Innovative Leadership - A Definition and Roll Call

Thanks for inviting me to BlogJam, heath. As I geared up for the main topic: innovative leadership, I began to think about the nature of leadership and innovation. I thought thought it'd be interesting to start a collaborative roll call of innovative leaders. We've all got our own definitions, so to start on a level field, I started my exploration by looking up two definitions on Dictionary.com (shortened and reformatted for display purposes):

Innovate (Word Net definition: n 1: to create (a new device or process) resulting from study and experimentation [syn: invention] 2: to create something in the mind [syn: invention, excogitation, conception, design] 3: the act of starting something for the first time; introducing something new...

Lead: 1: To show the way to by going in advance; 2: To guide or direct in a course [syn: guide]; 3: a) To serve as a route for; b) To be a channel or conduit for; 4: To guide the behavior or opinion of; to induce; 5: a) To direct the performance or activities of; b) To inspire the conduct of; 6: To play a principal or guiding role in; 7: a) To go or be at the head of...

By definition Innovation is a creative act that has implicit leadership characteristics. Leadership itself does not necessarily require innovation.

Innovators possesss inate natural-born leadership qualities. This doesn’t mean they are good leaders by any stretch. They do, however, seem to draw a following as a natural outcome of the drive, capability and internal confidence that fuels their efforts. Whether the individual is a "right-brained" creative or a "left-brained" quantitative genius, the innovator seems to be in touch with an internal drum beat that is intriguing, catchy and attractive. They possess a vision of what's possible that is refreshing and inspiring, and people naturally want to be inspired.

Solid Leaders are not necessarily innovators. They may be very skilled and disciplined managers who know the fundamentals of business management and industry dynamics. They may have strong communication, organization and delegation skills, as well as effective interpersonal and teaming skills. Leaders typically create structure and guide direction. People like a sense of order and will follow leaders who create it.

We probably won’t remember the innovative person who couldn’t drive an idea from concept to reality -- or the leader who managed well but never really led an innovation. However, we will almost always remember the innovative leader.

Innovative leaders may be quirky individuals who are poorly skilled or inconsistent with managing tasks and/or people. They may be unconventional, moody, and strong willed. They may be extreme introverts or incredible extroverts. They may suffer from poor communication skills. The same passion and temperament that drives invention may also lead them to encounter strained interpersonal relationships, a turbulent life and dramatic interactions with others. Profiling reveals that many innovators live with learning disabilities. Some have psychological or social challenges. Many must overcome significant adversity...

However, what leaves the indelible impression on us are usually not the quirks of the innovative leader, but the unconventional thoughts, ideas, inventions, discoveries, institutions, products and experiences they bring to life.

Innovative leaders:

  • Marry the art of invention with the discipline of management
  • Are motivated by what is possible, not by what seems probable
  • Consistently push the envelope – for themselves and all who follow
  • Fear stagnation more than taking risks
  • Are unflagging excellence junkies who resist the status quo
  • Embrace failure as a step toward success
  • Welcome change and challenge like fine, old friends
  • Hunger for learning, stimulus and discovery
  • Are motivated by internal drive, rather than external forces
  • Inspire others by "doing" and "demonstrating"
  • Admit to a strong inner sense of direction, mission or calling

C.S. Lewis wrote that "Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth... you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it." There's something unmistakably original and truthful about innovative leaders. I'd name the following to the roll call:

  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • George Washington
  • Winston Churchill
  • Martin Luther King
  • Marshall MacLuhan
  • Jesus Christ
  • Mother Theresa
  • Albert Einstein
  • Bill Gates
  • Steve Jobs
  • Meg Whitman
  • Howard Hughes
  • Richard Branson

I hope to have done some justice to this topic. Please feel free to nominate your own innovative leader -- or record your observations about the characteristics of innovative leaders by leaving a comment here.

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4 Comments

  • peter

    Thank you for inviting us to think out loud:

    I wonder to what extent the corporatization of society, the cult of celebrity and radical individualisation bear on the perception of innovative leadership.

    Can you be an innovative leader if no one including yourself is aware of the remarkable consequence of your way of life?

    I wonder if there is a class of leader who innovate impercepibly by creating context for others to exercise the more patent forms of innovative leadership "thoughts, ideas, inventions, discoveries, institutions, products and experiences they bring to life".

    In my view these leaders have the qualities of being:

    * self unaware;
    * idiosyncratic; and
    * well connected.

    This pattern of behaviour influences the context or better still composition of the future. Their innovation is hidden in the infinite number of possibilities that through their behavior are reduced to reality.

    To use a metahphor the flow of "thoughts, ideas, inventions, discoveries, institutions, products and experiences they ( the innovative class of leaders you describe) bring to life" are guided into the future by the river banks that are made solid by the class of leader I'm trying (poorly) to describe.

    If I go through the leaders you mention I recognise their achievements whilst living but am truly indebted to what (many) did well after they died.

    I wonder what our futures look like when we, as a world, focus more on the metrics of leadership and forget a different form of leadership is exercised when no ones watching.

    Thanks again for the opportunity.

  • Leigh Duncan

    Jennifer, I think that most great leaders will acknowledge this to be very, very true. Lest there be any confusion, I am with you in principle. My position can be further expressed as follows:

    Unfortunately, sometimes innovative leaders miss the boat on the fundamentals of good leadership. Warren Bennis' book "Organizing Genius" offers case studies which showcase true innovative leaders at work - and they are a real eye opener!

    The fundamental qualities of good leadership are not inherently innovative. Guys like Peter Drucker have been speakikng about them for years and a myriad of other gurus offer training and insight on how best to build and apply these skills.

    I think it's very easy confuse solid leadership fundamentals with innovative leadership. This is mostly because solid leadership skills are so rarely demonstrated today! Eveb so, I submit that we shouldn't define innovative leadership based on skills that are fundamental.

    At the same time, there are many good innovative leaders who are finding new ways (through technology, operations, communications, process innovation) to interact, resonate, include, promote, reward and support employee success. I would definitely classify those efforts as innovative leadership at work.

  • Jennifer Warwick

    I would add that great leaders genuinely want others to succeed. Conbined with the other qualities you mention, such faith and support inspires fierce loyalty, and many benefits come from that loyalty, ranging from reduced turnover, to followers who are in alignment with one another and your mission.