19, 739 Definitions of Leadership (or Baking a Cake with One Ingredient)

In the past 15 months, 19,739 people (and counting) have responded to a discussion forum on LinkedIn. The question posed was rather simple, “What is the single-most important quality for a leader to have?” Since that time I have discovered that while the question is simple, the answer is not!

Here was the gist of my reply (an approximation since I don’t have the time to scroll through 19,739 entries to find my response):

I believe you are asking the wrong question. This question is akin to asking’ what is the single most important ingredient when you make a cake?’ There isn’t one! A great cake is the result of the artful combination of several ingredients. In the same way, a leader is a composite of many ingredients and like cakes, no two are exactly the same. As there are different cakes for different occasions, there are also different leaders for different situations.  A good cake requires several important ingredients. Attempting to boil it down to just one ingredient means that your leadership cake is merely butter, sugar or flour.

Reductionism is a tempting exercise because it allows us to sort things (life) into neat little boxes. However, by themselves, those parts can never tell the whole story. So today’s blog has a simple message – it is a call to embrace the complexity of leadership. Effective leader are the result of a complex recipe. And like momma’s secret sauce, we cannot define exactly what makes it so great by attempting to find one magic ingredient.

Leadership is best defined by the sum of its’ parts. It requires a pound of passion. It requires a generous cup of concern for people. However, without a dollop of discipline, passion and people-skills simply become misguided efforts. As you think of the ingredients of good leadership, you will discover that the leadership system is interconnected and complex. And somewhat like a good cake, it is difficult to summarize in one word.

But despite this complexity, we somehow know when we encounter a good leader. Like a great cake, we just know that it’s good when we taste it. So one word? I don’t think so. But if you provide me with a few good ingredients, I’m in!


Head ShotJeff Suderman is a futurist, professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He works with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational Future-Readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman

If you are curious about this LinkedIn forum you can find it by clicking here (membership required). If you do so, please help me feel important by scrolling through the 19, 739 responses and ‘liking’ my post!

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The Problem with ‘7 Steps’ and ‘3 Things’: Embracing Complexity

My news feed is filled with articles that provide easy answers. Do these headlines sound familiar?

  • Seven steps to solving workplace conflict
  • Three things which will change your life
  • Four ways to raise healthy children
  • Five ingredients that will change your diet
  • You won’t believe #9!

Unfortunately, catchy headlines work! I often delve into these articles only to be disappointed with their content. I fear that this editorial trend is creating a culture of over-simplified solutions based on pop-culture principles. The core problem with catchy headlines is that most of the promised solutions trivialize complexity.

In his seminal book, The Fifth Disclipline, Peter Senge reminds us that the complexity of our daily interactions are increasing. As a result, he proposes that effectiveness requires that we identify the structures which underlie complex situations. This is called systems thinking and  requires us to evaluate how different parts interrelate over time and how they relate to other systems. For example, disciplining an employee for tardiness is ineffective unless it considers related factors such as the impact of their special-needs child or an addiction problem. Addressing an issue like this requires that we evaluate the individuals system.

These questions may help you as you seek to identify and assess the systems which are at work in your complex world.

  1. Do we thrive amidst rules or principles? Catchy headlines tend to rely on rules. I believe success is derived from being principle driven versus rules driven. However, understanding principles take work.
  2. Do successful people or organizations adopt or adapt? What works in one place doesn’t always work in another. Successful people learn from others, but they always adapt these lessons to ensure they fit their own situation. Adapting requires that we identify the principles of success rather than duplicating someone else’s practices (see #1!).
  3. Are people or organizations like gears or snowflakes? A colleague recently referred to his clients as snowflakes. They all appear similar from a distance, but when viewed closely, every one is unique and different. The snowflake embodies the concept of complexity and why we should challenge easy answers.
  4. Is your environment changing (open) or unchanging (closed)? Rules and prescribed solutions work when there is little change in an environment. However, there are very few closed systems in our world! When you acknowledge your changing environment, you will be forced to look for patterns over time, see the big picture, identify complex interactions, and validate your understanding of ‘what causes what’ (Hughes & Beatty, 2005, p. 74).  

I was tempted to title this blog, “The one thing your MBA didn’t teach you”, but I had to follow my own advice! Successful people are able to synthesize complexity and that cannot be accomplished in ‘seven steps’ or by doing ‘three things’.


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Jeff Suderman is a professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and their FutureReadiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman


Hughes, R., & Beatty, K. (2005). Becoming a strategic leader your role in your organization’s enduring success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.