To be successful, innovative leaders need to have the characteristics of both arsonists and fire fighters, according to author Paul Sloane. Read on to learn how this apparent dichotomy is possible, and what it means for you as a leader in your organization.

Innovative leaders are comfortable with ambiguity. They know that there are many ways forward. They are evangelical about the vision but agnostic about how to achieve it. They have a clear strategy but are quite prepared to change tactics. They recognise the need for different leadership styles at different times. When it comes to innovative ideas they are alternately arsonists and fire fighters. They go around starting fires under people – challenging them. They ask questions that confront their teams – the kinds of questions that demand answers and actions:

  • Can you find a new route to market?
  • Can you halve our service response time?
  • How can we break into the Chinese market?
  • Can we find a better way to provide this service?
  • Can you design a lighter, cheaper, faster version?

The leader starts many initiatives and then follows up to ask how things are going. The projects that are not succeeding are cut back. If the new product prototype does not please customers, or is not technically feasible or is very costly then the fire is extinguished. Lessons are learnt and the team moves on.

The leader has a restless curiosity to try new things. Some people may find this frustrating and ask, “Why does she keep asking us to try new things and then stop them just when “they are getting interesting?’ The answer is that only by trying lots of different things are we likely to find the radical new initiatives that we need. Not every interesting project can be pursued to completion. Life is too short and resources are limited. It is essential to eliminate the less promising projects so that we can devote resources to those that show the most potential.

Innovative leaders are a little schizophrenic. They strive for success but fear it. They love to win yet they applaud failure. They are coldly analytical some times and hotly passionate at others. They use left brain and right brain techniques. Their management styles are sometimes tight and sometimes loose. They start fires and they put them out.

Paul Sloane is the founder of Destination Innovation, which helps organisations improve innovation. He writes and speaks on lateral thinking and innovation. He is the author of The Innovative Leader: How to Inspire Your Team and Drive Creativity published by Kogan-Page.