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The Way of the Innovation Leader by Bob Eckert, New & Improved LLC

The Way of the Innovation Leader: Integrity, Tenacity, Curiosity, Courage and Humility as a day-to-day values system

by Bob Eckert, New & Improved, LLC

“You have no choice about being a role model. You are one…it comes with the job. The only choice you have is which role you’ll model.” — Anonymous

Leadership is a hot topic. Innovation is even hotter these days. We’ve been very curious about the overlap of these two fascinating subjects to see what happens when you examine the values and behaviors of leaders who are responsible for big innovations that shake the marketplace and the world. This is a topic that we’ve just begun to scratch, and we’re itching to learn more. Up to now, this article proposes our best thinking on the subject of Innovation Leadership.

Managers vs. Leaders
Most successful middle level managers learn that a big part of how they are personally measured is “do they keep people from screwing up.” An important measure, in general. Unfortunately, as they advance to more senior leadership positions, this metric contaminates the innovation process by creating a destructive “devil’s advocate” attitude of adversarial judgment in the organizational governance process, rather than a constructive attitude of collegial involvement and idea strengthening.

The way of the Innovation Leader is not to focus on “keeping people from screwing up” but to help people be their innovative best, to help them to be great! In fact, sometimes the innovative leader has to let people “screw up” so that they can learn an important lesson. But that’s another article.

To truly help people be great, an Innovation Leader must be an example of being “great” themselves. Otherwise their inspiration attempts lack any real power or energy to cause effect, and they appear to people as hypocrites.

Research tells us that 67% of the statistical variance in the climate for creativity in an organization is directly related to the behaviors of the leader of that organization. In other words, if things are working well and the people in the leader’s organization are coming up with creative solutions and enjoying their work, there’s a 67% chance that it’s the leader’s doing. If on the other hand, people are not creating innovative solutions and hate what they’re doing, there’s a 67% chance that it’s the leader’s fault.

In other words, if you are a leader, or aspire to be, you must understand and develop the behavior patterns that drive innovation forward for all of the people that work for, with, and near you. What? You’re not the person at the top of the org chart? Well, if you’ve got people who look to you for guidance, then you’re a leader (see the quote directly underneath the headline for more insight). That means the 67% stuff applies to you.

But what if I’m already a perfect, shining example of Innovation Leadership?
There are core values that are shared by high performing Innovation Leaders that are reflected in their behaviors, and the purpose of this article is to help you find ways to move yourself even more in alignment with them. (Yes, the “even more” statement was an attempt to assuage your ego, that part of your brain that’s screaming, “I AM a GREAT Innovation Leader.” Of course you are. But is it possible that there’s some room for improvement? Even a teeny, tiny little bit?).

The challenge is to read this article not with the intention of looking for validation of where you are doing well, but look at where you might improve. And, of course, you will easily find peers or bosses who are much more in “need of improvement” than you are, but this article is not about them. It’s about you. Just because other people need improvement is not a valid reason for you to avoid immediately putting a focus on your improvement. As graduates of our Innovation Leadership Mastery programs will remind us: the leader goes first. That would be you.

When you look at people who are already great leaders of innovation, inspiring great thinking and execution in the people around them over the long haul, you’ll see admirable maturity in five dimensions:

  • Integrity: Great Innovation Leaders have a very high level of integrity. And by integrity, we mean, “doing what you say you’ll do.” This value is not a flash in the personality pan for these folks. They understand that this is the foundation of leadership on all dimensions, not just innovation. It is a critical component to inspiring trust in leadership. Innovation Leaders have developed themselves and matured to the point that this is a key artifact of their personality. Because of this, you can count on a steadiness of behavior. They are this way not as a tactic at work, but as a value driven behavior pattern in every part of their lives. You can count on them to have deep integrity to being a growing up (not a grown up), sustaining efforts even when it gets difficult, and being a curious learner throughout their day, day after day. Example: A manager where one of us used to work came as a new person to the organization, looked around and found that people who demonstrated long-term commitment to the organization were under-paid compared to comparable positions. He told his direct-reports this was the case and that he was going to go to the board of trustees to fix it. And he did.
  • Tenacity: Great Innovation Leaders have a high degree of tenacity. They don’t give up. If they are stymied on a mission, they find another way. If people don’t see the value of their idea, they find another way to help people see that it’s a smart solution. If that doesn’t work, they try another way. And still another way until finally people see the wisdom in what they’re proposing. And because they are humble (see below), and surrounded by people who will challenge them if they move down the arrogance path, their tenacity does not turn to stubbornness. They flow through challenges rather than push through challenges.

