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A Guide to Innovation Leadership: Characteristics, Examples, and Practices.

Andrew Langat
November 22, 2023
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“Some see things as they are and ask why.  Others dream things that never were and ask why not.”- Thomas Edison

It is not difficult to see why innovation leadership is what is needed for continued success. Nokia, Blockbuster, Blackberry, & Yahoo offer quintessential examples. For example, as a dominant market player at the start of the Internet age, Yahoo's senior leadership proclaimed that the search experience was not worth improving and passed on an opportunity to buy Google.

An innovative leader will solve problems, encourage rapid prototyping of new ideas, focus on what matters, and encourage a creative environment – all essential ingredients for a good workplace.

So, how do we define innovation leadership?

What makes it different from other leadership styles?

What are the characteristics and practices of an innovative leader?

This article will give us some insight.

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What is Innovation Leadership?

Innovation leadership is a management style that integrates different leadership styles like collaboration, competency, and ability for creativity within the workplace.

This style capitalizes on employee's creative potential. It inspires and guides them to develop the essential skills to improve the company's performance.

An innovative leader doesn't need to be the most intelligent person in the room or the person who comes up with creative ideas. Instead they are leaders who promote innovation efforts and greenlight innovation projects.

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Why is Innovation Leadership Important?

Innovation leaders like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Thomas Edison are known as powerful leaders, but they are the most effective innovation leaders because of their creative insights. They have also motivated people and turned their innovative ideas into a reality.

So, what made their leadership style successful?

What is the importance of this leadership role and style?

Here are two examples of why innovation leadership is key for company growth:

1. It improves employee engagement and morale.

Innovation leadership style enables innovative behavior in a company because it promotes innovative thinking. This enhances corporate culture and amplifies the effort of every individual in achieving success.

This will allow individuals from all levels to be involved in the processes that are the building blocks for success. Also, the more ideas are produced, the more employees are engaged.

When team members feel that their concerns can be heard and addressed, they may feel more welcome in the workplace, which increases confidence. Companies nowadays have realized the need to maintain employee morale by developing programs to boost their employees and ensure they are comfortable working and performing.

2. It Inspires and Motivates Employees.

Innovative leaders can create an innovation culture within their company. This can be possible through communication. They communicate their vision as well as how to achieve it. They focus on the bigger picture and how to achieve long-term goals.

An innovation leader should be for open feedback, where team members can actively participate in the company plans, and maintain a space where individual creativity is appreciated and welcomed. With clear communication, an innovation culture is born and the company's status quo changes. An environment where there is free-flowing creativity is developed.

A perfect example is Steve Jobs. He was able to communicate the company's vision and inspire his employees to develop the best products in a competitive environment.

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Innovation leadership style: Characteristics and Practices

A leader who enables and promotes innovation possesses some key characteristics. These attributes make them different and unique from other leaders.

Here are some characteristics:

1. Comfortable with risk-taking.

Innovative leaders have a high risk tolerance; they know how to take up new concepts that are applicable because they have done their homework beforehand.

Their high risk tolerance enables them to stay competitive and achieve positive results. They also have a "Plan B" in case the new concepts blow back on them.

2. Promoters of Creativity.

"A small invention every ten days, a large one every six months" - Thomas Edison

Good innovation leadership identifies that creativity is needed for excellent results to happen. Innovative can require leaders who are willing to expand existing boundaries and inspire their employees to explore their creative ideas, which can include applying innovative solutions to modern workday problems.

Frameworks, such as those of Thomas Edison, created targets for employees to employ different skills in their routine work and gave them the freedom to cultivate innovation without limits.

3. Detail-Oriented.

Innovative leaders are very meticulous; they are detail-oriented and make sure all the aspects are on point, especially during the implementation of an innovation process. Tech innovators like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates produced more than one prototype before settling on an ideal product.

Innovative leaders know that a small deviation in an innovation process can negatively impact innovation performance and success.

Innovative leaders are efficient and are highly skilled in managing time and resources for innovation. Therefore, they are detail-oriented time managers, and hold themselves accountable when leading innovation in their companies.

4. Good Collaborators.

Creative solutions are born when people from different backgrounds and experiences work together using innovation to achieve the desired results and propel companies to success.

Innovative leaders have high emotional intelligence and they know how to bring people with different temperaments together while seeing both sides of a collaborative argument. They create harmony within the work environment by covering all possible solutions.

Innovative leaders aim to make an innovation process as smooth as possible by combining different expertise and skills that can be beneficial in developing creative insights, services, and products that help navigate a dynamic marketplace.

5. Creators of Innovative Culture.

Effective innovation leaders are big on the idea of innovation and no matter what kind of company they run, they want to leave a mark. Therefore, they create a culture where innovative solutions are born. They encourage their team members to gather creative ideas that welcome generational changes.

