Mastering Innovative Leadership

Guest post by Alexander Hiam, author of Business Innovation For Dummies. It’s a rather long post, but hang with it, it’s really good.

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 our way out of a 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 innovate our way out of this economic funk?

Which Side of the Leadership Coin Are You On?

To define an innovative leader, first differentiate between the two basic strategic orientations leaders tend to have. I call them basic orientations because they are expressions of a fundamental personality trait: How conservative or open the leader’s personality happens to be. Someone who tends to like stability and tradition has a conservative personality, while someone who likes change, asks lots of questions, and tends to be creative or into exploring is said by psychologists to be open to experience.

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? Sure, some do – the ones who 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? 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

You need 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.

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.

The 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, but my business partner, Stephanie, has a maintenance orientation. She’s really good at making things hum along efficiently, and she keeps a close eye on plans and budgets, which means I can spend most of my time imagining. Some months she takes the lead, when her 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 her 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, most 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 you need a partner to help you.

Pumping Up Your Enthusiasm

Enthusiasm is a great quality that open-minded innovators bring to any leadership role. Face it; it takes a lot more energy to create something new than to keep moving ahead on the same track. That means you need to recharge your own battery often and fully, by making sure you have a healthy, energizing lifestyle outside of work. Take a moment to assess your sources of energy:

• Does you family or personal life support and energize you every day?

• Do you get eight hours of sleep a night on average?

• Do you get a moderate amount of exercise and manage your physical well being?

• Do you have a varied, interesting diet?

• Do you try new things at home, such as new hobbies, travel, or friendships?

• Do you learn new things every week that stimulate your imagination?

Yes, this is another mini-assessment. Count the number of yes answers. A perfect six would be great, but if you’re not there yet, this list gives you some practical ideas about ways to make your personal life more energizing and less wearing. It takes enthusiasm to energize others!

Turn Toward the Positive

There’s one thing you can do that I guarantee will make up for a lot of errors or missteps in every other aspect of your leadership. Leaders who maintain a strongly optimistic and positive frame of mind are able to build and maintain innovative momentum, even when things go wrong. It turns out that a realistic optimist is far better at stimulating creative behavior or at leading a team through a tough implementation than any other kind of leader.

There’s a lot of research supporting the importance of optimism at work. It’s actually one of the few things that most experts agree on. Optimists are more creative and innovative, more motivated, and more satisfied with their work. They also live longer, healthier, happier, and more successful lives. Entrepreneurs need to be reasonably optimistic to succeed. However, keep in mind that optimism can be taken too far. At its extreme, optimism can produce overconfidence and a lack of realism. Your goal should be to be realistically optimistic, with a positive, can-do attitude but also a willingness to admit a strategy isn’t working and change directions if need be!

Tempering Your Enthusiasm with Practicality

It’s important to aim for a positive attitude that supports innovation, so you may want to think about what that means for you. A pragmatic approach to optimism may be your best bet. Don’t just say, “Oh, it’s okay, we don’t have to do anything, things will get better on their own.” That’s an unrealistically optimistic view and goes along with feelings of personal lack or responsibility and even helplessness. A pragmatic optimist says, “Things don’t look so good right now, but I bet we can figure out a good way to deal with this problem, and even find some hidden opportunities in it.”

When you’re in a positive (optimistic and hopeful) frame of mind, you tend to spread that positive attitude to others. It spreads quite naturally, both through what you say and through the way you act. Positive statements indicate that you’re:

• Hopeful about finding solutions to problems

• Enthusiastic about the possibility of discovering, creating, or inventing something new

• Open to ideas and options and interested in learning something new

• Positive people express their optimism through their body language. They have:

o A buoyant stride and energetic movements

o An open, relaxed posture

o An interested facial expression when others are making suggestions

If you find it hard to sound and act like an irrepressible optimist, you may need to revitalize your own attitude before you go around sharing it with others. It’s a happy fact of leadership that you have an obligation to be in a positive, energetic frame of mind.

Take the time to figure out what rituals and lifestyle changes you need to make in order to come to work each day full of optimism and energy, so you can naturally role-model and spark that kind of energy for your whole team. For example, adopt an exercise regime during lunch hour if it gives you positive energy.

What To Do On A Bad Day

On days when optimism just isn’t there and you feel down, stay away from your team if at all possible. Go out and recharge yourself before you interact with them, so as not to contaminate their attitudes. The leader’s attitude spreads more powerfully and rapidly than anyone else’s, so take advantage of the leverage your attitude has over others — and please don’t make the all-too-common mistake of amplifying your bad mood by sharing it at work.

Alexander Hiam is a leading innovation expert and the author of more than 20 books on innovation, marketing and creativity, including Business Innovation for Dummies (Wiley, June 2010), a how-to guide that offers practical techniques for stimulating imagination and developing ideas into successful innovations. A lecturer at the business school at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he has consulted with many Fortune 500 firms and large U.S. government agencies (including the U.S. Coast Guard’s Leadership and Management School, the U.S. Senate, and the City of New York). He resides in Amherst, Mass. Online at and

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