Leaders have dual roles when managing innovation. In a bottom-up role, they stimulate innovative results as they facilitate ideas and initiative coming from individuals and teams. In a top-down role, leaders are the primary means for the organization to realize its innovation goals and strategies. A fundamental challenge is to balance these two roles.

My doctoral thesis is coming up. In September I will defend four years of work dealing with leadership and innovation. The interest in these topics is ever growing. Many leaders struggle to find ways to stimulate creativity and innovation in their organizations. Because of this, I will focus my next articles on the topic of leadership.

Leaders are the main means for the organization to realize it’s innovation goals and strategies.

The goal of this article is to mount the canvas on the frame—to provide an overview of the topic of leadership and innovation. To do this, I will conceptualize two leadership roles in innovation ventures. First, leaders have bottom-up role in which they help facilitate the ideas and initiatives of their team members. Second, leaders are the main means for the organization to realize it’s innovation goals and strategies. Thus, they have a top-down role as being managers of these goals.

The romantic conception of the creative act

First however, it should be noted that some view innovation as something that simply cannot be managed. Progress in innovative work is often non-linear and unpredictable—thus leaders should be seen as only one source of influence on the outcome. For example, Mumford, Scott, Gaddis and Strange write about the “romantic conception of the creative act” (2002, p. 706). According to this view, creative ideas are conceived by individuals to which leaders act as obstacles rather than facilitators.

Leaders are increasingly being recognized as vital in the management of innovation.

However, much research point in the other direction. Leaders are increasingly being recognized as vital in the management of innovation. They are essential in that they can create the conditions in which innovation can flourish.

Bottom-up: Leaders as stimulating innovation

Innovation starts with the efforts of individuals. Leaders are central in creating the context so that individuals and teams can use their own capacity to produce innovative outcomes.

Team climate. Leaders can support a positive team climate conducive to creativity and innovation. A climate consisting of intellectual debate, openness, flexibility, challenge, and positive relations have consistently been linked to innovation outcomes (Hunter, Bedell, & Mumford, 2007). Moreover, leaders are responsible for managing conflict, keeping it just high enough to spark creativity. How to create such a climate? A fruitful approach is to be the role model.

Problem solving. Because of the nature of innovative work being novel and complex, problems are often abundant. Leaders can by means of their experience and expertise help their team members construct a problem better, which often leads to better problem solutions (Redmond, Mumford, & Teach, 1993) and new ideas and directions.

Team composition. Leaders often are responsible for staffing teams. By carefully choosing team members, leaders can increase the chance that new perspectives and information is disclosed. See also this article where I write about the “team diversity sweet spot” and how leaders should think about diversity of competences in a team.

Motivation. An important predictor for individuals’ creativity is their intrinsic motivation. There is ample evidence that leaders can positively enhance the motivation of their employees (Deci & Ryan, 1987). For example they can maintain mutually beneficial work-relationships (Liden & Maslyn, 1998) stimulate their employees’ intellectual growth, and grant freedom and discretion.

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Top-down: Leaders as managing innovation

In their second role, leaders embody the organization’s innovation strategies and goals. The following items are examples of leader tasks that have been shown to relate to creative and innovative outcomes.

Resources. Innovation is often resource intensive. Resources are needed in large innovation efforts, as well as small projects aimed at exploring an idea. Leaders manage resources, which come in the form of time, money, facilities, information and knowledge.

Rewards. Reward systems are a way for an organization to encourage specific behaviors. Rewards may be important for creativity because individuals feel that such initiatives are supported, rather than undermined. However, rewards mustn’t always be monetary. They can also constitute recognition and positive feedback, which in some settings are more important than money. See this article on how to successfully manage a reward system conducive to creativity.

By taking the time to state goals and vision, leaders facilitate a shared understanding which makes it easier to collaborate.

Goals and vision. The degree of vision determines the extent to which goals are clear, attainable and valued by team members. By taking the time to state goals and vision, leaders facilitate a shared understanding which makes it easier to collaborate. Vision is one of the strongest predictors of innovation according to a meta-analysis by Hülsheger, Anderson, and Salgado (2009).

Expectations for creativity. Leaders can set high expectations for creativity, which in turn leads to creative outcomes. Of course, it is important to back those expectations up with requisite resources. Otherwise, employees will learn that the organization’s wish for more creativity is not genuine.

Autonomy. Autonomy is the freedom to pursue tasks according to one’s own discretion. Leaders can grant autonomy to their team members, which in turn invokes a sense of trust, ownership and control (Hemlin, 2006). The degree of autonomy has been shown to relate to innovation in a number of studies, including my own research (Denti, 2011). We surveyed five innovative Swedish organizations and found that a higher amount of autonomy in an organization strengthened the relationship between leadership and individuals’ initiative. In turn, those individuals who took more initiative also produced more innovations such as new products, patents, and publications.

The balancing act

There are many examples of dilemmas pertaining to leaders’ dual roles of managing innovation. A challenge for leaders in innovative ventures is to balance the two roles. For example, upper-management and individuals in R&D may have different views on which innovations that should be produced. Another issue is one of control vs. freedom: how much control should be exerted over innovation projects? Too much control restricts autonomy and effectively stifles motivation and creativity. On the other hand, innovation cannot roam too freely as an organization needs to set a direction and strategy for its development efforts.

By Leif Denti


Hunter, S. T., Bedell, K. E., & Mumford, M. D. (2007). Climate for creativity: A quantitative review. Creativity Research Journal, 19, 69–90.

Hülsheger, U. R., Anderson, N., & Salgado, J. F. (2009). Team-level predictors of innovation at work: A comprehensive meta-analysis spanning three decades of research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 1128–1145.

Hemlin, S. (2006). Managing creativity in academic research: How could creative action and management be reconciled in research? Science Studies, 19, 3-12.

Denti, L. (2011). Leadership and Innovation: How and When do Leaders Influence Innovation in R&D Teams? University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Mumford, M. D., Scott, G. M., Gaddis, B., & Strange, J. M. (2002). Leading creative people: Orchestrating expertise and relationships. The Leadership Quarterly, 13, 705–730.

Redmond, M. R., Mumford, M. D., & Teach, R. (1993). Putting creativity to work: Effects of leader behavior on subordinate creativity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 55, 120–151.

About the Author

Leif Denti is pursuing his doctoral degree of Psychology at the University of Gothenburg, Department of Psychology. His main research venue is how project leaders stimulate creativity and innovation in their project teams (project name: Management for Sweden). Leif Denti also works as a consultant at Prospero Technology Management. Leif Denti holds a licentiate degree in Psychology at the University of Gothenburg.

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