Oct 122014

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Dr. Earl R. Smith II

Inspired leadership plays a critical part in the cultivation of innovation. That part is not limited to making speeches about the need for innovation.


In the prior articles in this series, I focused on the general problems and some of the specific issues which come to fore when a company sets about to develop a culture which supports and encourages innovation. In this article, I would like to focus on some of the characteristics of leadership that best support such an effort.

In the first two installments, I made it clear that a close partnership between the CEO and the Chairman of the Board is one of the best ways to develop a corporate culture that stimulates innovation. A careful mixing of the CEO’s essentially tactical focus with the Chairman’s strategic view can be the first and most important step in developing such a culture. While there are characteristics that these leaders may not share, many of the components of their leadership style are the same. I will address these differences in a subsequent article. However, for now, I would like to focus on the common leadership characteristics that I have found important.

Vision Beyond Self: There are lots of ways to describe this leadership characteristic – ‘seeing it from the other’s perspective’ – ‘walking a mile in their shoes’ – but it comes down to being able to understand, appreciate and honor where the person on the other side of the table is coming from. Good leaders have the ability to appreciate empathetically the position and condition of their subordinates. This is true whether the perspective of the leader is tactical (CEO) or strategic (Chairman).

Providing the Visions: One of the most common mistakes that leaders make is to assume that vision relates to strategic perspectives and not tactical ones. Nothing could be further from the truth. The combination of the two perspectives begins with the promulgation of clear and inspiring visions from both. One of the most common imbalances that I encounter in my work with companies trying to develop a culture of innovation is that imbalance between these visions. Most often, the strategic vision is well defined – or at least as well defined as it might be without the discipline imposed by a well-formulated tactical vision. The CEO and Chairman must both develop visions from their own perspectives and then blend them effectively.

Communicating the Visions: Innovation works – and by that I mean the process which begins with an innovative insight and progresses efficiently to the point that it is translated into revenue – when the two visions are deployed and blended appropriately within that process. At the beginning, the mix will be more towards the strategic vision. However, it is important the tactical discipline make itself felt even at the earliest stages. As the process proceeds, the balance needs to shift gradually towards the tactical. This means that the communication of the visions needs to be re-aligned as the process moves from the idea to realization. This evolution of vision-mix is one of the most difficult and subtle challenges that the CEO and Chairman face.

Facilitation Not Forcing: Vision is not innovation. The CEO and Chairman are not going to be doing the work of innovation – they are going to be facilitating it. In my experience, CEOs and Chairmen who insist on taking the lead in the process of innovation – rather than facilitating it – are either misaligned or do not understand the process. Good facilitators are seldom great innovators. People who make the mistake of assuming they are identical become intrusive and disruptive. Sustainable innovation requires effective facilitators. Innovation occurs because facilitators fill the appropriate role.

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