How to Master Innovative Leadership

Innovation obviously requires creativity. That much everyone agrees on. However, it has a secret ingredient that must not be left out: Leadership. All innovators have to play leadership roles, whether they are in formal executive positions, or quite the opposite. In this article Alexander Hiam delves deeper on how to master innovative leadership.

The reason innovation requires leadership is that the person or team with a good new idea or clever new design starts out as the only ones who really “get it.” Their insight and enthusiasm will blink out after a while, and nothing new will actually get implemented, unless they exercise some real leadership. They have to spread the word, line up support, overcome skepticism, and generally act like focused, skilled leaders. Otherwise, their innovation does not stand a chance.

Innovation is, in my book, quite simply a fertile union of creativity and leadership. Thus you might say that the term ‘innovative leadership’ is redundant and all leadership is innovative. That assumes people in leadership roles really are leading, as in visualizing the new and better and moving us in their direction. Sadly, real world leadership is more prosaic, and less innovative. In fact, in almost every survey ever done on the topic, employees say that their leaders are holding them back, not drawing them ahead, in the quest of innovation.

So, there seems to be a need to focus on leaders and their role in innovation, especially at a time when the only thing everyone, at all ends of the political spectrum, agrees upon is that we ought to be innovating out way of our half-hearted economic recovery. What, then, is an innovative leader? And, more to the point, how can the many people holding leadership positions begin to tip their weight forward a bit more, and encourage the rest of us to innovative our way out of this economic funk?

Which side of the leadership coin are you on?

To define an innovative leader, we need to start by differentiating between the two basic strategic orientations leaders tend to have. I call them basic orientations because they are expressions of a fundamental personality trait from the Big Five model of personality, which is emerging as the consensus model among research psychologists. The so-called Big Five traits are labelled big because they encompass just about every other more specific trait that can be measured. The five macro traits are extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, excitability (or neuroticism according to some psychologists), and, of particular interest to innovators, a scale called openness to experience.

Openness to experience is all about your innovativeness, and includes things like creativity, curiosity, and exploration. Some people are naturally highly open — and they may choose to be innovators, inventors, or artists in order to take advantage of this trait. Others are more conservative, preferring the status quo to new experiences, and they may not naturally be the creative instigators in a workplace. However, both types may find themselves involved in change, and may need to step to the plate and help lead the implementation of a creative idea at various points in their careers.

In fact, more often than not, it is conservatives, who are not as naturally innovative, who are in charge in the workplace and who are on the spot when it comes to recognizing and championing innovations.

More often than not, it is conservatives, who are not as naturally innovative, who are in charge in the workplace and who are on the spot when it comes to recognizing and championing innovations.

It happens that we tend to promote conservative personalities more often than open ones, because they fit our stereotyped notions of who should be our leaders. As a consequence, many of our institutions are not temperamentally very open to new ideas and experiences. On the other hand, entrepreneurs are, by nature, quite innovative and open to experience, so new startups have the opposite personality, at least until they grow and prosper, whereupon the innovator is usually replaced by a more sober, conservative personality, and innovation slows down.

Can an entrepreneurial, creative innovator learn to create systems and manage large-scale businesses? Yes, if they are self-reflective and willing to learn new tricks. Similarly, conservative, stable business executives sometimes manage innovation quite well, but again, they are the ones who recognize when they need to flex their style and push their organizations in new directions.

Which style is your natural one?

Which style is your natural one? Does your personality push you toward being maintenance-oriented and a good custodian of successful businesses, or are you more of an innovator by temperament? Here’s a simple self-diagnostic you can use to find out (taken from Chapter 3 of Business Innovation For Dummies).To identify your basic leadership orientation, ask yourself the following questions:

1.    Do I focus on doing things consistently and carefully?
2.    Do I find routines boring and dull?
3.    Do I take pride in perfecting my skills?
4.    Do I get the most enjoyment out of trying new things?
5.    Do I insist that employees and team members do things correctly?
6.    Do I insist that employees and team members try new approaches?

The following sections explain what your answers to these questions indicate about your leadership orientation.

Maintenance Orientation

If you answered yes to Questions 1, 3, and 5, your default orientation is toward maintenance. You’re probably particularly good at keeping a successful business or operation going smoothly and well. However, this maintenance orientation will tend to reduce the amount of creative thinking and experimentation you do, and make it more difficult for you to lead innovation and change. You’ll need to make a conscious effort to change your orientation in order to allow innovation to happen.

Innovation Orientation

If you answered yes to Questions 2, 4, and 6, you probably didn’t answer yes to the others, because people usually favor one or the other orientation. Your orientation is creative, and your tendency is to look for new ideas and approaches. You ought to find it fairly easy and natural to adopt innovative leadership techniques and to inspire others to become more creative. Your weakness may be in persisting long enough with one idea to bring it fully through development and refine it into a profitable routine.