    Example: It took Art Frye 13 years to convince 3M management that the Post-It note was a product worth marketing. A Senior V.P. at Kraft once defined the tenacity that he expected of his people this way:
    “If you present an idea to me, and I don’t give you approval, yet you still see value in it, it’s your obligation to come back to me and pitch the idea in another way. And if I still don’t see it, then try again until I get it. Empowerment is not doing whatever you want — that’s ‘anarchy.’ Empowerment means you persistently try to show me the value you see in your ideas until I finally get it through my thick skull.”

  • Curiosity: Like most of us, great Innovation Leaders have fun learning new things. The difference between Innovation Leaders and average managers is that ILs structure their lives in such a way that learning is never relegated to the “if I can get to it pile.” It is a core part of their day-to-day living pattern. Whether it’s taking classes, reading books, attending presentations, engaging in dialogues or looking for new information on the web, they do it because they want to learn more. An interesting note is that their learning is often outside of their own field. Because they’ve worked for so long in their business, they know a large percentage of what there is to know. So they tend to learn on the fringe of their base competency, and because they explore “outside” interests they are often making novel connections from them to the work they do.

    Example: In his book, “How Breakthroughs Happen, the Surprising Truth about How Companies Innovate,” Dr. Andrew Hargadon states that real innovations happen by bringing in components from outside the field, to apply them in new ways within the field. He states that Thomas Edison’s big invention wasn’t the light bulb, but the system that made it practical and useful in homes all over the world. He borrowed ideas from the telegraph and gas utility industries to create a system for delivering the electricity that would illuminate the famed symbol of innovation, the light bulb.

  • Courage: Driving innovation requires that action be taken even in the face of fear. Courage is not fearlessness, but a willingness to act even when fear is present. Many managers are afraid to ask a question that exposes lack of knowledge, but Innovation Leaders do it all the time, and their people may at first laugh at their ignorance, but more times than not, ideas are borne from the resulting answers. Imagining ourselves seeking and getting honest feedback from others can be fear- inducing, yet how else do we find out how we’re doing or how we can improve? Imagining ourselves admitting a mistake can be fear-inducing, but if we don’t, then the mistake doesn’t get corrected and we don’t learn from it. Innovation Leaders find the courage to overcome the fear in the moment for the greater good.

    Example: The leader of an IT group of a Fortune 100 Pharmaceutical company decided to shake up his group by taking a project that would normally take about a year to create, and telling his group that they were going to do it in one week. He took the crew, the equipment, the clients (and an N&I facilitator) off-site and they cranked almost 24/7 and made it happen. This could have been a huge failure for the leader, but it was a success that changed the attitude of the group from one of “we can’t” to “we can do whatever we work really hard at.”

  • Humility: Innovation Leaders have great self confidence, yet they are very humble. They are willing to admit that they don’t know, and can’t possibly be the best at, everything. That’s why they persistently seek to courageously learn as much as they can, because they know that they’re not done yet. Nor will they ever be. They fundamentally believe that there is no such thing as a grown-up; there are just stuck people and growing-ups. These individuals are very clear that they get stuck from time to time — as does everybody — and as a hedge against that, they have people around them who remind them and challenge them, when “stuckness” shows up. Not “yes-men” and “yes-women,” but people who know that the leader won’t shut them down for challenging them.

    Example: We were working with an audit group in the pharmaceutical sector at an off-site meeting in which the “crisis of the moment” was a constant retelling of the story that the senior leader was unwilling to listen to feedback. He made a courageous, humble move, and asked one of us to facilitate a conversation where he openly received this feedback, reflected what he was hearing, took responsibility for what seemed “his issues” and developed an action plan with public accountability for behaviors to his people. He then promoted the person who was most tenaciously and respectfully honest with him in that dialogue.

Now what do I do?
So your questions might become: “In what ways might I improve my Integrity, Tenacity, Courage, Curiosity and Humility?” “In what ways might I help myself stay in integrity with the value system of the Innovation Leader?” “How might I help myself do a better job living the Way of the Innovation Leader?”