In addition, the leaders prioritize a continuous innovation culture and believe that inclusivity fosters the conception of the best innovations. They have a support team with responsibilities and roles that lead to implementing and sustaining a free-flowing creative workspace.

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Examples of Innovative Leadership

Innovative leadership

Mary Barra's leadership at General Motors

She is the first CEO of a global automotive company, General Motors. She has an inclusive innovative leadership style, always striving to build a team with the right people collaboratively managing others and creating plans to confront challenges directly.

She encourages GM employees to be frank, speaking their minds and confronting problems head on. She's also tech-savvy, uses social media regularly, and is a blogger on LinkedIn as well.

Ted Sarandos Leadership at Netflix

He is the Chief Content Officer of Netflix, the streaming giant. He oversaw one of the biggest changes in the Film and TV industry. Through innovative data collection, he took calculated risks that influenced the way consumers watched TV and film during his time at Netflix.

Netflix has a total of 238 million subscribers as of 2023, and this was possible because Ted developed groundbreaking software algorithms to predict what movies would connect with viewers.

Sarandos has a talent for combining data and judgment, which allows him to take calculated risks. His innovative leadership style has been applied by many aspiring CEOs.

Mark Zuckerberg's leadership at Meta

One of the most influential innovative leaders of the 21st century is the CEO of Meta. Still in his 30s, he has managed to create a social media revolution with the various platforms he owns.

As an innovation leader, he prioritizes passion over skill because he believes that passion can't be taught. He encourages his employees to work on passion projects as it motivates them to perform in every aspect of their work.

Satya Nadella's Leadership at Microsoft

Satya Nadella became the CEO of Microsoft in 2014 and since then, his innovative leadership style has transformed Microsoft from a sleepy giant, known for goofs, into one of the most innovative companies in the world today. This is reflected in, among other things, the company share price which has risen by almost 1000% in value.

As an innovative innovation leader himself, he has cultivated a growth mindset, embraced open source, and acquired strategic assets such as Linkedin as well as the most recent open A.I. applications.

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How Can You Practice Innovative Leadership?

The business world is becoming more competitive by the minute, and business leaders need to level up to give their companies competitive advantages in new markets. Therefore, they need to be innovative.

So, how can they practice innovation leadership?

Here are some pointers:

1. Develop psychological safety within the workplace.

This ensures that employees feel psychologically safe, and feel free to explore risky endeavors, show their innovative sides, and speak their minds.

2. Emphasize Team Work.

Encourage your team members to share ideas and opinions no matter how contradicting they might be from their colleagues. To develop a cohesive team, you need to bring together conflicting ideas and develop concepts that can ensure continued success.

Teamwork is one of the most important determiners of success. Also, when transitioning to a modern workplace that will be full of technology, you will want all your team syncing so that you can implement changes easily.

To learn more: 5 behaviors of a cohesive team.

3. Be Diverse.

This is one of the essential leadership skills. You need to integrate people from different backgrounds and encourage them to work well with one another, despite their differences, because their perspectives can positively impact the company.

4. Be an effective communicator.

Effective communication is an crucial skill for innovation. It is essential to ensure that instructions, strategies, and expectations are disseminated clearly. Additionally, it is necessary to maintain a steady flow of information that is open and easily accessible.

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What Are the Challenges of Innovative Leadership?

The innovative leadership style is becoming popular and more leaders are trying to use it. However, with all the benefits it can bring, it has its challenges too.

Here are some:

1. Limited Resources

Any organization or company that is planning to be innovative requires human capital/talent, time, and money. However, if the resources are limited, it is difficult to implement any creative ideas that the team can develop.

Innovation requires enough resources – and the transition from a traditional leadership style can be tight on the budget. Many companies can face losses if the implementation goes wrong.

2. Resistance to Change

Innovation in any company or organization brings change. Processes change as new aspects are incorporated, but people are naturally resistant to change. This becomes a challenge if a leader wants to introduce creative ideas to a team.

It is common for individuals within organizations to resist change when they are asked to adopt new behaviors, processes, or technologies. This resistance can take the form of outright opposition, passive resistance, or skepticism within teams, groups, and even the organization as a whole.

Ultimately, resistance can hinder the efforts of innovative leaders who are trying to implement new ideas and initiatives, resulting in missed opportunities and slow progress.

3. Time Limitations

Organizations and companies run on performance, which comes from having a clear plan. And for it to work leaders need to turn their ideas into strategies quickly. However, it can be difficult to prioritize innovative ideas while meeting deadlines.

Leaders might have a challenge in keeping up with the day-to-day operations while exploring a creative new idea. They should try to set clear goals and deadlines and break down large projects into smaller, manageable tasks.

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Andrew Langat
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Andrew Langat is an experienced content specialist in Leadership, Productivity, Education, Fintech, and Research. He is an avid reader and loves swimming as a hobby. He believes that quality content should be actionable and helpful.