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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