Researchers are keen on the idea that there are different leadership styles--autocratic, visionary and servant, for instance. Arguably, however, no matter which style you lean on most naturally, when it comes to flexibility, I've come to believe through my personal experiences that there are just two main types of people. You are either a rock or water leader. 

The traits of rock leaders.

Rock leaders, as you might guess, are overwhelmingly firm in their decisions. What they do often serves as a foundation for the behaviors of everyone else, and others recognize their exceptional strength.

Rock leaders also are wonderfully grounded, digging into the soil of previous experience and tradition. This gives them a surety and confidence that inspires others. There is never any doubt about where rock leaders fit, and they usually are the indisputable experts, sticking out in their field. 

A great example of a rock leader is investment guru Warren Buffett. While he's certainly willing to sell his shares when the time is right and to admit wrong turns, he is known for his "buy it and hold it", long-term approach. He is also very routine oriented in many aspects of his life, like grabbing breakfast at McDonald's every day and choosing to remain in his original first home.

The traits of water leaders.

Comparatively, water leaders easily change direction based on what they encounter, constantly reviewing options and new research. They are quick-moving, often having many branches that reach toward multiple goals.

Further, water leaders pick up an astounding amount of resources and information as they go, distributing it in ways that reshape their industries. They are willing to tumble without inhibition into new territory as the opportunity arises, which makes others more willing to take risks, too. 

As an example of a good water leader, I'll point to Elon Musk. Musk has his toes in multiple companies at the same time, works as many hours as possible and doesn't wait for anyone to tell him he can do something. He tweets what he thinks without always thinking through all the ramifications, yet he also relies on partnerships with industry experts or organizations because of the complexities of his ventures. 

Why water leaders often come out on top.

Both rock and water leaders have traits that can serve their businesses and teams exceptionally well. In this sense, neither is necessarily any better than the other. Yet, if you look a little closer, you can see how water leaders can overcome their rock counterparts.

As water leaders stay flexible and move in new directions, they can slowly erode the tradition and expertise of rock leaders, proving that boundaries don't have to stay static. And while pressure or force can break a rigid rock leader, water leaders respond to that pressure by taking a different path rather than crumbling in defeat.

Under the right circumstances, water leaders can find small faults in what the rock leaders have established and then expand what they themselves are doing to create a disruptive force of their own. And what's more, when water leaders band together in quantity, they create new explosive energy. Rather than creating hurdles, they get them out of the way. 

In short, the power of water leaders comes from their fluidity. Their natural, constantly shifting nature enables them to navigate challenges incredibly well.

As an example, consider Steve Jobs and John Sculley, formerly of Apple. The two reportedly sparred over differing approaches--then CEO Sculley dug his heels primarily into current profit lines, but Jobs wanted to focus on future innovation.

Although Jobs was ousted from Apple because of the conflict, he saw his firing as a freeing, golden opportunity and called that time one of the most creative periods of his life. Later, when Apple struggled, leaders at the company brought Jobs back. His close work with designer Jony Ive initiated culturally significant products (e.g., iMac, iPhone) that ultimately saved Apple.

Success depends on both leader types.

None of this means that we don't need rock leaders. It is the rock leaders who often teach water leaders as they journey, who cause the water leaders to pivot in one direction or the other. And it is rock leaders who prevent water leaders from forging new paths too quickly in ways that completely would devastate what is around us.

And consider, too, that even rock leaders sometimes shift, finding a new, beneficial position as the world shakes and changes. This shift doesn't change the essence of who they are. It just means they get to be strong in a different place. And even water leaders have the ability to stop, think and wait, freezing until conditions are right to make their move. The line between the two types of leaders is not so black and white that we cannot understand each other or cooperate.

But knowing which type of leader you are can contribute to your sense of place and purpose. See how you influence and be proud of it, no matter which label you claim as your own.

Published on: Oct 9, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.