The Relationship Between Leadership And Innovation

Our titles can make us managers but not necessarily a leader.

Leadership in the 21st century is less about the title and more about the role of being a leader. This is where leadership and innovation meets. While you need to check the usual boxes like communication, creativity, process enabler, taking everyone along, and fairness, there is much more to a 21st-century leader than meets the eye.

Leaders don’t only need to be innovative themselves, but also drive innovation in the organization without seeming to do so. This can take some practice, patience, and great listening skills.

Defining Innovation and Innovative Leadership

David S. Weiss and Claude Legrand wrote the book, “Innovative Intelligence: The Art and Practice of Leading Sustainable Innovation in Your Organization”, published January 1, 2011.

In their book, they defined innovation as “applied creativity that achieves business value”.

While creativity is essential to innovation, there is more to being innovative. Creativity is the use of your imagination or thinking up original ideas. Innovation is what you do with those ideas.

This is why some organizations may confuse innovation with creativity and fail to implement a strategy for innovation. One way to distinguish creativity from innovation is to look at the outcome.

Creativity is coming up with new ideas that may or may not be relevant, whereas, innovation achieves a defined value for an organization.

When we think of innovative leadership, a name that may immediately come up in our minds is Steve Jobs.

Some of us remember Steve Jobs as a creative visionary whose innovative ideas changed the way we consume music by introducing the iPod and ushered in the era of the smartphone revolution through the iPhone.Steve Jobs understood the benefit of leadership and innovation

However, Steve Jobs did not come up with most of these innovative ideas or even innovatively hacking execution lifecycles. Some of Apple’s best ideas like the iPad and iPhone emerged from the teams at Apple. Steve Jobs only enabled the individuals, their teams, and processes to be innovative through leadership.

Seen in this context, innovative leadership is less about leaders being innovative and more about enabling individuals and teams to be innovative. One can say that leadership and innovation are intimately connected.

Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg, in their book titled ”How Google Works”, highlighted many methods that Google uses to foster innovation. One example is how Google gives it’s employees 20% time off to work on their own projects.

By doing so, employees can receive feedback on their ideas and projects through internal idea collaboration tools such as an idea management tool.

Objectives and key results are shared across the company, as well as presenting the opportunity for projects to fail early so that the organization can change course if needed.

Hence, an innovative leader is someone who enables innovation through leadership. In many cases, it is as simple as getting out of the way and sometimes it can be more difficult than that.

Is failure a part of innovation? According to Mark Payne, co-founder and leading president of Fahrenheit 212, about 90% of new ideas fail. Innovation often needs failure in order to learn about what is not working and identify paths that can work. Innovative leaders allow failure, manage risks, keep morale high and keep everyone focused on the business goals.

Four Behaviors of Innovative Leaders

Hal Gregersen, a thought leader on leadership and innovation, shares four behaviors of innovative leaders in the video below.

Angry Birds: Prime Example of Leadership And Innovation

Angry Birds, developed by Rovio Games, is one of the most downloaded smartphone game of all time. It took the creators 51 games before they came up with this popular game.

Prior to Angry Birds, Rovio was short on funds and on the verge of bankruptcy. So how did they do it?

The management team asked their game designers and developers to pitch 10 ideas daily.

Most of the ideas were rejected because they were seen as boring, too simple, and unimaginative. One evening, Rovio Games designer, Jaakko Iisalo was sitting in his home playing video games when an idea came into his mind.

He immediately drew a bird with huge eyebrows, no feet, and a somewhat deranged expression.

He shared the design with management and everyone liked it. Even without any story design or game mechanics, the management decided to put its efforts behind this idea. Finally, after 51 failed game designs, Rovio finally had a winner.

That story is an example of how innovation can come from multiple sources and how leadership can encourage innovation. When people and their different points of view and experiences converge, your chances of aligning creative ideas with business goals increase significantly.

The Connection Between Leadership and Innovation

How Leadership Influences Innovation

“To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart”. Eleanor Roosevelt, American politician, diplomat, and activist.

Leadership and innovation are connected because innovation cannot thrive without great leadership. Leaders hold the key to how innovative their organizations can be. Leaders largely control the strategic direction, budgetary allocations, and culture of an organization.

When leaders look down on failure, reprimand employees for asking tough questions, hoard information or never discuss new ideas, it can be impossible to drive a culture of innovation in your organization.

Employees take a cue from the actions of leaders. They are consistently monitoring the behaviors of leadership.

They monitor things like how a failed attempt is looked at, how a person who asked tough questions is treated, and how much support a new project gets from the organization.

Talking is nice but you have to support your team because they will mirror your actions. The actions of leadership will define the culture of your organization.

Another challenge for leaders is the management of innovative teams. Innovative teams tend to be chaotic, borderline anarchic and usually not prone to subordination.

In this context, you cannot lead by compliance. Rather, lead by discipline and example.

A leader also needs the emotional maturity to let go of the spotlight and let the focus be on the team, not he or she.

They need to be involved in hiring the right individuals, equipping them with the right skills and enabling an environment where the team can be at their productive best. A leader also needs to ensure that the team is aligned with the business goals.

One technique that some organizations use is open communication. This is when a company invites all hands on deck to a discussion where no topic is off limits or taboo.

Everyone in the organization can ask questions directly to founders and other levels of management. This is usually done using an online conference tool like Skype or Hangouts from Google.

This can bridge the gap between teams and executive leadership. It can also align everyone with business goals and strategic directions. Another technique that some leaders use to drive innovation and get everyone to participate is the use of online idea suggestion tools.

These tools allow anyone within an organization to suggest ideas, processes, and product improvements.

Normally with the ability to up-vote, down-vote, and enhance ideas. This feature can make the evaluation of ideas easier for upper-level management.

This is because the ideas that receive the most positive votes are sent to management. The respective leaders can then analyze and hold discussions on whether an idea is worth investing into.

As we have seen, Leadership and Innovation are like two sides of a coin. One cannot exist without the other in business. Innovative leadership is less about how innovative your leadership team is in coming up with ideas but more about encouraging innovation and cultivating behaviors that foster innovation.

The information or knowledge century requires open-minded leadership. Ideas can come from everywhere and if your best minds are converging on particular projects, trust them, support them, and enable them. Innovation will take care of itself!