The Three Types of Leadership

The words ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ are used very often in our cultures — in our communities and organizations — and yet there are many assumptions people hold regarding what it is, who gets to be one, and what, exactly, we’re leading.

We hear all sorts of terms related to leadership: heart-centered leadership, priority driven leadership, purpose-driven leadership, ethical leadership, celebrity leadership, leadership according to Ghengis Khan, the Art of War, famous or infamous military generals, or some other historical figure or strategic philosophy. The list could go on, and does.

At a macro-level, though, around which all other expressions of leadership organization, there are three primary types of leadership: introspective or ‘inner’ leadership; leading other people; and leading into a new paradigm, or leading by ideal.

Usually, when we think of ‘leader’, we think of the organizational or political leader who, most often in reality, is more of an administrator or manager. In some cases, an organizational leader is the tone-setter, providing context and over-arching direction to guide the day-to-day efforts of others in the organization.

Yet this is only one type of leadership — leading other people. In our culture and in the dominant business paradigm, there has been less emphasis on the value of introspective leadership, or inner leadership, and leading by ideal. Some might say that we have, in recent times, seen the cost of this one-sidedness, as matters of judgement and integrity filled the headlines and many people felt lead astray or let down by their leaders.

So let’s take a look at three types of leadership: introspective or ‘inner’ leadership; leading people or groups; and leading into a new paradigm, or leading by ideal.

Introspective or ‘Inner’ Leadership

The cultural default is on extroversion, and thus extroverted leadership. Even the term we apply to those who go inward, the more introspective sorts, gives a clue to the esteem that it is held in: ‘navel-gazing’, which often is said in a dismissive way that reveals the bias of thinking that it’s a waste of time.

But nothing could be farther from the truth. There are high costs to being completely extroverted, without the anchoring and centering of mindful introspection.

Indeed, the term ‘introspective leader’ first came to me by way of a corporate leader in a large organization. He was talking about massive changes that were underway in his organization and the very field itself, and that a key leader had just been ‘sand-bagged’ by his peers and the top executives of the organization, largely by his own doing. The cause, said my colleague, was that he lacked introspection, and thus couldn’t see how his own efforts, actions, and decisions were leading him towards career upheaval.

Introspection, far from the misunderstanding of it, is a ‘looking within’ towards one’s center of integrity, better judgement, and, if you’re so inclined, towards spiritual or higher philosophical guidance. It is an awareness of what is most heartful — and thus integrity centered — and what your most important values and priorities are. Then, having a sense of this or at least how to access it as needed, you’re able to make key decisions and weigh potential missteps accordingly.

Introspection, at its most basic, is being mindful, thoughtful, and grounded in a more holographic or interconnected perspective. You’re thinking not just about a myopic goal — one decision or an issue of immediate maximized profit — but also how that action or decision will produce a ripple effect, what its consequences will be, who will be affected and how, and whether that’s okay with you and ultimately beneficial in the long term for the organization and everyone involved and affected.

The introspective leader, then, cultivates access to that inner-source and makes wiser decisions, and models wiser and more inspired leadership, than his or her solely extroverted peer.

Leader of People

This is more the sort of leadership that we traditionally think of æ a leader who is in charge of a group or organization, and who sets the tone, the pace, and the agenda. He or she may do so with feedback or input from others, or not.

While conventional, this sort of leadership has a huge array of potentials and pitfalls. The more skillful leaders of people are fluent in skillful communication, visioning, being aware of purpose and being able to articulate that purpose and help the people within his or her organization connect with that purpose.

This leader is also adept at ‘living into the question’, since we can’t know all of the answers, and indeed wouldn’t want to, lest we turn our backs on a valuable source of creativity, refreshment, and energy that inquiry provides.

And in times of challenge — often by tapping the introspective source æ a skillful leader will navigate perilous circumstances and experiences with more grace than a less skillful and less introspective leader.

Since studies have shown that employee turnover is often due to miscommunication and interpersonal issue with one’s boss, the more effective and skillful leaders will make it a priority to continue developing his or her communication skillfulness — in such skills as inquiry, listening, being truly receptive, and skillfully articulating — but will also make skillful communication a priority in his group’s development and evaluation. Skillful communication ripples out into greater effectiveness with customers, vendors, partners and others involved with the organization.

So skillful leadership is much more than just a job-title; it’s a capacity and an ongoing development and refinement of key skills. It’s a practice, and one that can be more rewarding and effective if approached that way.

Leading by Ideal

We often assume that being a leader automatically involves leading a group of people, or, put more directly, managing people. This is the case for many leaders, but not all.

One of the most courage-requiring and sometimes lonely types of leadership is leading into a new paradigm, a new ideal, a new norm. This leader might be calling people to a higher vision, well beyond what’s ‘business as usual’, and thus is often operating well out into the horizon in comparison to the mainstream.

For this leader, introspection and a carefully cultivated tribe of kindred spirits is crucial, because there will likely be less affirmation from the crowd, simply because true change is rarely welcomed. At least at first.

In addition to other skills required of leadership, the person who is called to ‘lead by ideal’ must have a unique and dedicated practice to cultivate the connection with his or her source of motivation and inner-guidance. That’s what is required not just to foster the necessary courage to be at the horizon, but also to remain connected with a clear sense of vision, purpose, and ideal.


There are leaders who will combine at least two of these types of leadership, and sometimes in rare instances æ as might be the case in a leading edge conscious enterprise or organization that is setting the stage for a new way of doing business æ a leader might be combining all three of these types of leadership.

Drawing from each, in a way that suits you, will add to the fires of inspiration, and your effectiveness and satisfaction as a leader, and come closer to the expression of your own highest purpose through the privilege of leadership.