By Henry Doss
Managing Partner at Rainforest Strategies LLP
A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: We did it ourselves. - Lao Tzu
Leading innovation is a lot like parenting.
As a parent, you generally don’t have any meaningful training or preparation before you start. You kind of learn as you go, and figure things out as they land in front of you. Most of the advice you get is off base and not at all relevant to your circumstances. By the time you’ve accumulated enough experience to be more or less competent, the skills you’ve acquired are mostly irrelevant. To top it all off, the really important things you did, the things that will really matter somewhere in the future, are totally invisible, hidden away in a flurry of daily actions and drama and living.
You will rarely, if ever, get credit for good parenting. And you will rarely, if ever, get credit for leading and causing innovation.
At least not if you’re leading the right way.
Becoming a powerful leader of innovative organizations rests in many critical ways on a foundation of ways of being, ways of thinking and ways of conducting yourself. Self-awareness and insight into yourself as a leader and as a member of a social group will determine how much you contribute to or cause innovation in your world. As a beginning point for reflection about how to be a leader in innovation, here are five likely characteristics of strong, collaborative leaders and role models:
1: Don’t do. Influence.
Anyone who conducts an argument by appealing to authority is not using his intelligence; he is just using his memory. — Leonardo da Vinci
More often than not, you create value and innovation in an organizational system by being a role model for behavior and thinking and accountability, not by calling on organizational authority or lines of command. You do not simply proclaim “Innovate!” and expect anything to happen. It is who you are, rather than what you do that will matter. Doing, making demands, setting goals, checking, measuring, reporting and so on are of course necessary parts of any organization’s operation; but these actions are functions of command and hierarchy, not innovation. You cannot create or cause innovation through appeals to authority — yours or anyone else’s. Authority is a rote function of history and hierarchy; influence is a function of character, risk, and caring. Innovation, and innovation cultures, derive from the latter. As a leader, cultivate a state of being that is innovation, rather than a set of commands about innovation.
2: Seed the future, not the present.
Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present. — Marcus Aurelius
The demands of organizational accountability tend to be urgent. Things need to be done now. Reports finished. Meetings scheduled. Production quotas met. These are necessary things, but they have nothing to do with innovation. The future is where innovation always lives, and sometimes that future is a long way off, uncertain, and really hard to forecast. Those who wish to be true leaders of innovation must be able to meet urgent, near-term demands, and at the same time serve as role models for the future . . . without worrying too much about the specifics of that future. The seeds of culture and risk and trust that you sow as an innovation leader of the now will only manifest themselves at some future, unpredictable time and place. Be in the present; be about the future. You will have lots of company worrying about that next board meeting, or that next quarterly report; but as a leader of innovation you may find your concern for the future to be a lonely spot. Stay there.
3: Work for the love of change and improvement, rather than for what you get for yourself:
We set out to save the Shire, Sam and it has been saved – but not for me. — Frodo Baggins, from The Return of the King
Innovation leaders tend to be motivated more by what can happen for the benefit of others and of their organizations, rather than what can directly benefit them. That’s not to say that you should not have an interest in how you benefit from your own hard work, nor does it mean that you don’t pay attention to your personal welfare. What this does suggest is that the state of constantly being concerned for other’s benefit, for the growth and success and fulfillment of others in your organization, has an almost magical impact on outcomes — yours and everyone else’s. Where you want to drive positive change and constant improvement, lead from outside yourself and you’ll see those results. Lead from your own personal interests, and everyone else will, too. And that’s a recipe for mistrust, fear and zero-risk states, not innovation.
4: Take personal risks that will benefit others, even when — especially when! – those who will benefit may not even know what you’re doing.
Not for ourselves alone are we born. — Cicero
It seems inevitable that in most — all? — organizations, rewarding is deeply linked to recognizing. This emphasis on recognition, in turn, creates a value set that causes individuals to seek recognition. Work is evaluated in terms of how much recognition any particular action might realize, not in what value that action might have for the organization. Incentive structures — the great demon of unintended consequences – then create feedback loops that equate being seen and known with being a contributor. The result: No one will take risk that might cause someone else to be recognized, or to cause a negative recognition in the event of failure. Which, of course, ensures the long-term failure of any organization.
The positive behavior leaders of innovative organizations want to role model and to embed in their teams is selflessness. This is a tall order, and one that can feel a bit out of reach. But the call of being a leader is to be an agent of change, and making things better. Powerful leaders of innovation will both be, and cause others to be, grounded in taking appropriate risks on behalf of others, rather than themselves. When this happens, if this happens, organizations are transformed
5: Share, share, share all the time.
Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality. – Dalai Lama XIV
Business (all manner of business) is simply the control of information. But in the case of innovation, there is a trick to that word “control.” The most powerful driver of new things, and of discovery, and of invention is transparency. Look around your own organization. Where you see silos, you’ll see information hoards. Where you see “departments” that are incentivized by their individual success, you’ll see information hoards. Where you see individuals seeking recognition or power or advantage, you’ll see information hoards. And where you see information hoards, you will not see innovation.
Effective leaders are grounded in the notion that “what’s mine is yours.” They will see information and knowledge as treasure to be shared, to be used by everyone in service to organizational goals. But most organizations structure their operations, incentives, and metrics in such a way as to discourage the actual sharing of information. Innovation leaders will be in constant search of ways to open up information flows, of ways to bring individuals and groups together to share and optimize knowledge. When this happens, when structure and incentive and ways of being encourage open information systems, the result may be rather unpredictable; but it will certainly be innovative.
There is one thing that all five of these leadership characteristics have in common: They are all ways of being, or thinking, or acting. They are not skill-based; they don’t require any specialized knowledge; and they certainly don’t require any authority. They simply require a change in how a leader thinks.
And that may be the only leadership assignment that matters.
Henry Doss believes authentic leadership can change the world. His book, The Rainforest Scorecard, provides a guide to the measurement of innovation in organizations.