Qualities of Innovative Leaders

bill-georgeBy – Bill George

Organizations need innovative leaders at the top willing to sacrifice near-term financial results to support their innovators through success and failure. The characteristics of great innovative leaders are dramatically different from traditional business managers. Here are five essential qualities they must have to lead innovation: 

  1. Passion for innovation. Innovative leaders not only have to appreciate the benefits of innovation, they need a deep passion for innovations that benefit customers. Just approving funds for innovation is insufficient. Leaders must make innovation an essential part of the company’s culture and growth strategy. 
  2. A long-term perspective. Most investors think three years is “long-term,” but that won’t yield genuine innovation. Major innovations can change entire markets as the iPod and iTunes did, but they take time to perfect products and gain adoption by mainstream users. Leaders cannot stop and start innovation projects as if they were marketing expenses; they must support innovation regardless of the company’s near-term prospects. 
  3. The courage to fail and learn from failure. The risks of innovation are well known, but many leaders aren’t willing to be associated with its failures. However, there is a great deal to be learned from why an innovation has failed, as this enhanced understanding can lead to the greatest breakthroughs. At Medtronic, our failures with implantable defibrillators in the 1980s led to far more sophisticated approaches to treating heart disease in the 1990s. 
  4. Deep engagement with the innovators. Innovative leaders must be highly engaged with their innovation teams: asking questions, probing for potential problems, and looking for ways to accelerate projects and broaden their impact. That’s what HP’s founders Bill Hewlett and David Packard did by wandering around HP’s labs and challenging innovators. 
  5. Willingness to tolerate mavericks and defend them from middle management. The best innovators are rule-breakers and mavericks who don’t fit the corporate mold and are threatening to middle managers following more typical management approaches. That’s why innovative leaders must protect their maverick’s projects, budgets, and careers rather than forcing them into traditional management positions. 
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