Steve Rush

Steve Rush is the author of “Leadership Cake: A Recipe for Success in Leadership”.

Develop Your Own Recipe to Leadership Success

Steve Rush

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Throughout our life, we will have experienced leadership; it has become synonymous with our boss or business leaders, yet those individuals represent a minuscule proportion of what we can describe as leadership today. During the last 15 years, many have become associated with the principle, that leadership has a more senior hierarchy than management. In this article I will share an alternative approach that will help you and those you lead, with a fresh, contextual and personal way in which people of all roles, gender and age can recognise leadership in themselves.
In today’s ever morphing corporate world, the focus on and scrutiny of leaders is more prevalent than ever before, due to the way we share information and of course, the social media.
Organisations have invested billions of dollars in the recruitment and retention of their leadership population. In my work as an executive coach and leadership development advisor, I found that many individuals and organisations would surround themselves with intricate psychometric tests, models and scorecards, but were often too close to the business to evaluate themselves effectively and succinctly. I spent a number of years researching the most common attributes of great leaders. In doing so, I developed a philosophy of leadership that was not a product nor a model, but simply a metaphorical way of enhancing self-awareness in a fun, scalable, transferrable and diverse way.
There were two events that helped shape this approach. In the first instance, the philosophy was born while considering how I would share with a stuffy, dysfunctional CEO, that he had some of these essential ingredients, too much of some, not enough of others – at the same time as my wife was baking a cake. As she was calling out her recipe, it dawned on me that the leaders who possessed essential ingredients could also be described as a cake. This CEO loved the concept and it helped them to develop their recipe.
Watching my little boys play football, those substitutes on the side of the pitch eagerly awaiting a call from the coach were becoming disheartened as the game progressed. A child onlooker, who was not part of the team, recognised that their spirits were low. She encouraged one to kick a football with her, the others followed soon after. She had a strong leadership role in showing interest and communicating effectively. When one boy was called upon, his spirits were high and he had a great game, directly attributable to her leadership. It was from these experiences I was inspired to share the philosophy of Leadership Cake.
The philosophy of Leadership Cake explores that leadership is a behaviour, not a job. The principle is that leadership is created like a cake; it’s a whole creation, born out of a list of ingredients, all of which are essential to create the perfect cake. It is a metaphor for you, and the ingredients and construction are you and your style. The recipe will help you focus on becoming a great leader. Get your ingredients, mixing and baking right, and you become a great leader; get them wrong and you (and your cake) can taste awful.

Recipe for “Cake”

When it comes to creating a recipe for leadership, there are about as many ideas as there are cookbooks for cakes, but there are some essential ingredients in your Leadership Cake that you can’t do without.
All cakes have a few essential ingredients. Most cakes need flour, sugar, water and butter; otherwise it’s not a cake, right? Just as if you were baking a real cake, you can’t leave out the core ingredients in your Leadership Cake. We will discuss these essential ingredients later, but where do we find the recipe so we at least know what to put into it?
The recipe for success can often be found within our experience and those who were leaders before us. My mother’s recipe for cake has been passed down over generations and adapted and modified based on experience, access to new ingredients and the change in one’s palate.
Leadership has evolved over time too. There has been a visible and audible shift from a more dominant, directive and autocratic leader to that of today’s leader, who is most likely to be better equipped. There are leaders who we may have viewed as role models twenty years ago, who by not updating their ingredients, may now seem outdated and stale.
Is there such thing as the perfect leader or perfect Leadership Cake? Of course not! We are all susceptible to emotion, thoughts and feelings, and as such, we cannot be robotic in our actions. When faced with certain circumstances or events in our lives, we react. Our reaction will dictate our outcome to any event, so understanding what ingredients mix well with others is an essential element in baking the right kind of Leadership Cake.

