While the handful of leaders we discuss here are really not dealing with the corporate challenges, it’s still a relevant discussion. These leaders embody the paragons of the leadership qualities that are just as badly needed today as they were during their time.

Want to make history as a leader? Try studying these great leaders from history.

Want to make history as a leader? Try studying these great leaders from history


It’s true, it’s super tough being any sort of leader, these days. Business conditions are immensely volatile, the next tech development could be the one that puts your company out of business. Everyone on your team seems to have their own agenda, and nobody is ready to come to a consensus. Global warming is real, and the ice caps are melting in Alaska.  And oh, they want to know what your next official statement will be on social media.

But if you think being a leader today is tough, try thinking about what leaders had to wrestle with back in the daywithout the benefit of much hindsight, dealing with wars, natural disasters and without the technological support we have taken for granted nowadays.  They didn’t have our guide either: a guide specifically for leaders.

While the handful of leaders we discuss here are really not dealing with the corporate challenges, it’s still a relevant discussion.  These leaders embody the paragons of the leadership qualities that are just as badly needed today as they were during their time. See if you practise (or would like to practise) one or more of the types of leadership as one or more of these world leaders.

Sir Winston Churchill

What is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory.

As Britain’s Prime Minister in the 1940s and 50s, Winston Churchill has gone down in history as  one of the foremost leaders during World War II. Morale was low among Britons during the war, but Churchill rallied them with his now legendary communication skills, and kept things going with his indefatigable resolve to fight back against the Nazis.  

Stand-out communication skills are typical of the democratic type of leadership, although prior to his successes in the Second World War, Churchill exhibited more qualities belonging to the autocratic leadership type. These qualities, which involve not consulting others and steamrolling over all other opinions, led to many mistakes.

Leaders are humans too!  They commit their fair share of errors, and Churchill’s decisions at Gallipoli in Turkey, and in Ireland cost thousands of lives. But even these mistakes remain instructive to today’s business leaders.  Data mustn’t be ignored or taken out of context when making crucial decisions.

These, coupled with the fact that he had no place for other points of view (Admiral John Fisher) also led to disastrous decisions in World War I. What probably saved us all was his willingness to admit these were mistakes, an unstoppable faith in his own ability, and an iron resolve and drive to move on.  And as we all know, the rest was history.

Theodore Roosevelt

The best executive has sense enough to pick good people.

The 26th and youngest ever US President in 1901, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt is also considered one of the greatest and most beloved American leaders. Roosevelt’s presidency is characterised by action, and KPIs:  it broke up over 40 monopolies, promoted the conservation of nature, and fought corruption in government offices. 

His support for the construction of the Panama Canal has been cited as an example of the Laissez-faire type of leadership. This is team leadership, a conscious decision to delegate tasks, and empower his team members.  It meant he trusted his team to do their jobs well!   

Roosevelt was open to working with different kinds of people, even if he didn’t see eye to eye with them. He leveraged strengths and complemented weaknesses, to build a cohesive whole working toward the realisation of a vision.  

Rossevelt was open to diversity of views in his team.  He appreciated different points of view, leveraging on different perspectives, and trusted his team enough to delegate and power.  In doing so, he harnessed the power of the team to create magic.  

Sun Tzu

A leader leads by example, not by force.

Chinese military general and war leader Sun Tzu is best known for authoring The Art of WarWhile little else is known about him other than his being born in Ch’i State around 500 BC, many business leaders continue to take their cue from his writings. These writings started becoming popular in Europe in the 1700s, and in the US some 200 years later. 

If the type of leader Sun Tzu was may be inferred from what he wrote, he might be said to have exemplified coaching leadership. This leadership style focuses on the team member.  He takes an in-depth interest and understanding of his team members, and is focused on building everyone to their peak performance.  Sun Tzu says “you have to believe in yourself” and “know yourself and you will win all battles”. 

