Most leaders are blind leaders of innovation. While innovation processes are useful, innovation leadership is the lost art whose conscious practice can make all the difference.

Any practice can be called an “art” that involves managing a minimum of 3 variables. Innovation leadership is an art because it involves four behavioural dimensions which have, until recently, remained hidden. While we are probably familiar with Sun Tzu’s and Marcus Aurelius’s maxims on the importance of self-knowledge, the psychology of innovation leadership has not been available in a practical form that could help leaders and organizations.

The 4 Innovation Leadership Behaviours (ILBs)

For innovation to occur in an organization, you need a mix of at least four generic types of Innovating Leadership Behaviors – Creators, Translators, Stabilizers and Navigators. When planned for, encouraged and balanced correctly they can promote and deliver continuous innovation.

  • Creators: provide the source of new, disruptive ideas.
  • Translators: Connect new ideas to new opportunities
  • Stabilizers: Build quality delivery systems for products and services.
  • Navigators: Anticipate what’s coming, know when to get in, when to get out, who to involve and how to manage it.

These Innovating Leadership Behaviours are extreme stereotypes and I usually find that leaders’ profiles have relative proportions of all four in their own characteristic portfolio depending on the limitations of their experience, work environment and their natural work preferences.

Blind drivers of innovation

Understanding innovation leadership is a bit like driving a car. At present, most organizations manage their psychology of innovation like drivers of cars who happen to be blind. It is possible to become relatively successful at leading an organization through the medium of traditional performance measures. These are much like the cues that a blind driver uses to stay in the correct side of the street. By listening to the sound cues of irregular bumping of tires over “cat’s eyes” (reflectors) on one side of the car, and the screeching noise of the other side of the car grinding along the side of the oncoming traffic or stationary vehicles or building, a crude form of progress can be managed; even if joining traffic is problematic.

Every year, there are stories of blind drivers in remote rural areas (usually with a child or drunk giving instructions from the passenger seat) being chased and halted by astounded traffic police. It clearly can be done, and is being done, more or less: but does it make sense? And is it acceptable?

Not being in control of your own innovation leadership behavior as a leader is like leading your team or organization as though it is a car that you choose to drive with your eyes closed. Most people have no idea what their innovation leadership profile is. They are in effect, blind leaders of innovation.

We are probably all familiar with the idea that it is not what leaders say, but how leaders actually behave that has the most impact on organizations, and that it is their behavior that sends the strongest messages and provides the most powerful cues as to what defines successful performance in the organization.

The key to successful leadership of innovation begins with understanding:

  • The 4 Innovation Leadership Behaviours (ILB),
  • The limitations of where you are now (in terms of your actual ILB profile
  • The nature of the challenge (in terms of your Preferred ILB profile), and
  • Identifying the biggest behavioural shift between the actual and preferred ILB profiles, understanding what this means and being hungry enough to want to do something about it.

For some leaders, the idea of developing an understanding of their own ILB profiles (actual and preferred) can be intimidating, much as primitive tribes were afraid that photography would steal their souls, or that to study and seek to understand the behavioral patterns might destroy the power of a secret formula by exposing it. But this knowledge is essential, and if you have it then it becomes possible to ask yourself:

  • What will it take to move out of efficiency strategies into effectiveness strategies?
  • What can I contribute to making this organisation more successful?
  • What kind of innovation leadership should I be working on?
  • How can I develop myself to make a difference, and become more effective? and
  • Just who is missing in this organization?