Innovative leadership is common at companies that recognize opportunities for improvement through change. The ability to recognize and implement improvement is integral to the company’s culture, which is then supported through its innovative leadership.

A Tradition of Innovators

The U.S. has a strong history of the need to increase innovation. The Europeans who came to the U.S. in the 17th and 18th century were those who were not happy with the status quo. They were willing to risk it all for the opportunities they could have in a new world. The pioneering spirit carried on through western expansion and even through the industrial revolution and the start of the information age. Several cultural values have helped continue the pioneering spirit such as individualism, a focus on achievement, and our sense of a land of abundance and opportunity.

The tradition of innovation should now help us through another period of transition as we move more firmly from the industrial age to the information age. Fueling process innovation in an organization, however, can be very difficult due to the natural inclination for an organization to resist change.

Certainly the willingness to take risks was a key factor for the pioneers who founded and settled the United States. Research reveals, however, that there is very little correlation between how risk averse an organization is and its ability to be innovative. What the literature seems to reveal is that there is a strong correlation between other elements of an organization’s culture and its ability to innovate.

What is a Leader?

The term “leadership” certainly gets thrown around quite a bit. What does it really mean to be a leader, or more specifically, a good leader? Is being a good leader being able to manage your staff in effective ways to meet objectives? Is it about how you manage your staff to meet the objectives? Perhaps it is about what objectives you set for your organization?

The lines and definitions of leaders and managers may seem somewhat blurred and confusing. Just who or what is an innovative leader? At times it is useful to think of leaders as developing vision, while managers oversee tasks.

It is also true, however, that whether you are the CEO of large company or the manager of a small department, you are a leader. People in your company or in your department are going to pay attention to, and most likely follow, the example you provide in taking on your responsibilities and carrying out your tasks. The guidance you provide as a leader is in the how, why, what you do, as well as in what you say.

An extensive study on successful and unsuccessful organizational leaders found that, while attributes and styles of successful leaders varied widely, there are two things successful leaders do that are common. Successful leaders initiate structure and show consideration.

However, all too often organizational leaders attempt to dictate what they want the organizational culture to be, without really using the tools and levers at their disposal to set the organizational tone. Even worse they dictate it from a “do as say not as I do” approach. In hierarchical-structured organizations culture flows from the leadership. However, the organization’s members will take their cues from what the leaders do, not what the leaders say.

Leaders in an organization show that innovation is valued by how they allocate resources like budget and manpower. They set the tone by how priorities are set. What do they spend their time doing and what are they paying attention to? If they spend a large majority of their time fretting about unit costs and force counts, then they are unlikely to lead an organization that works to increase innovation.

Innovative LeadershipInnovative Leadership-Policies and Procedures

Initiating structure means setting clear priorities and goals, establishing an organized approach to accomplishing the work, and allocating the resources effectively and properly. Showing consideration means recognizing people as individuals with lives, interests, and needs outside of the workplace that need to be recognized, accommodated, and even encouraged. Effective leaders don’t see their team members as identical functioning cogs.

It seems intuitive that successful leaders initiate structure and show consideration. Being innovative in these important areas, though, plays a significant role in how successful they are as leaders. Policies and procedures are used by innovative leaders as a starting point for communicating how the works gets done and not a constraint to process improvement.

Successful leaders provide clear direction and individual appreciation to encourage workers to contribute toward reaching organizational goals; innovative leaders have the ability to make people want to contribute to reaching goals. It may seem like a small difference, but that could be the difference between achieving standards and setting new standards.

Innovation vs. Best Practices

It seems most companies would rather lead their respective categories by doing most of the important things — all coming under the heading of “customer needs and wants” —consistently better than their competitors.

What are the important things? Give your customers what they want (which varies from one customer to the next but can be lumped into one category, “value”). Give it to them when they want it and don’t make excuses. Value translates to “quality”, which you can give a customer from the outset if you’re lucky. Anyone can get it right at least once but what most of us call “quality” comes about only through establishing consistency in a process. And consistency can only be determined over time.

So, how do you ensure consistency? Keep working at the process. Keep refining it. Implement “best practices”. What if keeping up isn’t good enough? Yes, the silver medal is nice but wouldn’t gold…or platinum…be even better? How do you get ahead of the pack? How do you differentiate yourself in a way that really matters?

Well, what’s the difference between a company that successfully meets or exceeds most stated customer requirements — again, not a bad place to be — and companies that go beyond the known and measurable? The difference is marked by a willingness not to be defined — or confined — by conventional thinking. Innovators don’t think a subject to death: they act decisively.

Of course, they get it wrong a lot of the time but they don’t fret about their mistakes. They learn from them, and they keep moving. Sure, “mistake-proofing” has its rewards. Mistake-proofed organizations are more certain, they’re more measurable, and they’re often profitable. Innovative companies aren’t afraid of mistakes, because they know that’s how we learn best, as companies and as individuals.

Employing Innovative Leadership

Organizations with a culture of innovation also put systems in place like integrated customer touch point management. Here the voice of customer is ably captured, categorized, and then funneled to product managers, designers, customer service, production, sales & marketing, account receivables, and shipping, or to whatever department might be able to use particular customer feedback. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, programs must be created to reward innovative efforts that include recognition and financial incentives. These programs send a clear message that innovation is valued.

While our tradition of innovation might serve as the igniting match, these types of programs are the fuel that allows an innovative spirit to burn brightly. It is important to reiterate, however, that these efforts cannot succeed without active involvement from the organization’s leaders. Proclamations without management involvement will soon die on the vine. When there is active participation by top managers and decision makers, then a culture of innovation is truly being nurtured.

If you’re looking for a definitive description of innovative leadership, good luck. Like good art; it can be difficult to explain but easy to recognize. Most would agree, however, that innovative leaders are willing to try new approaches and to think in different ways. They understand that at times failure is part of learning. They keep their eye on the horizon as well as the bottom line. They tend to see the inherent and potential value of organizational operations instead of just the cost.