Paper Boats Leading Each Other

Three Types of Leaders

Leaders come in many shapes and forms, across all levels of an organization. An endless amount of (excellent) literature exists attempting to categorize types of leaders. With some trepidation, I will add another voice to the mix.

Human nature drives us to group and attach labels to things. This comes with both benefits and drawbacks, especially when applied to people. For good, it can foster better understanding, collaboration, and empathy. For bad, it can generalize, marginalize, or discriminate. I hope to accomplish the former while avoiding the latter.

In my experience, leaders often fall into one or more of the following buckets:

  • Execution Leaders
  • Glue Leaders
  • Visionary Leaders

Let’s explore further, focusing on the role each type serves in an organization.

Execution Leaders

Execution Leaders often arise from highly-skilled individual contributors. People who demonstrate excellence at a particular task or discipline are often asked to guide a team and develop new versions of themselves. Many leaders get their start here.

(Quick note: Excellence at doing does not guarantee excellence at leading. The challenge of evolving from a ‘doer’ to a ‘leader’ is covered more thoroughly in this article: The Two Leaps of Leadership)

Successful Execution Leaders tend to be detail-oriented, with strong organizational skills. They focus on (1) efficiency with tasks and (2) success with outcomes, for both themselves and their team. They stay closely connected with the performance of their team, providing quick guidance or correction to avoid derailment.

Execution Leaders serve on the front-lines of an organization. Most have strong-subject-matter expertise. That makes them integral to both day-to-day activities and projects. Without them, the engine would stop.

Their success tends to be straightforward to quantify and measure, usually revolving around team delivery. Some examples:

  • Complete task X on project Y by date Z
  • Deliver 300 widgets with 0 defects and within budget
  • Support 80 trainings in the month of May, with 90% customer satisfaction

Execution Leaders may be found at all levels of an organization, but most often in junior levels of management. Every organization is different though. Even executives may be execution-focused.

Glue Leaders

Glue Leaders are harder to define and quantify, but nonetheless are essential to the health and culture of an organization. Glue Leaders focus on:

  1. Resolving conflict
  2. Driving clarity out of confusion

Conflict exists every day at every organization. It is not (usually) defined as people yelling or throwing things at each other. Instead, conflict manifests from lack of alignment or clarity. A common example – two or more parties disagree on approach or outcome, resulting in frustration, delay, or subpar delivery.

Bad leaders create or intensify this conflict. Bad leaders draw lines in the sand and take defensive positions. Even worse, a bad leader might ignore the conflict completely. Problems rarely disappear on their own.

Glue Leaders work to bridge those gaps, serving as cross-team connective tissue for an organization (hence the ‘glue’). They tend to be people-focused and excellent listeners. They actively hunt for lack of alignment or clarity (as opposed to ignoring it). Glue Leaders do not take sides, but are seekers of the truth – focusing objectively on finding the right solution and then getting everyone on board. This takes patience and perseverance, especially if alignment is far apart or emotions are raw.

Successful Glue Leaders usually are excellent communicators, especially in one-on-one or small group settings. They cut through confusion and tension with positivity. Their objectivity builds trust. People gravitate to Glue Leaders when <blank> hits the fan. In times of crisis, they inspire a cool-headed approach that leads to resolution.

These qualities do not easily lend themselves to a job description or even measurement. At most organizations though, recognizing the Glue Leaders is easy. Without them, problems turn into chaos.

Glue Leaders can be found at every level of an organization, but often concentrate in the middle layers of management.

Visionary Leaders

Visionary Leaders focus on the big picture or big ideas. They drive strategy or direction for an entire discipline, department, or organization. They embrace innovation, pushing the envelope to realize new or untapped value.

Perhaps less obviously, Visionary Leaders must be effective (and even ruthless) with prioritization. They must recognize and eliminate low value work to maximize firepower on the most valuable work.

Visionary Leaders are often excellent and charismatic speakers, in order to sell their vision. However, speaking and communicating are not the same thing. Effective Visionary Leaders drive a clear picture with clear expectations for the intended audience to rally behind.

Pure Visionary Leaders may be unconcerned or even uncomfortable with day-to-day details (leaving that to Execution and Glue Leaders). They remain focused on driving the big-picture goals, and identifying the correct measures of success and failure.

Simply having ideas is not enough to be a Visionary Leader. Success of a Visionary Leader is measured by their:

  • Accuracy in choosing the right direction, based on business value
  • Effectiveness in driving a team, department, or entire organization towards that vision
  • Speed in identifying and correcting the wrong direction

Visionary Leaders frequently exist at higher levels of management.


First – beware generalizations, including articles like this. People and leaders do not easily fit in a box, nor should they be. Many leaders embody qualities across multiple ‘types’.

Other (likely better) characterizations of leaders exist as well. Resources like this are not canon. They are a starting point for conversation or self-reflection.

Second – recognize that no one type of leader is inherently more important than another. Each type can exist at any level or pay scale. Each type can serve as a mentor or inspiration for others. A healthy organization employs all three types and understands that they work in tandem:

  • Without Execution Leaders, work does not get accomplished
  • Without Glue Leaders, conflict festers leading to low morale and poor outcomes
  • Without Visionary Leaders, organizations stagnate or fail

Third – reflect on your strengths. Embrace and foster them! Understand how to leverage those strengths to even greater value at your organization. For example, if you embody the attributes of a Glue Leader, where are there opportunities to leverage those skills further?

Fourth – reflect on what qualities you may not have (yet). Be searingly honest with yourself. Personal growth is wonderful – but do not confuse what you aspire to be with where you currently are. Work towards the skills you want. Seek and learn from those who embody those skills. It does not happen by magic (i.e., you cannot transform into a Visionary Leader overnight).

We are all works in progress. I wish you well in your continued journey.

© 2024 Aaron Balchunas
Lucid Resource content is free to use and distribute under two conditions:
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