Saturday, June 5, 2010

Innovation Needs "Leadership from Behind"

Harvard Business Review has been running a blog feature for the past several weeks on Imagining the Future of Leadership. There's about 40 posts there now--many of them thought-provoking and well worth your time.

Here's one that really jumped out at me: Leading from Behind, by Linda Hill.

For now and into coming decade or so, the most effective leaders will lead from behind, not from the front — a phrase I've borrowed from none other than Nelson Mandela. In his autobiography, Mandela equated a great leader with a shepherd: "He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind."

Hill cites three realities that are making this "shepherd" leadership style a necessity. The first one...

1. The psychological contract between companies and employees is changing. Among other things, people are looking for more meaning and purpose in their work lives. They want and increasingly expect to be valued for who they are and to be able to contribute to something larger than themselves. People expect to have the opportunity to co-author their organization's purpose. They want to be associated with organizations that serve as positive forces in the world.

...strikes me a purely generational. Most would argue that these desires to be valued and to contribute to something larger than themselves are Millennial values, but I see them as more universal--something common to most of humanity. The generational impact I see is more the pragmatism of GenX moving into ascendance. People have always wanted to be associated with organizations that serve as positive forces in the world, but it is Xer pragmatism that is saying that the way to accomplish that is to let employees co-author their organization's purpose.

But that's really a side point. What I really want to focus on are Hill's latter two realities--both dealing with innovation.

2. Innovation — not simply incremental but continual breakthrough innovation — will be a key driver of competitiveness. Society's notion of the brilliant innovator, the solitary genius with a sudden flash of creative insights is hard to shake. But, after all, an iPod or a Pixar movie is not the product of a single person's vision or labors. Most innovation is the result of collaborative work involving a diverse group and a collective process of iteration and discovery. Those in positions of authority have been taught to think that it's their job to come up with the big idea — but sustained innovation comes when everyone has an opportunity to demonstrate a "slice of genius". Breakthroughs come when seemingly ordinary people make extraordinary contributions.


3. Leaders can encourage breakthrough ideas not by cultivating followers who can execute but building communities that can innovate. Of course, leaders do need to act as direction-setters and vision-makers, and we need to prepare them for those roles. But we often emphasize these skills at the expense of others that are growing in importance. If you're looking for innovation, it doesn't make much sense to say that the leader's job is to set the course and mobilize people to follow them there. If you want your team to produce something truly original, you don't know where you're going, almost by definition. The traditional leadership model just doesn't work.

In my work with the WSAE Innovation Task Force, I think we have come to see the truth that underlies these two concepts. Innovation is not a skill that the leader possesses, it is a culture that the leader must support and that the organization must embrace. I've heard it said that good scientists view science as a process and not as a confirmed body of knowledge, and I'm beginning to think of innovation in similar terms. It is a process that allows an organization to effectively achieve its objectives in ways not previously thought possible. No one person--not even the leader--can predict where the process of innovation is going to take them. We can only accurately predict that the process will take us to the best possible place.

At that's where "leading from behind" comes in. If you try to get out in front of it--try to direct where innovation is going to go--you hamper innovation's ability to function. As the leader of an innovative organization, your best role is simply to set the process in motion and to give it the resources it needs to move efficiently forward.


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