Since his passing there have been volumes written about Steve Jobs and the amazing success he created at Apple. While there are myriad reasons for his success, it is innovation that is inextricably linked to Steve Jobs.  Ask anyone who has been in a meeting in the last year where innovation was discussed, and they will likely tell you that Jobs and Apple were highlighted as an example of success just prior to a discussion about how we can “do what he did there, here.”

We see this locally as well as business leaders in every sector from medical services to high tech looking for ways to be innovative as a means to growth.  In last year’s Mayoral election each candidate spoke about the importance of innovation as a means to job creation and one of the candidates used the phrase “unleashing innovation” as part of an election campaign.

One of my clients, A Fortune 50 technology services organization, asked me to help them identify the best practices of their leaders who were evaluated to be the most innovative in the organization.  There was only a little bit of discussion about brainstorming, generating ideas, prototyping, and the like—the kind of things most of us think about when we consider institutionalizing innovation.  Instead, this is what I heard most from leaders and their teams.

1.       They have a vision for outcomes

One of most common refrains of team members was that the leader of these teams put a great deal of effort into clearly envisioning and talking about the outcomes in a given scenario, rather than directing how those outcomes would be achieved.  Clearly, one of the ways that innovation is cultivated is by having leaders that make sure everyone involved knows the outcome and strategic goals of any objective and then create opportunities to determine how to get there.

2.      They cultivate reciprocal trust

One of the most striking characteristics observed was the two-way trust between leader and subordinates.  The direct reports often describe their leaders as protectors.   Dozens of times I heard the comment, “he/she covered my back.”  I am using the term “reciprocal trust” in these instances because it was very clear that this was not simply confidence that someone could be counted on to do a good job–there was a much more palpable sense of trust that permeated the relationships.

3.      They challenge the status quo and push back on hierarchy.

These leaders are by no means rebels, but we did hear in many cases that they are “fearless.”  They possess a willingness to take on difficult issues even when it means expressing disagreement with higher levels in the organization.  They are able to disagree, without being disagreeable and do so in a way that cultivates tremendous respect from their colleagues.  One peer in particular used the term “healthy creative tension” when describing the atmosphere of meetings led by the innovator.

4.      They are inspiring and motivate their teams

One staff member I met with said it best, “For innovation to exist you have to feel inspired!”  Based on the research in the book I co-authored, The Inspiring Leader, (McGraw Hill 2009) I was not shocked to hear so many comments related to this topic, because the most of the data indicates that no other leadership competency influences productivity and engagement more profoundly.

5.      They establish stretch goals  

There is not much need to innovate if the goal is easy to achieve.  Another trend that emerged was that these leaders set stretch goals that were very difficult to achieve.  The goals set within these innovative groups went far beyond working harder to achieve incremental progress; they required entirely new approaches in order for the goal to be achieved.

Steve Jobs will continue to be remembered and recognized as an exemplar for innovation and deservedly so.  No one has done it better.  Yet for most leaders, the challenge to create a culture where innovation thrives has many factors that are at first glance, not always directly about innovation as you can tell from my findings.  They comprise some of the straightforward elements of great leadership and an indirect path toward creating an organization where innovation thrives.  That has exponentially more value than having one or even a few people who are “the innovative ones.”   If you can do these things well, then who knows where your next great idea will come from?

Reprinted from the Tampa Bay Business Journal (June 15, 2012)


Edinger Consulting