Innovation means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. A startup flickers to life on it, a well-toned unicorn has often had a steady diet of it, and legacy brands will, at some point, inevitably hear that the lack of it is the reason their good times are behind them.
You have, more than likely, practiced some version of innovation yourself to make it into the Inc. 5000. Innovation feels like the holy grail of our age: the foundational lifeblood of the modern economy, and perhaps even the modern world. Those deemed its greatest achievers--Jobs, Musk, Zuckerberg--are given special, iconic status.
I've been fortunate to have worked within a number of incredible companies, large (Google), scaling (Meltwater), and long-standing (STS Education). I've met a lot of leaders and continue to do so as COO of Thoughtexchange, a software company that helps progressive leaders tap into the collective intelligence of their organizations. Something in the current discourse, and an insight that I keep coming back to time and time again, is this:
Let's not confuse innovators with innovative leaders.
I was named Sweden's most innovative leader in 2019, the same year Forbes compiled its list of America's Most Innovative Leaders. That list included 99 men (mostly middle-aged and White) and one woman, Barbara Rentler of Ross Stores. Forbes didn't consider her worthy of a picture. Quite rightly, questions were raised about the data points used to define these most-innovative leaders (media reputation, social capital, track record in value creation, and public-markets performance).
To me, Forbes produced an extremely narrow definition of innovative leader. In our collective obsession with personalities who innovate, we have automatically dubbed them our greatest leaders. In fact, great leaders are often very different from great creators.
There's a huge difference between leading innovation and leading innovatively. Leading innovatively means continuously challenging current management and leadership paradigms to create environments in which innovation can flourish through many different people. It requires risk-taking and exploration in leadership practices, and a dedication to advancing people, as much as it requires ruthlessly advancing technology.
Innovative leaders may not take us to Mars on their own, but they just might give us a fighting chance of solving our most fundamental and stubborn human problems. The people they lead might end up taking us to places we hadn't known existed.
There's no I in team, but there is in inventor. Many of the human race's most notable advancements have been pioneered by a driven inventor with a singular vision--an erratic genius like Nikola Tesla who won't be dissuaded from a view of some impossible-looking future they believe they can cut a path to.
But often the brand-name innovators we know have had privilege. Not always the obvious privilege of wealth or education, but certainly the privilege of the time, space, and resources to build what could be called innovation capital. This is the intangible capital made up of who you are, the people you know, and how you're perceived by others. It's the capacity an individual has to influence others to join and support them. According to Forbes's selection criteria, great innovative leaders ultimately "succeed not only on the basis of their ideas, but because they have the vision, reputation, and networks to win the backing needed to commercialize them."
Unfortunately, innovation capital is in short supply for most people. Being able to fail, and fail repeatedly, is a privilege. People in marginalized and minority groups who have ample ability to think and act innovatively don't have the same access to the capital needed and the number of failed attempts required to see innovation take root.
A collective obsession with the idea of raw talent and the concept of genius goes some way in explaining why we become culturally obsessed with figures like WeWork founder Adam Neumann while most people wouldn't know the name Frances Frei. (For the record, you'll be glad you Googled her.)
One academic study has shown that White men benefit from a pervasive cultural bias, not shared by those non-White or non-male, that innately links them with raw intellectual talent. What this means is who you are, how you were raised, your skin color, and your gender will ultimately determine the "failure credits" you have access to before you're ejected from the whack-a-mole game that constitutes the route to success.
In my experience, those associated with having raw intellectual power are simply questioned less than those who aren't. Because of society's belief in their intellect, they are rarely dissuaded from the path they've chosen. They are far more easily able to fend off challenges. So they are able to fail and fail again without getting disillusioned.
Being Best At What We're Best At
Though our great inventors are often considered our most innovative leaders, many are filling roles their skills simply aren't aligned with, and which could be done better by others. Visionaries can become unwilling people managers, and, as a result, their people become tempered subordinates.
There's a reason Edison was never a CEO. By decoupling the ability to think creatively from the ability to lead innovatively, we free space for people to be best at what they're best at.
The most innovative leaders I've met look to challenge the practice of leadership consistently, to innovate their role to maximize the effectiveness and creativity of those in their organizations. Their focus is not on how they can build a team to help them bring an idea to life, but rather on how they can create an environment in which a team is able to take an idea beyond their own comprehension.
Real innovation originates from a fortuitous collision of ideas, and it should be no surprise that innovation is best fostered by a merging of minds with varied perspectives and experiences. Creating a diverse hive mind able to pick apart the mysteries of a given problem and eliminate blind spots should be a priority in every hiring decision. In my experience, innovative leaders democratize innovation, choosing to tap a collective intelligence rather than rely on the narrow perspectives of a chosen few.
Inspired ideas can come from anywhere, and people will freely innovate when they have access to resources. Creating slack in an organization, in which additional resources of time, technology, or support are made available beyond what any person needs to fulfill their role, is key. Famous innovations have been attributed to organizational slack--the license to devote time to side projects. Gmail, AdSense, and Google Maps are the result of Google's 20 percent rule, which essentially gives employees one day a week to freelance.
To drive innovation on an exponential scale, slack resources can be allocated equitably. That means going beyond equality, where everyone gets the same. In an equity-based model, those at a disadvantage, who need more to attain their version of innovation capital, can pull more from the pool of resources.
The Future Innovative Leader
To tackle the biggest, and existential, issues we're facing today, we will need many more visionaries, from varied backgrounds and stages of life. Democratized innovation presents a thrilling opportunity. Through creating environments that tap the potential of larger and larger groups and elevate the often-unheard majority, more bright minds can seize an opportunity to play a role in defining the future.
This will require innovation in your leadership to nurture them, empower them, and enable them to become the best of themselves as well as part of the next generation of leaders who will mobilize new groups to bring new ideas to life. By ensuring that visionaries and innovative leaders are able to play their respective roles collaboratively, we can better ensure anyone can be part of the solution, able to create the next Inc. 5000 company.