By Henry Doss
If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are? -- T.S. Eliot
Here is a blinding glimpse of the obvious for you: Innovation is all about leadership.
There is today an emerging distinction between “leadership” and “innovation leadership,” a new vision of what it takes to become an innovative leader and a leader of innovation. This new model of thinking requires a new way of preparing leaders, and a new way of thinking about leadership. The rules are changing and it might not be stretching the point to say there is actually a leadership revolution brewing.
In today’s world, leadership that is not innovative starts at the wrong end of the chain, the money and resources end. The thinking seems to be that you can innovate your way out of the dead-end paradigm of “Labor + Capital -> Output” by allocating more labor and more capital to a system or a problem. On the surface, this logic would seem a bit flawed. It is certainly not innovative.
Innovative Leaders Give Us Our Cardinal Points
All the money in the world, all the research and development resources in the world, all the policy and investment and time and energy in the entire world aren’t really worth a hoot, without innovative leadership. Money does not follow ideas; it follows leaders. Teams don’t follow ideas; they follow leaders. Companies and universities and not-for-profits are not successful because of ideas; they are successful because of leadership.
That’s because money is cheap, in the presence of leadership. Ideas are a dime a dozen. But real, authentic, innovative leadership? That’s another thing entirely. Leadership is the alpha and omega. Leadership gives us our cardinal points. Leadership sits at the very center of friction and heat and chaos and delivers guidance, counsel, direction, encouragement, focus. To see this in action is a beautiful thing. And there is not enough of it in the world of innovation.
We read much nowadays about “the end of innovation” or about an “innovation deficit.” And there may very well be some truth to this notion. But is this a resource problem or a leadership problem? What if it really is the case that the “innovation challenge” for our country – indeed for the entire world -- is not a problem of money, or ideas, or policy or more public investment? What if it is simply a challenge of leadership?
This is not to say that you don’t need money, people, resources, policy, infrastructure . . . of course these are important. But these elements of the innovation ecosystem fall into the category of necessary, but not sufficient. A real, long-term, systemic improvement in innovation in our society as a whole will depend much, much more on our ability to develop innovative leaders, and much, much less on our continuing to worry about money and policy and such. If we address our “leadership deficit,” many of the other things we worry about may very well take care of themselves.
Our leadership challenge occurs in three broad demographics: young, emerging leaders who are currently somewhere out there in our education system; developing leaders who are out in the world right now, engaged in doing work and navigating their own development and growth; and current leaders who are already in critical positions of influence. In all three groups, there are unique challenges, unique learning requirements and unique skill sets required.
Can We Really Teach Leadership?
We need to look at and address some fundamental, critical questions in our society, in our businesses and in our system of education: Can you really teach leadership? If the answer is yes, what constitutes leadership and how do you teach that? How do people learn to be good, better, improved leaders? Is it possible to have an “innovation leadership curriculum” which identifies areas of inquiry that lead to stronger leadership?
There has been an enormous amount of work and inquiry devoted to these kinds of leadership issues. Perhaps it is time to ask this question: "How much of this existing work relates to innovation leadership . . . and is there really a difference between the work that has been done, and the work that needs to be done?"
Innovation leadership demands unique skills and talents, and it is possible to train and develop these in leaders. What really constitutes innovation leadership and what unique challenges are involved in innovation leadership can be articulated. And, when we have more innovation leadership, revolutionaries, in critical areas good things happen.