Innovation, Leadership

How to become a leader who inspires innovation

Charlotte Rush /

leadership inspire innovation

Inventium head of learning Charlotte Rush.

What does it take to be a leader who inspires innovation success?

Should you focus on doing innovation and leading by example, or is creating a supportive environment where roadblocks are removed and efforts rewarded the more effective approach? 

Many organisations now recognise not only the importance of innovation but are also investing in training and developing their workforce to champion innovation from within the organisation. However, training your people in ‘design thinking’ and experimentation methodologies is not enough to create a successful army of intrapreneurs. 

There is growing research that seeks to better understand the effects of leader characteristics on employee creativity and innovation. Based on this, here are three strategies to help you become an effective innovation leader.

1. Stop delegating innovation 

Over the last week, what tasks did you personally work on and what did you delegate?

Chances are, the tasks that you delegated were of less importance. 

Delegating innovation to other people sends a strong signal about its importance.

Research on teams from a US information technology company indicates leaders who are confident in their creative abilities are also more likely to have teams who produce more creative ideas. This is likely because those who are more creatively confident are likely to value and encourage creative output, being less conformist and more receptive to new ideas. 

Results from a six-year study researching innovative companies showed that senior executives from the most innovative companies do not delegate innovation. Instead, they do it themselves. Leaders at less innovative companies see innovation as something to delegate or a process to oversee. 

2. Show a little humility 

When thinking about the leaders that you seek to emulate, do you lean towards the humility of Nelson Mandela or the arrogance and brash self-assuredness of Steve Jobs? The best option may be both!

In one study of information technology firms, leader humility resulted in higher levels of information sharing. Information sharing is important for promoting team creativity. But high leader humility only prompted greater information sharing in teams with low power distance (in other words, where team members desire more power sharing). Teams with high power distance (in other words, members expect leaders to be dominant and take charge) did not benefit from a humble leader. In fact, these team members are more likely to see humility as a weakness. 

Beyond humility on its own, the combination of narcissism with humility can have positive effects on followers. One study measured perceived leader effectiveness, job engagement and employee job performance. Employees that scored highest on performance and engagement had leaders who were narcissistic and humble. Humility on its own led to employee performance dropping significantly.

The researchers argue the positive aspects of narcissism (persistence, confidence and risk-taking) are an important ingredient in successful leaders. The additional presence of humility (in other words, admitting limitations, highlighting the contributions of others) can temper the potential negative aspects of narcissism (in other words, arrogance and self-centeredness). 

3. Focus on self-efficacy, then motivation 

If you have invested in training your employees in innovation tools, you are probably wondering how you can best support them to then put that training into action. So, do you focus on cheerleading from the side-lines and boosting their confidence, or reinforcement and rewards? Research shows that your approach should change over time. 

Longitudinal research looking at trainees who voluntarily attended statistical workshops found that trainees who felt confident in their ability to apply new skills were more likely to make initial efforts to apply that training to their job. In contrast, motivational factors (whether you feel committed to applying what you have learnt) predicts the transfer of those skills over time.

As such, leaders should focus on building confidence between the end of training and the initial application of the skills. In the long-term, leaders should focus on techniques to boost employee motivation to apply the tools.

Adopting the above tips will help ensure that you are leading your people towards innovation success. 

NOW READ: Innovation: What does it really mean?

NOW READ: If you’ve never experienced failure, you’re not taking enough risks

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Charlotte Rush

Charlotte is the head of learning at innovation consultancy Inventium.

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