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Leading Innovations Essay

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Updated: Sep 12th, 2020


In the complex, dynamic, and increasingly competitive business environment of the 21st century, organizations are required to demonstrate an effective innovation capability if they are to achieve their growth targets and safeguard existing markets (Kaplan 1). However, as acknowledged by this author, leading innovation in the contemporary business world necessitates new mindsets and behaviors for organizational leaders, as well as for the entities that develop them. Other scholars have underscored the role and importance of leadership as a dominant ingredient in not only spearheading innovation as a process, but also in sustaining its impetus until innovation as an organizational outcome is achieved (Furr and Dyer 82; Huzzard 1). The present paper reflects on how leading innovation differs from leading other types of teams in organizations, before illuminating the factors that are considered as most important in the leadership of innovation.

Leading Innovation vs. Leading Other Types of Teams

There exist notable differences between leading innovation and leading other types of teams in organizational settings. The first difference revolves around the level of predictability and control characterizing both settings. Here, it is important to note that, while leading other types of teams requires a high degree of predictability and control, leading innovation involves extreme uncertainty that is often characterized by unexpected events, inevitable failures, and a noteworthy lack of control (Kaplan 1). The propensity for extreme uncertainty that characterize the leadership of innovation requires leaders to be well prepared and/or trained to address the harsh realities associated with leading or responding to disruption. As a direct result of this difference, leaders charged with the responsibility of spearheading innovation “must embrace ambiguity, live with uncertainty for long periods of time, and confront the critiques of naysayers both inside and outside of their organizations” (Kaplan 1). This means that, due to the extreme uncertainty associated with leading innovation, leaders in these types of environments must be prepared to live with being misconstrued or condemned for longer periods of time.

The second difference between leading innovation and leading other types of teams revolves around the issue of leadership competencies. While it is clear that leading other types of teams requires leaders to demonstrate the competencies of teamwork and engagement (Furr and Dyer 80-81), leading innovation is a bit different as it requires leaders to demonstrate new leadership competencies that allow them to, among other things, (1) unearth their deeper motivations to drive significant opportunities for others, (2) push personal boundaries and limits with the view to challenging their own assumptions, (3) take simple yet concrete steps into the unknown in order to develop the capacity to view failure as a stepping stone to learning and progress, (4) turn into surprises as an effective avenue for gaining novel insights and discovering new opportunities, and (5) determine what they value and where they want to make a difference (Kaplan 3-4). Upon reflection, it becomes clear how leaders in innovation teams must also develop the capacity to use the competencies of cognitive integration, affective integration and team coaching with the view to ensuring that members coming from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds are able to share ideas and work in an effective and harmonious manner. Some of these competencies may not be required for leaders working with other types of teams that have a homogenous composition.

The third difference concerns the sources of power or authority. Here, practical observations and available documentations demonstrate that most leaders of other types of teams within the organization derive their power from positions of formal authority. However, most leaders who spearhead innovation in organizational settings derive their authority from a collective impulsion for action and change that emerges from, and is reinforced by, the varied interactions of agents in networks in what is commonly referred to as distributed or shared leadership (Huzzard 4). This way, a leader of innovation is able to facilitate or support the innovation process, evaluate the ideas of others in the innovation team, provide an integrative link to others in the organization, create the right conditions or organizational climate for innovation to take place, as well as link to other individuals and networks outside the organization for more ideas.

The last difference relates to the influencing tactics used by leaders in both contexts. While leading other types of teams in organizational settings may require the everyday micromanaging of a particular climate or culture, available literature has underscored the need for leaders in innovation environments to use transformational or charismatic leadership styles to project their grand visions, establish a creative climate, facilitate the constant exchange of ideas through informal contacts, dialogue, openness, trust and risk-taking, as well as create a community and build relationships (Huzzard 6).

The influencing tactics described here demonstrate that, in an innovation environment, the leader’s role should be to decide what to do and then direct other members within the innovation team to do it. Indeed, unlike in the context of other types of team whereby the leader may have the latitude to micromanage issues, leading innovation requires the leader to work more by example than by dictate (Furr and Dyer 83). Such a leader, according to these authors, must ask questions rather than engage in making decisions, clear the trajectory to the unknown rather than limit the creative orientation of members by identifying the end objective, and also focus their attention to providing people with the right kind of time, the right restrictions, and the right tools to increase their innovative and creative orientation.

Important Factors and Issues in Leading Innovation

There are several important factors that may be considered as important in leading innovation. One of the most important factors, in my view, relates to how leaders in innovation environments are able to come up with opportunities to deliver value. Contrary to popular belief, leading innovation does not revolve around examining customer needs, getting bogged down in data, developing specifications to meet each need, and building great products and services to meet them; rather, it entails finding opportunities to deliver an entirely new level of value to customers, employees, and other stakeholders.

The second important issue concerns the state of mind of individuals charged with the responsibility of leading innovation. Here, available managerial scholarship demonstrates that leading innovation “requires an agile mind that appreciates ambiguity” (Kaplan 2). Owing to the fact that uncertainty holds as much opportunity as it does risk, leading innovation requires the leader to have high levels of agility, insight, and market impact required to shield themselves from, or develop, a true disruptive innovation. As a matter of fact, leaders charged with the responsibility of leading innovation should have the capacity to not only use their agility or dexterity to see connections and patterns that most of the other leaders do not see, but also to come up with the most creative opportunities of achieving a need.

Another important issue in leading innovation revolves around the leader’s role in composing innovation teams. Here, it is important to note that, in innovation environments, individuals with little history working together and from a multiplicity of disciplinary and experience backgrounds are actually brought together to a form a team that is then charged with the responsibility of developing or creating something that was nonexistent before. The leader of such a team, in my view, must demonstrate the necessary skills and competencies to effectively utilize the diversity of perspectives brought by different members to the innovation team. It is of immense importance for the leader to have the needed skills and competencies (e.g., affective and cognitive integration, collaboration, and interpersonal communication) if they are to benefit from the unique combinations of knowledge associated with a diverse innovation team and at the same time address the conflicts and frustrations that may arise from the risk of an incapacity of members to communicate and understand one another (Boni, Weingart, and Evenson 410).


This paper has not only reflected on how leading innovation differs from leading other types of teams in organizations, but also discussed some of the factors considered as most important in the leadership of innovation. The main divergences between leading innovation and leading other types of teams are in the areas of extreme uncertainty, leadership competencies, sources of power or authority, and leader influencing tactics. Overall, the factors that have been discussed in this paper as the most important in leading innovation include the propensity of the leader to find new opportunities to deliver an entirely new level of value, the qualification of having an agile mind that appreciates ambiguity, as well as the role of the leader in composing innovation teams.

Works Cited

Boni, Arthur A., Laurie R. Weingart and Shelley Evenson. “Innovation in an Academic Setting: Designing and Leading a Business through Market-Focused Interdisciplinary Teams.” Academy of Management Learning & Education, vol. 8, no. 3, 2009, pp. 407-417.

Furr, Nathan and Jeffrey H. Dyer. “Leading your Team into the Unknown.” Harvard Business Review, vol. 92, no. 12, 2014, pp. 80-88.

Huzzard, Tony. “Opening Up and Closing Down: The Interpretive Repertoires of Leading Innovation.” International Journal of Innovation Management, vol. 19, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1-24.

Kaplan, Soren. “Leading Disruptive Innovation.” Ivey Business Journal, vol. 76, no. 4, 2012, pp. 1-4.

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