6 Characteristics of an Innovative Leader
A Note From The Editor
Think your company has what it takes to make our Top Company Cultures list? Apply now.Apply now »
At a pitch to the leaders of the merchandising department at a Fortune 500 company, I closed my presentation by asking the leader of the team, “What are you trying to solve for?” She didn’t know how to answer that. Neither did the other leaders on her team, because only those who’ve lived their personal brands openly and genuinely and understand their value propositions have taken the steps to break free from their leadership identity crises.
These leadership identity crises are real, severe and have created dysfunction both within the teams those leaders lead and how consumers are identifying with the company and/or its brands and services. They’ve not only minimized trust but also diminished their companies’ performance and influence, reduced productivity and set people back in their careers.
These people lost their distinction and their sense of self in the process of having the business define them as individuals. As a result, too many leaders have been acting inauthentically, managing by the templates of old, and cannot evolve to be the leaders their company needs, because those templates stripped them of their identities and left them uncertain about who they are and how to face change.
This is how leadership identity crises are born. And when the people at the top of a business have these leadership identity crises, those in the middle on down find it difficult to begin their journey to develop their personal brands and value propositions. In today’s new normal, people want to be part of a workplace culture that allows them to be their natural, authentic selves -- one that supports their efforts to be more purposeful, responsible and accountable. Everyone (from the front desk and mailroom on up) wants a role to play. Instead, they’re losing their identity and their skill sets are becoming outdated while their employers try to figure out their future.
This is also what makes consumers less trusting because they don’t believe a brand’s intention is authentic. Companies may say all the right things in their PowerPoint presentations, like “We want a more personal engagement for our brand with consumers” or “We want to create competitive advantage through diversity and inclusion” without understanding what those words mean. Without that meaning and thus a clear sense of what they’re doing -- let alone why -- those companies are going to lose the competitive advantage they thought they could claim, not to mention current and future employees and customers.
That’s why everyone would benefit if leaders broke free from these identity crises. To do this, you need to stop getting trapped in all the noise and focus on adopting a new mindset. You have to shift your thinking from the organization as a provider to the organization as an enabler. In a more profound sense, you need to start thinking of yourself as a participant in a larger whole rather than merely a business leader. You can regain a perspective and authenticity that makes you capable of surviving and indeed thriving as a leader who transforms the workplace culture through your people, who strengthens your business’s brand and impact in the marketplace.
To stop playing it safe, leaders must stop clinging to the hidden agendas and maneuvering that cause their employees and customers to distrust their intentions. Without that trust, you can’t do any of the work ahead. How can you expect people to trust you if they don’t know who you are? Thus, the first step in establishing or re-establishing this trust is to get out of this identity crisis management mode.
So, how do we truly break free from these identity crises, re-establish our leadership identities and redefine our corporate cultures for the future?
We use the six characteristics of the innovation mentality:
- See opportunity in everything.
- Anticipate the unexpected.
- Unleash your passionate pursuits.
- Live with an entrepreneurial spirit.
- Work with a generous purpose.
- Lead to leave a legacy.
Embracing these characteristics enables the new ideas and ideals that leaders haven’t been courageous and vulnerable enough to own. That’s how you’ll see the bigger opportunities, reawaken your entrepreneurial spirit and build a strong business system where collaboration and diversity of thought are embraced as opportunities to build a strong legacy.
Simply put, we as leaders must turn the spotlight of accountability on ourselves to strive for excellence -- to help guide the evolution of our organizations’ futures and that of our clients and customers. We must be passionate in our pursuits to explore endless possibilities, anticipate the unexpected so change is welcomed, embrace an entrepreneurial spirit to make things better, create stronger alignment and build momentum.
What we need is a new mindset, one that takes us from melting pot to mosaic, substitutional to evolutionary thinking, knowledge to wisdom, business to individual and survival to reinvention. Your ability to see, sow, grow and share as a leader using the innovation mentality creates an environment that allows others to see, sow, grow and share, and develop their personal brands and their own leadership identities.
Modern Family, the smash ABC sitcom, provides a quick and enjoyable primer on what I mean by the importance of personal brands as they relate to the innovation mentality. Look beyond the comic entanglements and fights that make the show so funny, and consider how every character on the show lives their personal brand consistently. And while the result is comic chaos, in time, they learn to value each other’s unique differences and solve for their problems. In doing this, though, none of the characters ever diverts from who they are, what they represent and their authentic selves. They grow and evolve, but they stay true to their brands, even as they learn and live who they are in every episode. As we watch, they and we discover depth in those brands beyond the words used to describe them (i.e., “the ditzy daughter,” “the hot-tempered Colombian bombshell,” “the high-strung gay couple”).
Imagine if you did that with and through your leadership identity -- if you used diverse thinking to appreciate the value in your employees’ unique differences. Would you create distinction? Would you know where you fit? Would you have the experience of authentic relationships with who you are and what you represent as an individual? Would you be able to influence innovation and initiative because other people would know what to expect from you since you have established your leadership identity? The answer to all these questions is yes.
Then why don’t you?
This is where the six characteristics come in. They enable you to do this as you reinvent or course-correct for any situation you encounter in 21st-century workplaces and marketplaces. As a result, great leaders get the most out of every situation they’re faced with by seeing the opportunities they present. They anticipate the unexpected by managing crisis and change before circumstances force their hand. Their passionate pursuits of excellence open new doors of endless possibilities that they aim to share with others. And those are just the first three characteristics.
As one of my mentors told me, the minute you stop touching the business is the minute you stop understanding the business. That’s also the moment leaders stop adding value and their effectiveness begins to wane along with their reputations. The six characteristics of the innovation mentality tests your ability to authentically lead and own your leadership identity and the deep responsibility associated with it. Because that’s what the six characteristics of the innovation mentality solve for: leadership that continuously and consistently touches the people it serves in the workplace and marketplace and builds trust, and relationships that add value to all our careers, experiences and lives it influences.