The Main Ingredient of Leadership and How to Get More of It

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 17, Issue No. 10a
February 1, 2019

By Dan Coughlin


What do leaders have in common?

It turns out to be not very much. There are male leaders and female leaders; tall and short leaders; loud and quiet leaders, extroverted and introverted leaders; rationalist, idealist, artisan, and shepherd leaders; leaders with big, fancy titles at big corporations and leaders with no titles who do volunteer work; famous leaders known by millions and family leaders known by very few people. I could keep going with the differences between leaders, but I think you get the idea.

So what do they have in common? What is the basic prerequisite of leadership?

A Definition of Leadership and Common Fallacies of Leadership

Let’s start with a definition. Definitions help define what is meant within a word and what is outside of that word. I define leadership as “influencing how other people think so they make decisions that improve results in a sustainable way.”

Based on that definition, just having a title doesn’t make a person a leader, regardless of how big the title. This is a common fallacy to think that a person is automatically a leader because of his or her title.

Just having a particular talent doesn’t make the person a leader, regardless of how great the talent.

Just having particular physical attributes doesn’t make the person a leader, regardless of the person’s height or looks or build.

Just having certain educational degrees doesn’t make the person a leader, regardless of how fancy-sounding the degree.

Just having a certain amount of money doesn’t make the person a leader, regardless of how much money is in the person’s bank account.

Just having a charismatic personality or calmness under pressure doesn’t make the person a leader, regardless of how great the personality.

The Main Ingredient: Wisdom

Drum roll please.

The main ingredient all leaders have in common is wisdom, and wisdom is available to everyone.

Titles, talents, physical attributes, educational degrees, money, and charisma don’t guarantee leadership, but they also don’t prevent leadership. They are not connected to the main ingredient needed to influence people to think in ways that they make decisions that improve results in a sustainable way.

Wisdom is the necessary ingredient. Wisdom is the perspective you have developed on different topics over the course of your lifetime. Your perspective is the ingredient you have to begin making yourself into a leader. Just as meals have recipes and those recipes need certain ingredients, leadership has a recipe and needs certain ingredients. The main ingredient in the recipe of becoming a leader is your wisdom, your perspective on different topics.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had well-developed wisdom on civil rights and fairness and justice.

Oprah Winfrey developed wisdom on empowering people to live the lives they wanted to live.

John F. Kennedy developed wisdom on when not to use nuclear weapons and on volunteerism.

Mother Theresa developed wisdom on the importance of caring for the poorest of the poor.

My parents developed wisdom on the long-term importance of education.

Two Key Questions

What topics have you developed wisdom on over your life time?

What is your perspective on each of those topics?

Your answers to those two questions are the basis for your leadership in those areas. You can use your perspective to begin influencing other people. If you don’t have a clear perspective on a topic, then no matter how charismatic you are you will not be an effective leader. You can’t make a cookie without the necessary ingredients.

How to Develop More Wisdom

Having wisdom does not complete your work as a leader, it starts your work as a leader. You still have to effectively deliver your wisdom to other people. In this article I’m just focusing on the starting point.

If you really want to be an effective leader on a given topic, then start with a topic you have so much passion for you will immerse yourself into it.

What topic do you want to really develop your perspective on? Is it parenting, managing people in an organization, building great electronic devices, making quality financial decisions, teaching young children, or something else? 35 years ago I determined that I was passionate about learning how to help other people achieve whatever they wanted to achieve. I was so passionate about this topic of individual and group performance that I’ve never tired of learning about it.

Recently I read biographies on Bill Belichick, Robin Williams, and Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Belichick studied how to build winning football teams from a very young age. Robin Williams immersed himself into the world of comedy and acting. Fred Rogers’ passion was the development of young children.

Find a topic you are so passionate about that you are willing to pour yourself into it for the long term.

Once you choose your topic then read as much as you can about it, talk with as many other people as you can about it, take notes, reflect on what you’ve learned, and discern the key ideas that you want to move forward with on that topic. Those ideas or processes or facts or stories or experiences make up your perspective. They are the foundation of your wisdom on that topic.

If you want more wisdom, then keep immersing yourself in the topic. Keep sharpening and honing and improving your perspective. That is how you increase the ingredient for even better leadership. Fully invest yourself in the development of your wisdom.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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