Innovation matters

The 4 traits of powerful innovation leaders

Emulate these 4 leader traits and watch your reputation rise.
Innovation Leaders

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I have studied leaders for a long time: their stories, the way they talk, the way they behave, and the way they gain the support of their people. One group that I have paid special attention to is innovation leaders. The more I learn, the clearer the differentiating traits become in my mind, and it becomes increasingly frustrating to read list after list of leadership characteristics that end up confusing readers. The truth is that you can try to have many wonderful traits. You can have the call-to-war ability of Churchill. You can have the ‘we-are-one’ skills of Ghandi. But these traits won’t necessarily help you achieve what you need to achieve as an innovation leader.

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela

Now before I get into the 4 killer traits, I want to quickly debunk a couple of myths.

Firstly, there is an idea that these traits develop automatically over time. I don’t think this is true. I have personally experienced innovation leaders that, despite decades of experience, are always questioning their ability to deliver. They are not confident, and their people share their concerns. In fact, their results often speak for themselves. Behavioural traits, just like knowledge, are learnt from others, and need to be nurtured over time.

Secondly, there is an idea that you either have amazing innovation leadership traits as an adult or not, and it’s often the result of emotional stability during childhood. I accept that there may be some basis to this, but if you read stories of some of the most successful innovation leaders, you will find quite the opposite. Many were bullied as kids (Elon Musk), disowned by parents (Steve Jobs), and may even have suffered from inter-generational trauma. In general, I can comfortably say that powerful leadership traits can be learnt, and you can learn them.

Here are the 4 traits that I have converged upon. They might not be perfect, but they’re extremely powerful.

1. Passionate about problems

Steve Jobs Innovation
Steve Jobs

Powerful innovation leaders are incredibly passionate about problems.  They seek out problems, note them down and organise them like others don’t.  And the reason they do this, is because they know that problems are essentially opportunities which will inevitably lead to solutions.  Without having an unparalleled understanding of the problems which the organisation is facing, they are unable to prioritise the problems and determine the most effective course of action. 

Whenever people sit with these innovation leaders, the finding that they are very passionate about the problems which they are responsible for solving.  It seems as though solving the relevant problems is that the purpose of their lives.  This passion comes across in their speeches, in meetings, and even the way that they make decisions.

People within their organisations can sometimes view them as negative.  It can seem like they are so absorbed by the problems, that they may be coming in the way of the solutions that the organisation is trying to arrive at.  However, they know that their customers are affected by the problems that they seek to solve, and if they understand them deeply, then the solutions the organisation will produce will be effective.  In some cases, these leaders spend more time with clients and customers then they do with people from their own organisations.

2. Fearless about the future

Fearless innovation

Business and organisational demands are urgent.  Milestones need to be hit, reports need to be finished, and meetings need to be held.  These tasks and many others can be very compelling and important.  But they may have nothing to do with innovation.  Innovation is bringing great ideas to life.  It takes place in the present, but it is all about the future.  A powerful innovation leader understands this very well, and must organise their life so that they can remain thinking about the future, and not be consumed by the present.  After all, it’s their job to lead people into the future and deliver amazing results which wouldn’t be possible with the current state of the organisation

Many from your organisation worry about that next board meeting, reports and milestones, but as a leader of innovation, you must be focused on painting the future. This will enable you to take risks that others see as the impractical.  Project managers and pragmatic people may be unable to see the merit in your choices, but executives will appreciate the unique perspective you bring.

When powerful innovation leaders establish a culture of exploring good ideas and taking calculated risks, organisations can become unrecognisable. They project optimism, energy, and are incredibly exciting places to work. Creativity and excitement will spread like wildfire and amplify innovation.

3. Connects people, ideas & business

Jeff Bezos

Powerful innovation leaders know that the need to bring together people ideas and business.  It is the customers who bring meaningful problems for the organisation to solve.  The people within the organisation develop ideas to solve those problems.  And without sound business rationale, marketing, and sales, the solutions wouldn’t be worth solving. 

Technical people will often be consumed by practical matters of engineering and manufacture.  While sales and marketing people will be more concerned with customer perception and financial numbers.  Others will similarly have their own concerns and perspectives.  It is the innovation leader’s responsibility to bring all these perspectives together in order to deliver amazing solutions and financial results.

It is not always easy to determine what easily good idea and what isn’t, let alone get others to agree on one.  A powerful innovation leader can filter ideas, while also getting acceptance and buy-in from all other key players involved.  For an idea to succeed it must be presented with enthusiasm and conviction, and driven forward with willingness and excitement.

4. Razor-focused on results

Iron Man
Iron Man Innovation

Powerful innovation leaders can be very shrewd and serious. They are meticulous about the time and everything must be in line with the objectives.  Whenever people are in their presence, they know they must get straight to the point because they may be asked to leave or left because of wasting time. They must also be prepared for blunt and honest feedback, which they probably need to hear.

Innovation leaders tend to be highly focused on results for the organisation.  The tend not to be concerned with their own interests and benefits, however, they also know that they will benefit indirectly.  They have the commitment to positive change and continuous improvement and there are always encouraging the development of those around them.  They understand that the results are only as good as the people who deliver them, so they’re always invested in personal development.

Powerful innovation leaders know that it is easy to waste money in innovation.  They therefore must be meticulous in how they review ideas and support projects.  They are conscious of the need to have had the support of stakeholders, but also know that the support alone isn’t sufficient to deliver results.  Without delivering results, projects are a waste of time, energy, and resources.


Military Aerospace Innovation Services

You can rise to be a powerful innovation leader by developing the traits described in this article. You must be:

1 – Passionate about the problems

2 – Fearless about the future

3 – Razor-focused on results

And of course:

4 – Connect people, ideas, and business together

It is also important to leave behind anything that may be holding you back. False-confidence, negativity, and ignorance are 3 primary examples. The more you understand your own weaknesses and the problems within your innovation processes, the better prepared you will be to improve.

Do you want to understand where your NPD teams are going wrong in NPD? Join one of our coaches for a free online Lego game session and see if you can deliver a good NPD solution. To find out more, click here.

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Dr Muhammad Khan

Dr Muhammad Khan

Dr Muhammad Khan is a British engineer, innovation strategist, educator, and writer. His PhD investigated the application of Lean thinking to engineering innovation and new product development. He is also the T&C Director at Enhance Ltd.

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