There are many moves you can make to help yourself BE an Innovation Leader. So many, in fact, that with so much variability based upon unique life pattern and personality that we may be doing a disservice by even trying to name a few. The answer is in asking the questions. So ask the questions…start now! Develop a plan. Review regularly.

Some things to play with:

  • Practice approaching conversations with the idea that the greater wisdom is in the person you are talking to. It’s your job to bring it forth. Ask yourself, “Am I listening or waiting to speak?” The former will help you find their wisdom. The latter will help build your ego, and not much else.
  • Invite and reinforce feedback from others, even if it is painful. One person we know never gave a first pay raise to employees until they challenged his opinion or thinking in some way.
  • As we move through our days, each of us has moments of frustration. We’re trying to get something done, and something or somebody impedes us. Notice it. Label it as “I’m allowing myself to feel frustrated” and avoid “That’s making me frustrated” or “He/she is making me frustrated.” Then recognize that your thinking is causing the frustration, ask where the frustration is coming from. It’s a story of some sort in your mind, and stories can be changed. Change it, then put the energy that was being drained by being frustrated into finding a way over, under or around the resistance.
  • On your commute home from work each day, review the day, and ask yourself “What good questions did I ask today?” “What opportunities to learn did I let pass me by because I wasn’t awake enough at the moment to see them?” “Where could I have been more mature, or emotionally intelligent than I was today, and what can I do tomorrow to rectify it?”
  • As you’re brushing, flossing, rinsing your teeth at night, do a quick scan of your day, asking yourself what you told people you’d do. Make sure you’ve followed through or have a plan to follow through on it.
  • Find more ways to catch people doing things right and then confront them about it in a way that makes them feel appreciated. Focus at least as much attention on “things done right,” as “things gone wrong.”
  • Look for instances of “giving up” or “going along to get along” because you were tired of the argument. Courage requires energy. Great outcomes come from the courage to have a debate or productive argument, while comporting yourself in a curious, humble and tenacious way.
  • Commit to taking a class, reading a book, picking up a magazine, or watching a TV show about something you’d never think about looking at. If you like cars, check out something on knitting. If you’re fascinated by people, take a look at something mechanical. If you love to cook, explore nature. Stretch your horizons and become curious about how you can make links to your hobby, life, and/or work.
  • If you have kids, know kids, or are familiar with what a kid is, ask one for advice on a particularly difficult challenge you’re facing. Genuinely listen for their brilliance and wisdom.
  • We’re big fans of “bathroom reading” as a way to pick up interesting tidbits from which we make interesting and novel connections. (Bob and Jonathan’s book More Lightning Less Thunder: Energizing Innovative Teams was written to be a bathroom book.) Our current favorites include:
    1. The Condensed Book of Knowledge: A Deliciously Irreverent Guide to Feeling Smart Again
    2. Why didn’t I think of that?
    3. Orbiting the Giant Hairball
    4. Fish! A Remarkable Way to Improve Morale and Create Results
  • So energize your curiosity and get an interesting book or magazine sitting on the toilet tank for those moments of…well, you know.
  • Give yourself the challenge of giving constructive feedback to people such that they feel good, even energized by the feedback, and have a plan to make a change that they’re excited about. Remember that to maintain the right behavior, you need to give four praises for every criticism, and to change it, you need EIGHT praises for every criticism.
  • This bullet is your responsibility…what’s an idea you have?

To remember the key elements of Innovation Leadership, remember the unfortunate acronym, ITCCH, which stands for Integrity, Tenacity, Curiosity, Courage and Humility. We originally called “Courage,” “Boldness,” but we didn’t like the acronym that happened when we listed it first. So instead, we remind ourselves that Innovation Leaders should wear wool pants, which can sometimes cause one to ITCCH. But if you don’t like wool pants, then we’ve also given you some strategies to address the ITCCH of Innovation Leadership.

When we end our ride around the sun on planet earth, few of us will evaluate our lives based on how we did in our income-earning pursuits. Our evaluation will be on how we were with the people in our lives. The Way of the Innovation Leader is to take the work of being great with people and integrating it with the work of making a living. Is there anything better than being paid to develop yourself and others through the metaphor of work?

Wow, what a great gig.

Read More…

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