09: Innovation demands leadership

The more the cult of celebrity extends into everyday life, it seems, the more distaste grows for celebrity leaders of innovation.

British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, New York city planner Robert Moses, Intel chip designer Robert Noyce, Russian space programme chief Sergei Korolev, Japan’s Soichiro Honda: in innovation, as in life, strong leaders are essential. Yet for some years the trend in general management theory has been away from the charismatic leader and toward the servant leader or the self-confessedly incomplete one. [1] Today, the leader is vulnerable or he is nothing.

Books eulogise successful Americans and others for their past failures. [2] They explore the merits, to innovation, not of personal leaders, but of teams as a means of ‘distributed’ leadership. [3] It’s said that to ‘re-imagine’ innovation with workforces now both virtual and global, what’s needed is the ambassadorial leader who is sensitive to culture and context, and who shares leadership. [4] More broadly, feeling favours leadership communities, rather than great leaders. [5]

Enough New Age experts on leadership, too. Some believe that happiness and managing your energy levels are two of the five dimensions of leadership. [6] Britain’s National Health Service Institute for Innovation and Improvement, no less, puts at the core of leadership not the setting of directions or the delivery of service, but self-belief, self-awareness, self-management, a drive for personal improvement, and personal integrity – in short, our old friends ‘me, me, me’. [7]

In fact leadership in innovation should not and cannot be diffused away from a few individual leaders. At the same time, leadership is bigger than the Self. Distinct and distinctive leaders are required not only to get innovation moving, but also to set aspirations, create goals that people can believe in, and take responsibility for failures. Innovation leaders must have both breadth and depth of technical knowledge. But they must also be able to inspire. Innovation is a human process; because it includes failure and chance, it must be led by men and women who can take people from their ‘comfort zones’ into a different place altogether.

Restating the case for leaders

In 2010 leadership, like innovation, is in doubt. Leaders are blamed for economic failure, for political corruption, or for not heeding to signs of trouble. Of course, they have grown specially fallible to the degree that they have become answerable only to themselves. Faith in them has also dwindled, however, because they so rarely stand for anything beyond managing the status quo.

What a pity, then, it is to learn, from an intelligent handbook on the leadership of innovation, that ‘the age of the autocratic boss, the one-man show, is over’ and that ‘innovation should always be evolutionary rather than revolutionary’. [8] But did prima donnas really always dominate 20th century innovation – or is that another straw man? And doesn’t the leadership of innovation mean guiding others to make both evolutionary and revolutionary advance?

To restate the case for innovation means to restate the case for all-round leadership. Both are at risk in an atmosphere that one-sidedly promotes partnership, participation and networking – in a word, collaboration. [9] All of these things have their place, and we are all for international collaboration in R&D. But right now the personal ability to create new knowledge, and to take an innovation problem or project by the scruff of the neck and make it happen, is an item in much shorter supply than windy phrases about the ability to absorb global innovations – to ‘access, absorb, spread and apply ideas and concepts generated elsewhere’. [10]

Leadership, like innovation, is now something you network. But including everyone in an ‘innovation culture’ can all too easily mean abdicating responsibility.

The innovator as hero

In 2007, the consultants McKinsey surveyed more than 700 of the world’s senior vice presidents and more than 700 of its lower-level executives, too. About a third of the middle and lower layers said they managed innovation on an ad hoc basis when necessary. Another third managed innovation as part of the senior-leadership team’s agenda. But that was largely it. To their credit, 600 global business executives, managers, and professionals also surveyed by McKinsey admitted that paying lip service to innovation but doing nothing about it was the most common way they inhibited it. [11]

McKinsey had many recommendations. Perhaps the most familiar was: set performance metrics for innovation – metrics both financial and, to catch today’s climate, also behavioural. [12] Yet the key McKinsey metric seems to be that, to ‘upgrade’ R&D in a downturn, ‘the most vigilant product developers could terminate one-quarter to one-third of their projects, liberating resources for redeployment’. [13]

In fact what innovation needs now, if it is to be game-changing, unique and unexpected, is leaders with resolve, not managers with finely balanced scalpels.

Innovation demands not further empathy, trust or Key Performance Indicators, but vision, commitment, brains and, yes, a little personal heroism too.

[1] Robert K Greenleaf, Servant Leadership, Paulist Press, 1983; Deborah Ancona and others, ‘In praise of the incomplete leader’, Harvard Business Review, February 2007, on http://www.fapsconline.org/hmm/leading_and_motivating.zip/resources/R0702E.pdf;

[2] See Warren G Bennis and Robert J Thomas, Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders, Harvard Business School Press, 2002. In a more popular genre, see Steve Young, Great Failures Of The Extremely Successful: Mistakes, Adversity, Failure And Other Stepping Stones To Success, Tallfellow Press, 2002; John A Sarkett, Extraordinary Comebacks, Sourcebooks, 2007, and Joey Green, Famous Failures: Hundreds Of Hot Shots Who Got Rejected, Flunked Out, Worked Lousy Jobs, Goofed Up, Or Did Time In Jail Before Achieving Phenomenal Success, Lunatic Press, 2007.

[3] See for example Deborah Ancona and Henrik Bresman, X-teams: How to Build Teams That Lead, Innovate and Succeed, Harvard Business School Press, 2007.

[4] Karen Sobel Lojeski and Richard R Reilly, Uniting the Virtual Workforce: Transforming Leadership and Innovation in the Globally Integrated Enterprise, Wiley, 2008, pp131, 132 and Chapter

[5] Gianpiero Petriglieri, Affiliate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, quoted in Shellie Karabell, ‘Leadership today: less charisma, more consensus’, INSEAD Knowledge, 18 December 2009, on http://knowledge.insead.edu/leadership-insead-initiative.cfm?vid=362

[6] Joanna Barsh and others, ‘Five dimensions of leadership’, McKinsey Quarterly, 2008, Issue 4.

[7] NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement, ‘NHS leadership qualities framework’, on http://www.nhsleadershipqualities.nhs.uk/portals/0/the_framework.pdf

[8] John Adair, Leadership for Innovation: How to Organize Team Creativity and Harvest Ideas, Kogan Page, 2007, pp65, 122.

[9] See for example Michael M Beyerlein and others, Innovation Through Collaboration, Advances in Interdisciplinary Studies of Work Teams Volume 12, JAI Press, 2006.

[10] NESTA, Absorbing Global Innovations: Access, Anchor, Diffuse, Policy briefing, October 2008, on http://www.nesta.org.uk/library/documents/Policy%20Brief%20-%20Absorbing%20Global%20Innovations%20v4.pdf

[11] Joanna Barsh and others, ‘Leadership and innovation’, McKinsey Quarterly, January 2008.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Christie W Barrett and others, ‘Upgrading R&D in a downturn’, McKinsey Quarterly, February 2009.

Add Your Comments

You must be logged in to post a comment.