Does innovation require a visionary leader or a pragmatic stage director?

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When we think of innovation and leadership, one name will quickly pop into our mind – Steve Jobs. Jobs was a visionary who could conjure up the future image with such clarity as to make it a reality in your mind before it becomes so in your hands. But what Jobs did exceedingly well too was his ability to pull together a great team to enact the vision. Jobs was an exceptional innovative leader.

Except that exceptions are not the norm. According to Harvard Business School Professor Linda Hill, co-author of the book Collective Genius: The art and practice of leading innovation, she has found that these two personas don’t normally come together in one single package.

Related: How visionary leaders can stifle innovation

The reason is because the visionary “I-know-the-way” type leadership is the antithesis of the “go-along-learn-along” nature of innovation. Somehow, the gung-ho nature of leadership, with its take-charge bent, presupposes a known path and a fixed outcome. It is very hard to say, “Come follow me” when you don’t know where you are going. Hence, the visionary leader may not be the right one for innovation.

Then what is? Prof Jeanne Liedtka in her book The Catalyst: How you can become an extraordinary growth leader also echoes similar findings to Prof Hill’s conclusion when she shares the traits of the growth leader. S/He is one who exhibits clarity of thought and drives results through people in the search for the new and useful outcome. S/He influences the learning and the outcome through direct action, rather than through a formal process. You can say that the innovation leader works despite organizational structure and culture, not because of it. As a result, you will most likely not find the innovation leader sitting at the top of the corporate structure.

Does that mean that senior management is not innovative? Is there no room for the visionary in innovation? What if the innovation falls short of the strategic goals of the company? Would that not kill it before it even starts?

The answer is not so simple. Yes, there is definitely room for the quixotic visionary to set the canvas alight; but once that has been done, to hand over the reins to the stage director to pull all the people in to flesh out the picture. This very often requires one to challenge the very canvas itself, as the project meanders along. There is a need to build resilience within the company to stomach the ebbs and flows that such innovations present, sometimes pushing the envelope of patience. The innovation leader must therefore juxtapose the success of the vision with the ‘failures’ of invention.

In short, the innovation leader is the great stage director who works within the canvas of the producer and scriptwriter to make a successful production. As stage directors know, they have to be as flexible as bamboo, bending with the ever-changing directions of the wind, while still building on the bedrock of the production. They have to take the vision and work with the cast to make it happen. Ultimately, it is the cast who will deliver the innovation; the director just sets the whole stage for it to happen.

So to be successful in innovation, you will the big-picture blue-sky thinking of the visionary, and you will need the pragmatic stage handling of the director. And they seldom come in one package. But if one were to be pushed to choose one over the other, research has shown that the latter will be the better choice.

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