Mastering both orientations

Neither the maintenance-oriented individual who is low on the Openness to Experience scale, nor the creative individual who is high on that scale, are well suited to implementing innovations. Each has a blind spot. That says two things–first, it’s important to study your own personality and try to reduce the size of your blind spot, and two, it’s a great idea to innovate in teams with a range of personalities!

How can an individual reduce their own innovation blind spot, whether it’s in follow-through and scale-up, or in initial idea generation recognition? The trick is to be able to shift your orientation and not be stuck with just one approach. Knowing your basic orientation helps you understand not only your strengths but also your weaknesses.

Which is your strength: innovating or maintaining?

A maintenance-oriented leader is great at keeping things running smoothly and doesn’t get bored with the pursuit of efficiencies during scale-up. However, he may tend to forget about creativity and fail to lead the way to the next big thing. Maintenance only makes sense as long as what you’re maintaining is worth it. At some point, you need to trade it in for a new model.

A innovation-oriented leader is a natural when it comes to finding the next great idea and working on it, but begins to lose focus and get bored just when the innovation’s kinks are finally ironed out and it’s time to profit by using it efficiently.

Which is your strength: innovating or maintaining? Whichever it is, know your strongest and weakest qualities and make a point of hiring people who can help you with both. I’m a natural innovator myself, so I always hire supporting staff that have a maintenance orientation. My assistants are really good at making things hum along efficiently, and they keep a close eye on plans and budgets, which means I can spend most of my time imagining. Sometimes I stay out of their way and let my staff take the lead, when their orientation fits the strategic phase we’re in. Other times, I step forward (for example, with a new product I’ve designed) and take the lead as we change our product lineup or try a new business model. If it works, I then turn the reins over to my staff again to fine-tune it and make it run profitably.

I’ve found I’m so strongly oriented toward innovation that it’s hard for me to change my own approach and be a good maintainer, so I rely on someone else to help me cover the other orientation. However, many people are less extreme in their orientation and can teach themselves to switch from one orientation to the other more easily than I can. It’s up to you to decide whether you can cover both basic leadership orientations yourself or if you need a partner to help you.

Leading through the implementation cycle

The openness to experience scale is helpful in understanding your basic orientation and avoiding the perils of your blind spot. However, to be a top innovator you may need to look a little deeper into the mirror. Innovation takes a lot more than just the right mix or personalities. There is a lot of hard work involved, much of it cognitive in nature. I find it helpful also to think about the way you think.

Two scales are particularly relevant to innovation: how logical you are, and how concrete a thinker.

Two scales are particularly relevant to innovation: how logical you are, and how concrete a thinker. To differentiate, start by asking yourself, “Do I tend to make important decisions by analyzing them (logical), or by relying on my feelings (intuitive)?”

Some people are logical by nature, others more intuitive and trusting of their feelings.  Which are you?

Next, ask yourself, “When making key decisions, do I tend to generalize about the big picture (abstract), or do I tend to focus on the specific details (concrete)?”

Now you have categorized yourself as either logical or intuitive, and as either abstract or concrete in your thinking style when it comes to important decisions. Use the following list to select your creative style based on these variables (based on Creative Roles Analysis, Hiam 2006):

The Entrepreneur is intuitive and concrete

The Artist is intuitive and abstract

The Inventor is logical and abstract

The Engineer is logical and concrete

These names are general in nature. Not all people who work in the arts are Artists according to their personalities, nor are all engineers Engineers. The point is that each has a different cognitive style, which effects their contributions to the innovation process as follows:

Entrepreneurs are good at initiating an innovation cycle by being inquisitive, curious, and good at seeing possibilities.

Artists are good at developing options and brainstorming new design concepts by being imaginative and original in their thinking

Inventors are good at narrowing down the options and focusing the innovation process on the most promising design or option for development.

Finally, Engineers are great for the implementation phase.

Innovation does work in cycles, from the recognition of a need, to the broad search for options, to the refinement of the best one, and finally to the implementation and scale-up. A successful innovation generally has a story about cooperation by a team of people spanning these various stages. Again, as with the basic personality orientations, it’s helpful to build a group with multiple cognitive styles who can bring the project through all phases of development.

We all tend to sing just one or a few notes in the innovation symphony. I think the greatest insight anyone can bring to an effort to lead innovation is the recognition that it takes many people singing in harmony to succeed.

By Alexander Hiam

About the author


Alexander Hiam is the author of more than 20 popular books on business, including Marketing For Dummies® and Business Innovation For Dummies®. A lecturer at the business school at the University ofMassachusetts, Amherst, he has consulted with many Fortune 500 firms and large U.S. government agencies. Learn more at www.alexhiam.com.

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