Innovation Takes More than Great Leadership . . . Great INNOVATION Leadership


Innovation is made possible when the environment inside an organization is structured to encourage, reward, and promote it.  It, not surprisingly, is a question of Leadership.  Many people teach leadership competencies and to me, there is often a lot of similarity among them.

In my Dimensions of Personal Leadership class, we tend to speak a lot about what behaviors and values we most appreciate in the best leaders we have encountered.  From the dozens of groups who have gone through it, here is a list of leadership skills and values we think are most important:

XLC Leadership Skills

  • Heroic, Courageous
  • Humble, Serving
  • Transparent, Authentic
  • Decisive, Confident
  • Competent Learner and Problem Solver
  • Moral, Ethical
  • Consistent, Trustworthy
  • Ingenious, Visionary

This omits common managing skills (involving planning, directing and controlling) which are important, but we view them differently from pure leadership traits.    I don’t know if you like this list, but I can say it does seem to resonate with a wide array of thoughtful program participants we have seen.  For my money, this is a pretty daunting list when you consider what it takes to truly live up to each and every one of them.

So, are these managing skills enough for your organization?  Not if building a culture of innovation is of vital importance to you.  Hiring smart people with the skills to creatively solve problems is not sufficient either.  We also need to create an environment where we have the right bias between status quo and new program creation, between short and long-term, and prudent risk-taking.   A culture of innovation demands a set of leadership skills, values and behaviors as well.   And here is my list:

Innovation Leadership Skills

  • Curiosity, Questioning.   People need to see their leaders as being unsatisfied with the status quo, constantly thinking about and asking why?  Is that the best we can do? How do others do this?  What if we tried another way?    The more they see you are curious, and questioning of yourself and the organization, the more willing they will be.
  • Bias Toward Risk-Taking. Innovation is about taking risks.   None of us want to do stupid things, but trying anything that hasn’t been done before involves risk.   You need to be willing to accept a certain level of it to permit new ideas to flow, and to be tried.  Sometimes trial-and-error is a reasonable aspect of the creation process (provided we learn from our failures and adapt).   We must also carefully consider how we manage reasonable failures –rewarding that can say a lot to your team about the importance of trying new things.
  • Infectious Optimism, Positivity.  Innovation leaders believe in themselves, their teams, and their ability to accomplish almost anything we set our minds to. Some of us are idea killers (especially when we start bringing up all the ways something might go wrong).   Others among us are so imbued with confidence; it can rub off on others.   Letting others see that we have faith in them is crucial to our kids.  It is also crucial to us as adults.
  • Passionate about what you do, rather than keeping score. When I look at or read about Steve Jobs, I am struck by how insanely focused he was about delivering an awesome consumer experience.  He never stopped talking about how it could be made better.   While I’m sure at some point he needed to pay attention to financial results, but you get the sense these were important, but did not control his drive to achieve better product features and benefits.   Founder Leaders (like Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Sergey Brin, and Jobs), take their business personally, and it shows. 
  • Willingness to Sacrifice Core Business.  We are often fearful about introducing new products, services, or technologies when it is possible these might cannibalize sales of current products – hurting our short-term financial picture.   This strategy is often problematic.  Just look at Blockbuster (that failed to introduce mail or on-line delivery because they competed with their traditional brick-and-mortar system) or Eastman Kodak (that developed early digital photography technology, but kept it on the shelf so as not to harm its lucrative photo finishing service).  Innovation Leaders are always willing to bring our something they feel is new and better in they believe that gains there will outweigh any losses elsewhere.   (Apple is a great example as they regularly bring out new versions of phone and MP3 devices that render prior versions obsolete.)       
  • Insatiable appetite for the new and better.  Never being comfortable with the status quo, like you were on fire if things weren’t changing fast enough is another aspect.    This impatience could be maddening for people inside the organization at times, but sets a tone that we need to always be moving, looking out over the horizon, and paying attention to different things.
  • Sees change as EXCITING, not feared.  For some of us, change is a problem (or it causes problems) and is something to be feared.  Innovation leaders LOVE it and see the chaos as invigorating.  They are energized when things are moving, and they are actively excited to hear about it in others.

Other Related Sources

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, 2011, ISBN 978-1-4516-4855-3.

Podcast on Innovation Leadership, by Phil McKinney

These Days It Takes Innovation Leadership Skills If You Want to Have a Successful Career, by Phil McKinney

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