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  • Writer's pictureDr. Patrick E. Crawford

Leadership and Innovation

Leadership Thoughts | Issue #77

I recently had the opportunity to spend three days with seventeen doctoral students from Saint Francis University. They were attending the first residency as they started their dissertation journey leading to a D.Ed. in Leadership and Innovation. The cohort is comprised of successful leaders from diverse careers. They enter the program for various reasons, but they all demonstrate a desire to fulfill their leadership roles by serving others for the greater good.

I am this cohort's facilitator for Introduction to Leadership and Innovation, and I asked the students two questions: What do you believe about leadership, and what do you believe about innovation?

As I read the responses to the questions, I discovered several common themes about leadership and innovation.

Successful leadership occurs when aligned with core values and humility. Innovation is not the next most excellent widget, but a series of incremental trials and failures.

I think we can define leadership and innovation. The question that remains unasked is... What is an innovative leader?


Innovative Leader vs. Innovative Leadership

To ponder the question, what is an innovative leader, I turned to my best research partner – I googled it! My discovery leads me to the conclusion that there is a difference between an innovative leader and innovative leadership. Innovators create new products and practices, while leaders create a culture of innovation. It is possible and desirable to be both an innovator and practice innovative leadership. Developing and sustaining a culture of innovation and creativity is the responsibility of the leadership. Without key leaders’ commitment, innovation is unlikely to become anything more than just another good idea.

The following is the definition as supplied by one of Google’s 796,000,000 results.

Innovative leadership is a style of leadership that involves applying innovation and creativity to managing people and projects. Innovative leaders inspire productivity in new ways and through different approaches that have typically been used and taken.


What Makes Leadership Innovative?

According to Hal Gregersen, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, four things differentiate innovation leadership.

  1. They ask lots of questions to challenge the status quo.

  2. They observe the world like an anthropologist.

  3. They talk with people who have different perspectives and values than they do.

  4. They are willing to try anything, even if it means taking risks or making mistakes.

Gregersen’s research dispels the image of an innovator sitting in their office cranking out new designs, processes, and breakthroughs. Following are interesting findings from the research.

Most innovative ideas occur through active discovery by implementing Gregersen's four strategies. Most disruptive innovators are not good at executing the innovation. Generally, it takes a team with individuals with different skill sets if the innovation is to materialize.


Breakthroughs and Managing Innovation

Most organizations that embark on an innovation campaign are out to find breakthroughs or “disruptive” innovations that represent a new way of doing things. Rarely do these innovations emerge. And if they do emerge, they rarely make it to the marketplace. That’s because the organization inevitably chokes on the radical nature of the offering, which doesn’t fit into its current reality. (Palus and Horth, 2002).

Simply stated, innovation occurs when doing something new or different adds value. Leaders cannot manage an organization to become creative and innovative. Innovative leadership requires creating a culture where creativity is promoted and rewarded. Innovative leadership calls for the ability to negotiate the tension between the new and ‘the way we have always done it.’

The following is a chart modified from a white paper written by David Horth and Jonathan Vehar, Becoming a Leader Who Fosters Innovation. Ask yourself which of the following items aligns with my leadership.

Leadership isn’t about giving orders and telling other people what to do; it’s about being the best you can be. Authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner write that leaders are responsible for creating productive change in their organizations. They don't just manage it—they lead! If they aren’t creating productive change, they aren’t leading. They may be managing the organization, but they aren’t creating a direction, alignment, and commitment to adding value.

Innovative leadership isn’t about having all the answers; it’s about creating a culture where everyone seeks a better way of doing things.


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