Inspiration Versus Aspiration: Two Approaches to Innovation Leadership

Inspiring leadership is what we have all been led to believe creates successful businesses. The fact that history is dotted with examples of successful companies which businesses study closely for clues their own leaders can emulate, clearly shows that we believe there is a formulaic style of leadership which is key to a thriving business. If only it were that simple. Kate Tojeiro, founder of progressive leadership consultancy, X-Fusion, takes a closer look at two key types of leaders.

Certainly one of the most powerful common denominators that extends across every single industry category is the need for a healthy innovation pipeline – which is often said, yet not so often truly valued. Whilst a thriving business is based on organic growth, aspiration and creativity, it is the leader who gives equal importance to all of these elements as well as to ensuring innovation is top of the agenda who will reap the greatest rewards.

Add to this the fact that there are a number of subtle and little-credited defining factors which combine elements from a number of differing styles to make for successful business ventures, and it is little wonder achieving successful leadership can appear, at times random and confusing.

Having observed leadership in its many forms over the years, there is little doubt in my mind that no one style offers a holistic winning formula. In fact, if we take as an example two key types of leaders, those driven by inspiration and those by aspiration there are strong pros and cons for both styles.

Those organisations that are born of inspiration rely less on role models, they are the ones breaking the mould and taking the risks, connecting well with their teams. On the other hand, the leaders of organisations founded on aspiration and driven by market share, profit and geographic spread equally have successful and charismatic leaders. The question therefore is whether there is a significant crossover between those two styles of organisations that in turn creates a new type of leadership model.

If we move away from the obvious examples which many companies like to model themselves on such as the Apples of the world, we can start to see new patterns emerging which can make for useful benchmarks when trying to define ‘success’.

Sephora is a young fragrance and beauty care company who put its meteoric growth down to the founders shunning traditional marketing routes and focusing on social media, throwing out conventional methodologies worked well for them. Amazon too opted for the unconventional by creating an employee-centric model where everyone from Amazon had an input that went way beyond their day to day job.

Google too is the epitome of an organisation driven by innovation and creativity and there are many others we can turn to that stand out for having developed their own unique way of leading, creating and generating.

In essence, no one organization is driven solely by power, profit, and aspiration or indeed innovation, creativity and inspiration, however the primary drivers are relatively easy to identify. If one observes the way Google or Virgin plan, make decisions and act it is relatively easy to see that the core interests are that of inspiration, community, innovation, creativity and doing things differently but well.

Conversely in observing the planning, decision making and actions of the likes of BP, Goldman Sachs and IBM the drivers appear to be much more about market share, being the biggest and above all profit and also doing those things well.

An organization that is primarily, aspiration and power driven typically seeks to set the pace, be a ‘big-player’ in their industry and therefore others must work exceedingly hard to gain a foothold in their marketplace. An aspiration-led organization, of course, seeks to make profits but their primary motivators are designed to increase their influence, their market share, and their breadth of operation. These aspiration-led organizations’ behaviour can be seen as somewhat arrogant and self-serving.

Companies that are first and foremost profit-driven seek to create wealth.  They continually analyse potential products, services, and geographies for the most profitable routes and will pursue those with vigour as long as the profits meet expectation. One could be forgiven for observing these organizations to perhaps be rather self-serving too. Such companies have been known to take advantage of rules and indeed laws to create profits  - something that we have seen rather acutely of late in the banking industry.

However those organizations that are inspiration led often seek to engage employees and customers in driving their vision and making it become a reality. These companies very often genuinely promote social responsibility and truly demonstrate connection with their communities. These inspiration led organizations typically have very vocal and passionate employees that are absolutely engaged in what they are trying to achieve. You certainly see phenomenal teamwork. For sure, these companies are also profitable; they have to be in order to continue good works however the profits serve the inspiration, rather than being the prime driver.

…we should be looking at a host of leadership styles and harnessing the best from them to create something sustainable, something which can be repeated but which should not become formulaic.

We seem to be living in an era of companies aiming to find the most innovative way of developing their business and whilst that makes for exciting business reading and insightful case studies it does not mean we should throw the traditional, driven-by-aspiration business leader out. Rather we should be looking at a host of leadership styles and harnessing the best from them to create something sustainable, something which can be repeated but which should not become formulaic. Because ultimately that is what success is all about. Creating excitement, gaining ground swell and tweaking management to suit individuals styles. What worked for Steve Jobs does not automatically mean it will work for Jeff Bezos. It is not just about the products or services either, it is about the market you are trying to capture, the micro-trends at the time, extending away from the tried and tested yet retaining a few key attributes that keep the whole business model grounded. It is about creating flexibility yet maintaining control – in short it is a juggling act.

Last week, delayed at an airport, I had a very interesting discussion with a CEO who thinks that many aspiration and power-driven organizations (his included) actually want to be inspiration-led. In his words “it means we’re not done” there was then a pause. He then said, “personal fulfillment and being all we can be is part of being alive and we are all headed towards something which is generally bigger, further, greater and so much more than ourselves”.  “ After all, there’s not many millionaires and billionaires that aren’t still headed towards that next something be it charitable or otherwise”.

By Kate Tojeiro

About the author


Having built up a string of prestigious FTSE 100 and Fortune 100 clients over the last 15 years, Kate Tojeiro has worked as an executive coach and facilitator with the boards, senior leaders and teams of some of the world’s largest organisations and also some of the most cutting edge, organically-grown start ups. During that time she has formed a unique and compelling reputation for developing some of the UK’s most illustrious leaders and transforming organisations; bringing tangible business value through building communication, changing perception, encouraging leadership and driving confidence.

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