In relation to this, Sun Tzu says you need to be humane, or know how to relate to your team members as individual human beings, not mere minions to perform a task. Treat your team members as family, as you would your own children, and focus on nurturing, and understanding their individual circumstances.  Believe in them, guide them, coach them as you believe they are capable of coming up with their own solutions. 

Sun Tzu was first and foremost a strategist, so it’s natural that he exhibited traits of the strategic type of leadership. These leaders focus on crafting strategies that creates high performance in their teams.  They leverage on their in-depth understanding, and analysis of each team member, gracefully, and effectively moving each part to fit into the bigger picture of their strategy. 

Lee Kuan Yew

A leader without the vision, to strive to improve things, is no good.

The founding father of modern Singapore and the country’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew  faced the challenges of a nascent republic head-on with his characteristic no-nonsense approach to nation-building. Thanks to his unshakeable resolve, the country has come to take pride of place in the regional and global economy, where it remains to this day.

During his three decades of leadership, Lee Kuan Yew encouraged racial harmony and foreign investments, drove infrastructure development, strengthened the country’s military and successfully eradicated corruption in the government.

As a textbook example of the autocratic type of leadership, Lee Kuan Yew brooked little opposition from his political rivals or the press. It may be reasoned that the prevailing political climate at the time of his rise to power necessitated such strong-willed and decisive action. He may also be seen to embody transformational leadership for driving large-scale, progressive change, as well as visionary leadership, secure, and unstoppable in his vision for a country that not many people share, or can even imagine.

Among the many, vividly demonstrated leadership lessons that business leaders stand to learn from Lee Kuan Yew for generations to come, perhaps the most salient is to never let anything distract you from the fulfilment of your vision. Though he was often criticised for being dictatorial, he stayed his course and masterfully orchestrated the transformation of his country in a single lifetime. 

Indira Ghandi

For they who serve their country, nothing is impossible.

India’s third, and first, only female Prime Minister, Indira Ghandi served two terms beginning in 1966, and again in 1980 until her assassination in 1984. While her administration was plagued by controversy and was enforced at times by dubious means, her determination and single-minded dedication to serving her country continues to inspire people around the world today.

Despite significant personal problems and constant criticism, Mrs Ghandi brought India to recognition on the global stage. Her firm, skillful handling, and mastery of foreign policy, particularly involving the tricky situations in Pakistan and Bangladesh in the 1970s, and her work with the Non-Alignment Movement in the 1980s were major contributions to peace in the region.

Also in spite of being described as cold, aloof, or even rude in private, the public Mrs Ghandi may be said to exemplify the charismatic type of leadership.  The leader’s unique personality is brought to bear on the leadership style or approach. She was much admired for her unwavering tenacity, and remarkable will and ambition to build a strong and dynamic India.    

Nelson Mandela

Lead from the back—and let others believe they are in front.

South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela is celebrated around the world for his fight against apartheid and emerging from his 27-year imprisonment for the cause with the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. A Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1993, he was the archetype of the soft-spoken yet authoritative negotiator he became in his later years.

Like all of us humans, Mandela’s career was often dogged by fodder for critics. His early days in politics favoured armed struggle as a means of achieving racial equality, and his time in office saw the gap between the nation’s rich of both races and the poor continue to widen. Yet, his struggles to do right by all of his people continue to shine through.

Apart from being a sterling example of the cross-cultural type of leadership, “Madiba” was clearly also a transformational and visionary type of leader.  He clearly has given his entire life to driving real change, and it is probably in this leader, Madiba, who most exemplifies resilience in the face of challenges.  

How will you mark your leadership style in this millennium?  

While we may not be battling challenges on the international stage, we are all leaders in our own teams, our organizations, and in our little eco- systems.

Let the leadership and coaching trainers at Kaleidoskope help you become the type of leader you want to be, as well as the leader your organisation needs. Ask us about our leadership training programmes, today. 

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