Steve Jobs believed “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”   Recently, the World Economic Forum identified Innovation as one of the 5 ways for business leaders to win in the 2020s. So how can a leader keep their people thinking and acting innovatively? Fortunately, research identifies four leadership factors that inspire innovative teams and organizations.

Expertise.  Innovation leaders need two forms of expertise.  First, organizational knowledge and skills provide an understanding of the roles and contributions of individual and collective team members, creates an environment that maximizes efficiency and effectiveness of the team efforts, and facilitates social and bureaucratic process of nurturing an innovation from conception to completion.  From the organization, a leader must know the chain of command, how organizational decisions (including resource allocations) are made, what resources are available, and the overall organizational culture and mission.  Second, an innovation leader must also possess technical expertise to determine the viability of an innovation, anticipate any possible obstacles to its’ development, and have extensive understanding of the fundamentals necessary for an innovation to have sufficient quality and value to make it worth developing and launching.

Creative problem-solving skills.   Research finds leaders play a vital role in the creative team’s thought process (Basadur 2004). A creative problem-solving leader facilitates and supports the innovative thinking of others. Specifically, when a leader is skilled in evaluating creative ideas they are better able to forecast the potential outcomes associated with the different areas of the organization and consequently have a greater impact on the development of an innovation.  Additionally, a leader skilled in creative problem-solving can contribute fresh ideas to the ideation, as well as the production and launch stages of the innovation.

Team building and management. By nature, innovative ideas are often conceived and incubated in diverse and often competitive environments.  Team members, especially teams rich in professional and personal diversity, see the world differently and consequently approach problems differently.  A successful innovation leader must be skilled in coming to understand their team members, promoting, monitoring and guiding communications, and minimizing conflict.

Mission control. Clear, well-conceived and widely received innovation project missions are essential for project success across the entire life cycle of the effort. A clear mission provides direction without being overly restrictive, establishes guidelines for the selection and distribution of resources, defines the scope of potential solution paths, and establish the foundation by which individual contributions can be organized.  A leader plays several roles in defining and focusing the project mission. First, the mission must identify the scope of the project and define the context within the organization’s larger mission.  Second, the leader coordinates and engages team member activities within the project mission.  When leaders fail to continually ask the question “What are we trying to accomplish here?” there is little chance that anything will be accomplished, least of all an innovation.

Leaders play an essential role in teams charged by organizations with developing innovative products or processes.  The long-term health and success of an organization is directly dependent on innovations that will consistently place ahead of its’ competition.  Possessing the requisite skills, knowledge and characteristics are the foundational blocks of a leader’s ability to insure the development of successful organizational innovations.

Basadur, M. 2004. “Leading Others to Think Innovatively Together: Creative Leadership.r”Leadership Quarterly 15 (1): 103–121.

Friedrich, T., Mumford, M., Vessey, B., Beeler, C. & Eubanks, D.  (2010). Reevaluating Leader Influences on Innovation with Regard to Innovation Type and Complexity. International Studies of Management & Organization, 40 (2), 6-29.

Lesser R., Reeves, M. and Whitaker, K.  (January 2, 2020).  5 ways for business leaders to win in the 2020s.  World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.