What is Innovative Leadership? How Imagination Revolutionizes Business

What is an Innovative Leader?

Innovative leadership inspires others to think outside the box, then creates an environment where new ideas can be tested and evaluated. These leaders tend to be visionaries and motivate their followers through leading by example and fostering collaboration.

Innovative leadership uses several different leadership styles, depending upon what is required to meet the needs of organization and individuals.

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Innovative leadership defined

Innovative leaders manage the process of innovation. In some cases, this leader is responsible for generating new ideas within an organization. In others, he or she is responsible for fostering and recognizing new ideas put forth by followers. In 2006, Dr. David Gliddon, a business professor at Penn State University, developed the first competency model for innovative leadership.

This leadership style is sometimes a technical role and might be found in research and development departments, in science, technology or media. Innovative leaders may also be responsible for tracking new developments in areas that directly or indirectly impact their organization.

Common traits of innovative leadership include:

  • Open leadership behaviors
  • Creating a work environment conducive to innovation
  • Devising processes that lead to creative thinking and problem-solving
  • Encouraging an environment that allows the followers to implement and evaluate new ideas

Differences between innovative leadership and other leadership styles

Innovative leaders may use a variety of techniques, but there are definite differences between innovative leadership and other styles, such as bureaucratic leadership.

Innovative leadership

  • The thinking process is abductive and conducive to making innovative connections
  • Very collaborative
  • Works best in a loose group structure
  • Nondirective

Bureaucratic leadership

  • Values traditional business processes like breaking a problem down into known facts, current assumptions and so on
  • Management is top down
  • Tasks are extremely structured and delineated

History of innovative leadership

Innovative leadership is a product of path-goal theory and leader-member exchange (LMX) theory as laid out by researchers Basu and Green (1997). Path-goal theory is based on the fact that many leadership styles are needed within an organization. In order for innovative leadership to work well within an organization, it needs follower cooperation and an environment that is effective. LMX states that each individual should be governed by a leadership style that fits them.

Another description of innovative leaders can be found in the 1998 book “Fourth Generation R&D” by William M. Miller. Miller concluded that innovative leadership has evolved at the same pace as technology.

Examples of innovative leadership

Historical leaders have always championed innovation, but the last 100 years in particular have given us numerous men and women whose ideas changed the game in their fields. Here are three examples of innovative leaders.

Marc Benioff

Benioff is the founder and CEO of Salesforce.com, a cloud-based company started in 1999. The company expanded through a large number of acquisitions. In 2013, its revenue topped $3 billion. It topped the Forbes World’s Most Innovative Companies list in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Salesforce.com claims to have transformed the enterprise software market, and they say that now they are leading the shift to social enterprise.

Dr. Temple Grandin

Biologist and author Temple Grandin is known both for her expertise in animal science and welfare and as a leader in the autistic community. Beginning in the 1970s, Dr. Grandin revolutionized livestock handling with corral and feedlot designs that alleviated animal anxiety. She also worked with large slaughterhouse companies to ensure humane treatment of cattle, sheep and pigs.

Because Dr. Grandin was born with high-functioning autism at a time when autistic people were usually institutionalized, her parents worked tirelessly to find the education, environment and resources that would help their daughter thrive. Today, Dr. Grandin advocates for people on the autism spectrum and has authored books about both animal welfare and autism-friendly education.

Elon Musk

Musk is the CEO and CTO (Chief Technology Officer) of Tesla Motors, which builds electric cars, as well as the CEO and Chief Product Architect of SpaceX, a space exploration company. In 2013, SpaceX became the first private company to launch a satellite into geosynchronous orbit. In 2013, he introduced his Hyperloop transport concept, where people are hurdled through a tube, in a personal capsule, at the speed of over 750 mph.

Innovative leadership quotations

Here are a compendium of quotes related to innovative leadership:

Elon Musk: “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

Albert Einstein: “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.”

Temple Grandin: “Who do you think made the first stone spears? The Asperger guy. If you were to get rid of all the autism genetics, there would be no more Silicon Valley.”

Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Marc Benioff: “The secret to successful hiring is this: look for people who want to change the world.”

Innovative leadership style requirements

There are many behavioral traits common to all innovative leaders. They include:

  • Clear strategic vision
  • Strong focus on the end-user
  • Able to build strong two-way trust
  • Strongly committed to doing right for the organization and the individual
  • Trust in the ability to communicate upward in organization
  • Excellent at getting people to go beyond their normal limits
  • Believe in speed and getting ideas and prototypes completed quickly
  • Blunt and straightforward communication style

Six abductive reasoning skills used by innovative leaders

When innovative leadership is used in any organization, six innovative thinking skills are used. These skills are called abductive reasoning:

  1. Paying attention: They watch what is happening and make sure the group is collaborating
  2. Personalizing: Developing a rapport with and paying attention to the individuals within a group
  3. Imaging: Innovative leaders have a clear vision of the goal that they are good at communicating
  4. Serious play: Fostering a playful environment to encourage production. They know that pressure will kill creativity.
  5. Collaborative inquiry: Innovative leaders stress collaboration. They find ways to increase cross-pollination of ideas.
  6. Crafting:  Innovative leaders help the group to prototype, find holes in the idea, and generally evaluate the final results.

Advantages and disadvantages of innovative leadership

Every leadership style has its positives and negatives. Innovative leadership is no exception.

Innovative leadership pros

  • High job satisfaction
  • Higher job performance
  • High-quality group interaction
  • The greater the diversity, the greater the variety of ideas

Innovative leadership cons

  • Results are not predictable
  • Resource intensive
  • Time consuming

Benefits of innovative leadership

Innovative leadership is used in Silicon Valley companies, including Google, Tesla and Netflix. Companies nationwide realize that surviving in the 21st century means changing, adapting, and being more creative than the competition.