpose), vision (long-term goals), and values (right and wrong). They speak up for their core beliefs and fight for their values, even when their stand is unpopular.

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, said, “There are many qualities that make a great leader. But having strong beliefs, being able to stick with them through popular and unpopular times, is the most important characteristics of a great leader.”

In addition, they seek the truth and speak the truth.

Examples of courageous leaders:

  • Rosa Parks was an African-American civil rights activist, who the U.S. Congress called “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement.” On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, AL, she refused to obey the bus driver’s order that she give up her seat to a white passenger. Her great courage marked a pivotal point in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, served during the most difficult and dangerous period of our nation’s history. Even though his life was constantly in danger and his policies were unpopular with many, he steadfastly held to his convictions and governed with strength, fairness, and dignity. On January 1, 1863, he courageously issued his memorable Emancipation Proclamation, which declared the freedom of slaves within the Confederacy.
  • Sherron Watkins (Enron), Coleen Rowley (FBI), and Cynthia Cooper (WorldCom) are three “whistleblowers” who had the courage to confront higher-ups in their organizations, even though it meant jeopardizing their jobs and careers. In 2002, Time magazine selected them as persons of the year.

Courageous leaders attract followers and motivate people to change by their willingness to take risks and stand up for their beliefs and values.

Inspirational Leaders

Inspirational leaders promote change by the power of their passionate commitment to ideas and ideals. They lift our eyes from present practicalities to future possibilities. Their words stir up our spirits, strengthen our convictions, and move us to action. We are eager to follow them because they call forth the best that is in us.

Inspirational leaders have positive attitudes that create strong emotional connections with people. Their speech is enlivened with words such as justice, freedom, honor, respect, pride, and love. Their affirming and encouraging demeanor builds the confidence of their followers and elicits their wholehearted devotion. Their can-do attitude keeps hope alive during difficult times.

Inspirational leaders create a sense of urgency by explaining why it’s important to take action sooner rather than later. In addition, they describe actionable steps people need to take.

Examples of inspirational leaders:

  • Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, was known for his strong leadership on behalf of free enterprise and politically conservative ideals. His inspirational leadership style incorporated excellent communication skills seasoned with humor and optimism. He had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that read, “It can be done!”
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., was an American clergyman, activist, and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He is best known for his belief in nonviolent civil disobedience. His words and actions have inspired many people to speak up and stand up for what’s right.
  • Pat Summit was the leader of the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers basketball program for 38 years. She was known as an intense, demanding, focused, determined, and inspiring coach. She compiled an amazing record of 1,098 wins and 208 losses, winning eight NCAA national championships along the way.

Inspirational leaders attract followers and motivate people to change by the power of their passion and their strong convictions.

Servant Leaders

Servant leaders care deeply about people. They seek to remove the barriers and obstacles that hold others back from achieving their full potential. They strive to create an environment where their followers can do their best work. Servant leaders frequently ask, “How can I help?”

Former AT&T executive Robert K. Greenleaf popularized the concept of the servant leader in “The Servant as Leader,” an essay first published in 1970. Kent Keith, CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, states, “I think the simplest way to explain it would be to say that servant leaders focus on identifying and meeting the needs of others rather than trying to acquire power, wealth, and fame for themselves.”

Examples of servant leaders include:

  • Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic religious congregation, in Calcutta, India. Today, the ministry has more than 4,500 sisters ministering in 133 countries. Members vow to give “wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor.”
  • Oprah Winfrey is the chairman of Harpo Inc. Her focus is helping others succeed. Many of her TV programs and outreach initiatives are aimed at removing obstacles, so people can achieve their potential. Her goal is to empower people to achieve their dreams.
  • Max DePree was the CEO of Herman Miller office furniture company from 1980 to 1987. Max states, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say ‘thank you.’ In between, the leader is a servant.”

Servant leaders attract followers and motivate people to change by helping to remove obstacles that are in the way of their growth and development.

Successful leaders come in different shapes and sizes. No two are alike, and no single leadership style is always best. All leaders want to change the status quo, but they use different means. Some take the lead with their ideas, while others lead with their passion and conviction. Still others lead by demonstrating courage in the face of risks and the unknown, and some bring about change by serving others.

Paul B. Thornton is a speaker, trainer, and professor of business administration at Springfield Technical Community College, Springfield, MA, where he teaches principles of management, organizational behavior, and principles of leadership. This article is from the 5th edition of his book, “Management-Principles and Practices,” which was published in August, 2013. He may be contacted at