The Innovator’s Leadership Imperative

By Henry Doss, Chief Strategy Officer of T2 Venture Creation, from Forbes

To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.  — Theodore Roosevelt

A quick read around in contemporary business writing might show that we are on the verge of elevating innovation and innovators to some kind of mythical status.  It is becoming commonplace to equate those who consciously seek the new, the different, and the disruptive with an exceptional class of leadership and extraordinary business value.   This may very well be true.  But at the end of the day, after all, even innovators are simply people engaged in the world, doing their best.  We elevate innovators to high organizational status at the risk of trivializing what they attempt.

Still, it’s worth remembering that those who choose consciously to cause or lead the growth of innovation in their organizations are engaged in changing things, in breaking things, sometimes in outright destroying things. More than anything else, they array their thinking and their beliefs and their actions in direct confrontation with the status quo.   In this role, innovators make choices and decisions that have implications not only for their own lives and careers and communities, but also for the work and life experience of all those around them.  Innovators make foundational assumptions about change and risk and value, and then seek to instill those very same values into their communities, and other individuals.  This is not an inconsequential matter.

Immanuel Kant took a definitive and uncompromising position about our accountability for truth and for our influence on and interaction with others:  “Act only on the maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”  At its simplest — and most profound — he is simply calling us to examine our own motivations as if they were universally applicable, and then consider the consequences of that universality.  If we apply this same thinking to our advocacy of innovation, we might begin to reshape our sense of our leadership accountability in ways that can be instructive and even a little sobering.

Anyone who is a champion of innovation is someone who by definition does things differently, and in ways that are almost always disruptive of the norm. Disruption, change and organizational turbulence are stressful and sometimes outright harmful, even when absolutely necessary.  The process of creative destruction — intentional or otherwise –  may very well be a creative process; but it is also after all a process of destruction, and destruction — creative or otherwise — has consequences for organizations and for individuals.  Innovators are the ones who seek out creation of the new and its attendant destruction of the old, and they often relish the process of destroying and rebuilding.  This is their calling and, more often than not, their natural inclination.  And it’s a powerful way of being. But not everyone in an organization will view the prospect of change and innovation as happily .  Therein lies the particular accountability — and leadership challenge — for innovators.

For the natural born innovator, risk and failure are akin to an old, comfortable pair of shoes.   Change for them is a preferred state of being, rather than something to be avoided.  The challenge comes when the risk-inclined begin to interact with and lead the risk-averse.  This presents a challenge on two levels.  It is on the one hand a management and leadership challenge to appropriately introduce risk-tolerance and a nuanced perspective on failure into organizations; on the other hand, it is also an issue of accepting accountability for actively changing other individual’s natural inclination or actions.  It is one thing for someone to be comfortable with risk, but quite another to insist on others adopting or accepting that perspective on risk. The innovator has the twin challenge of both working to help others accept a risk-oriented experience, and of accepting accountability for the consequences that go along with causing change in others.

Much of the success of any innovation culture rests on the foundation of individual and organizational trust systems.  The trust quotient of an organization is stressed and tested when it is being led in a direction where change and uncertainty are the norm.  Ultimately, this is actually a a good thing, because it is trust — given and received — that supports the relationships necessary to lead an organization to accept and embrace risk-based thinking and change.  So, what cultural attribute more than trust should be subject to periodic stress tests?    Change can be mandated, of course; but top-down, fiat-driven change is very unlikely to leave an organization in a powerful place. Change that is led by role models who are willing to accept personal risk to advocate change, and who will appropriately mediate the consequences of disruption, will in turn create long-term, lasting cultural norms amenable to adaptation and innovation.

This is the leadership imperative of anyone who wishes to be an innovator.   The charge is not only to innovate, but to mediate the consequences of innovation; not only to advocate change, but to guide others in embracing change; not only to resist the status quo, but to teach and support others in doing so.  It is this holistic, diverse and trusting leadership stance that will drive innovation over the long haul.

Henry Doss believes leadership will change the world.  His book, The Rainforest Scorecard, provides a guide to the measurement of innovation in organizations.

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