Ask someone who inspires them as a leader and you may hear a reply like “my parents” or the name of a former teacher, former boss, a sports hero or someone they read about from history.

Leadership is a fundamental trait and a high-level skill that many of the highest paid and most notable people in the world are known for. It shows up in various forms and across many different areas of our lives and culture.

For those in multinational companies, governments, educational organisations, or civic, community and non-profit groups, leadership can be one of the most difficult skills to learn, yet critical to have in times of uncertainty, economic unrest or change.

For example, you may have seen one of the top movies  this year, The King’s Speech, which won four Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards.

The film is based on the issues that stem from the death of King George V of England who died on Jan 20, 1936.

The very strong and respected King is to be replaced in leadership by his son, Prince Edward, who ascends the throne as Edward VIII. But on Dec 11, 1936, Edward VIII abdicates to marry his mistress, divorcee Wallis Simpson.

Prince Edwards’ brother, Prince Albert, is suddenly in the limelight as the next leader of the British Empire and is crowned King George VI at the coronation on May 12, 1937. His journey is a painful one. However it shapes him as the inspirational, honest and capable leader the people require with World War II with Germany looming.

When researching for this article, I asked a number of business leaders from different industries and countries for their input on who they considered were influential and inspiring.

Here are some of their answers, which have been organised into categories. It is obviously not an exhaustive list; you will have your own favourites and there are other people who could be on the list too.   

Historical leaders

Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, George Washington, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Ghandi, Queen Victoria, King George IV, Queen Elizabeth I, Eva Peron and Mother Teresa.

Political leaders

Franklin Roosevelt, Mao Zedong, Sir Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, Indira Gandhi, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, Deng Xiaoping, Lee Kuan Yew, Nelson Mandela and Hu Jintao.  

Military leaders

Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, Horatio Nelson, Edwin Rommel, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf

Discovery and adventure leaders

Marco Polo, Zheng He, Christopher Columbus, Ponce De Leon, Captain James Cook, Ernest Shackelton, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Charles Kingsford Smith, Sir Edmund Hillary, Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong

Sporting leaders

Babe Ruth, Donald Bradman, Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron, Vince Lombardi, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Billy Jean King, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Roger Federer, Li Na, Sam Stosur

Arts/entertainment leaders

Charlie Chaplin, Houdini, Clark Gable, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Betty Davis, Richard Burton, Marlon Brando, Sivaji Ganesan, Marilyn Monroe, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Dame Maggie Smith, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Dame Julie Andrews, Elton John, Bruce Lee, Michael Jackson, Anthony Hopkins, Dame Judi Dench, Madonna, Dame Helen Mirren, James Cameron, Celine Dion, Kylie Minogue, Alanis Morisette, Shah Rukh Khan, Jackie Chan, Lady Gaga

Activists/humanitarian leaders

Helen Keller, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Brigette Bardot, Sir Bob Geldorf, Princess Diana, Diane Fossey, Bono, Dame Anita Roddick, Michael J Fox, Al Gore.

Spiritual/religious leaders

Jesus, the Buddha (Prince Siddhartha Gautama), Moses, Confucius, Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama.

Entrepreneurial leaders

Ben Franklin, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, J. Paul Getty, Thomas Watson, Bill Hewlett, Aristotle Onassis, Dave Packard, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Sir Richard Branson, Oprah Winfrey, JK Rowling, Rupert Murdoch, Mark Zuckerberg

Science and medical leaders

Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Dr Jonas Salk.