Essential Ingredients for Leadership Cake


All good cooks adapt recipes that are most effective yet simple to follow. Leaders are challenged by lots of tasks, actions and people to be lead. I want to break down the key essential ingredients and at the same time, reach out to those who are unsure about their own leadership role, irrespective of what your role is.
There are four essential leadership ingredients. While these are essential, they are not the only four. However, without them it’s not a Leadership Cake.
C – Communication
A – Authenticity
K – Knowledge
E – Empathy
When you look at some of the world’s greatest leaders, one common ingredient they share is that they are all exceptional communicators. They have the ability to convey a message, resonating and engaging deeply with their audience consistently.
The irony is that it is often the case that we are not taught to be great communicators during our early years. Early communication is a learned behaviour taught to us by people around us, such as parents and siblings. If they were good communicators, there is likelihood of us being good as well.
The greatest communicators in leadership have a sixth sense that also focuses on what others may do and how they do it while interpreting the reasons why.
I call these individuals Communication Adaptors. They have the ability to adapt their style, pace or tone to vary the message based not on their message, but based on the person or group with whom they are communicating, in the blink of an eye.
Communication is essential to help your authenticity. So is authenticity a choice? Is it a trait? I don’t think so. Authentic behaviour in leadership means unique or original. One of the easiest ways to mess up your cake is by trying to sound or behave like somebody else or by mimicking a co-worker. Authenticity is another core ingredient in our Leadership Cake mixture. Leaders became good leaders and good leaders became great leaders by learning ’how to’ from all their interactions with people, in particular those leaders who inspired them.
What makes authentic leaders stand out from others is that everything they do, they actually believe in it wholeheartedly. They also demonstrate conviction in everything they say. This is all delivered with humility.
When leaders physically demonstrate humility and belief in what they say and do, they create instant trust and belief with their people, stakeholders and clients.
In meetings and boardrooms, you may have heard that knowledge is power. Well, knowledge is at its most powerful when you or your businesses share that knowledge where appropriate. Occasionally, when somebody has more knowledge than others, it can create a sense of technical hierarchy. In every organisation, the broader the distribution of each team member’s knowledge, the better equipped the organisation can be at responding with agility to different situations and scenarios.
Knowledge is an essential ingredient in your cake. As a leader, you don’t have to be an expert on the subject. That is not what leadership knowledge is about. To be effective, you merely need enough information to understand the business. It’s the perfect balancing ingredient in your Leadership Cake. It becomes easier for people to trust someone who understands them and the challenges within their business.
Empathy in your Leadership Cake binds the other ingredients together. It will come as no surprise to you that without truly understanding the tasks, situations, and the people who create, execute and lead them, your own Leadership Cake is not a really a cake.
A dense and flat cake will crumble easily and not be very palatable. Much like your Leadership Cake will taste without empathy. It’s ironic that empathy is an emotion that in past business eras was seen as a sign of weakness. It was seen as an emotion not appropriate in a strong leadership environment, but has become a key ingredient in leadership and also in your basic cake mix.
One way to receive information is to give information first, such as family hobbies, and then ask, “So what about you?” The better affinity you have with another, the easier it is to understand and empathise with them.

Let Them Eat Cake

While your cake may taste just great right now, you can bet that some other leader’s cake has a nice juicy filling or lovely sweet icing that could tempt your most trusted and loyal staff away from you and your business. The fruit or creamy filling is a metaphor for personal development and this is in the very center of your cake. Sharing your Leadership Cake with your team will help create a great, memorable experience and provide a differentiator between leaders.
Leadership agility and self-awareness in developing themselves, helps keep hold of the team they lead. Great teams share consistency and longevity as they grow together; learning from one another about the strengths they each possess. Based on my research and experience, the greatest gift any leader can give is the gift of learning. The deeper and fuller your development ethos (your filling) the more palatable a leader you will be.

The Icing in your Cake – Your Brand

When you visit an artisan cake shop, you observed a few cakes that looked the same on the outside, but there are subtle differences that make them unique.
As a leader, it’s the subtle differences that make you stand out. The icing on your Leadership Cake is what is on display. Others will make a quick judgment based on what they see and smell from you and your icing.
So when I refer to icing, I want you to think of yourself as the well formed cake that has been put together and baked with care and that your icing is what others can see. Let’s put it another way, what is it you stand for?

The After Taste


When you’ve eaten cake; what’s left behind are the crumbs, what was it that made you enjoy it — how it made you feel maybe? Our taste buds are covered in between 2,000 and 8,000 tiny receptors that tell us if the taste was bitter, sweet or sour.
You create the same experience and effect when the people who follow you have tasted your Leadership Cake. If their experience was a sweet one, they may use that part of their brain to recall those emotions and feelings to remember your cake; it may provide them with thoughts of comfort and indeed shape their own recipe for Leadership Cake. You create experiences also if the taste of your cake was bitter or sour; the same recall may happen, but this time the taste would have been somewhat different and thus their memory of that time is unlikely to be positive.

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