Who are innovative leaders? What are their qualities and how do they drive innovation within an organization? Jeffrey Baumgartner provides a tantalizing profile to which we can aspire.
The word “innovator,” to describe an individual, is used far too widely these days. As I have written in the past, business innovation is a collaborative affair that runs from idea, through development to implementation. This process normally involves many people with various expertise. So the notion of a lone innovator simply does not exist.
Usually, when people speak of innovators, what they really mean are “creative thinkers.” in other words, people who are able to generate creative ideas that become the basis of innovations. Sometimes, however, what people mean by “innovator” is what we will call an “innovative leader.” Classic examples of innovative leaders include people like Steve Jobs (CEO of Apple) and Thomas Alva Edison (who commercialiZed electric lighting and many related things). Innovative leaders are creative visionaries who have big ideas and, most importantly, can motivate people around them to turn those ideas into reality.
An innovative leader does not even need to be the person who creates the idea behind an innovation. Often, she simply recognizes a great idea – perhaps devised by a subordinate – and envisions the path that leads to that idea’s becoming a reality. Indeed, I would argue that creative genius is less important in an innovative leader than is the ability to form a vision around an idea or set of ideas. And once she has formed that vision, she needs to be able to share with employees, suppliers and business partners the vision as well as enthusiasm for turning that vision into a reality.
Creative genius is less important in an innovative leader than is the ability to form a vision around an idea or set of ideas.
Imagination and communication
In order to achieve this, the innovative leader needs a powerful imagination and excellent communications skills. She also needs to have confidence in her team and their ability to work together to achieve that dream.
The innovative leader is not a micro-manager. She focuses on the big picture and works with creative thinkers who can add to that vision and make it greater. Micro-managers, on the other hand, tend to stifle creativity and focus far too much on the details – causing them and their teams to lose sight of the big picture.
Perhaps most importantly, the innovative leader needs to be able to communicate her vision and generate enthusiasm for it. Her team needs to be able to see the vision themselves and be willing to invest their own time and resources into making it happen. Innovative leaders know that leadership by demand is far less effective at encouraging creativity and innovation than is leadership through motivation and inspiration.
Ideally, team members will also be making creative contributions to the project. After all, innovative projects are almost never comprised of a single idea. Although they may have got their start from a solo idea, in the end they are the result of dozens or more ideas, ideas on improving the original concept, ideas on how to implement it, ideas to solve problems as the concept is developed and so on.
In October 2020, Pact launched AfrIdea, a regional innovation program supported by the U.S. Department of State. This was geared towards unlocking the potential of West African entrepreneurs, social activists, and developers in uncovering solutions to post-COVID challenges. Through a contest, training, idea-a-thon and follow-on funding, they sought to activate a network of young entrepreneurs and innovators from Guinea, Mali, Senegal, and Togo to source and grow innovative solutions. Learn their seven-stage process in the AfrIdea case study.
Willing to kill when necessary
An innovate leader needs to recognize when her project is not working and be willing to kill it, no matter how much emotional investment she has put into it. She knows that if the project will not generate sufficient value to warrant continued development, she would do better to invest her energy, resources and time in a new innovative project. This is something many people find difficult to do with pet projects.
Innovative leaders are not just CEOs. They can be team leaders, division managers and others who manage people and projects. However, for a team leader to be an innovative leader, she very likely works under an innovative leader of a CEO. She certainly works in an organization with a culture of innovation. Because if she does not have that culture of innovation, she will not risk trying to realise crazy ideas and she will find it extremely difficult to motivate her people to invest their time in her innovative projects. Indeed, without a culture of innovation, the innovative team leader will most likely leave the company for another one with a more receptive culture. In some cases, she might just run off and set up her own company – taking her team with her!
Lastly, it is worth noting that innovative leaders are people who have an expertise relevant to their innovative projects. When accountants or financial experts are put in charge of car companies, they are seldom innovative leaders. They understand the finances behind the products, but not the products. When engineers or car designers, on the other hand, are in charge of car companies, they have the knowledge and experience necessary to become innovative leaders for their companies. Of course that does not guarantee they will be innovative leaders! The vision and motivation are also critical.
Of course this holds both ways. No one would ever think of putting an automotive engineer in charge of a financial services business!
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
About the author
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.
Photo: Young business person from Shutterstock.com