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Zack Gallinger-Long

What Does an Innovative Leader Look Like?

Many people may claim to be innovative leaders but what does being an innovative leader actually look like? Below, we've listed a some defining characteristics to look for.

Everyone is a Leader to Someone

Let's start by clarifying that, although we'll be using the term innovative leader, one does not need leadership in their title to be considered a leader in the eyes of others. Everyone is a leader to someone and there are plenty of people who are watching you right now. Your title does not define you and, similarly, it is not what enables you to cultivate a culture of innovation. Exemplify the characteristics outlined below and you can become an innovative leader from anywhere in the business.

More Than Creativity

Some people mistake innovation and creativity as interchangeable, however, creativity is only part of the equation. To be successful, innovative leaders need the ability to inspire others, productively collaborate, challenge their own thinking, overcome resistance, and usher in change. Most importantly, an innovative leader knows they need to focus on generating value, not just being new, different, or creative.

Review the Top 5 Books on Innovation

Embrace Disruption

Innovative leaders will model a certain level of comfort with disruption and they, themselves, will often proactively initiate it. Innovative leaders prefer to happen to things before things happen to them. Read the book Disrupt You, by Jay Samit, for great examples of this in practice from Richard Branson, to Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk.

Even if disruption does happen to catch innovative leaders by surprise, they do not panic. They accurately regard disruption as an opportunity to lean in, ask questions, listen, learn, and, ultimately, respond strategically.

Quality Over Quantity

Although innovative leaders may appear to have boundless ideas, they do not have boundless time. Therefore, they must focus their energy in strategic areas rather than spreading themselves too thin. The book Essentialism provides some wonderful, actionable, advice on this. The practical tips in this book can help leaders distinguish the most important opportunities from the trivial many and remove obstacles to make room for essential activities.

Innovative leaders also prioritize projects that are going to have the deepest impact and add the most value to the business in the least amount of time. If you find yourself surveying a vast landscape of innovative ideas, a mindset of less-is-more may help improve your ROI (return on ideas).

Atmosphere of Innovation

Effective leaders generate an atmosphere of innovation around them, not just within their team. They welcome diversity of thought, applaud new ideas, and harken to the voice of the outspoken.

They share their vision of the future and warn against the dangers of thinking any industry or company is immutable. At their core, innovative leaders understand that change is inevitable and thus innovation is essential to survival. They carry this atmosphere of innovation with them into every meeting and they invite others to join them.

One six-year study found that most innovative leaders do not feel personally responsible for coming up with strategic innovations. Instead, they take pride in their ability to facilitate the innovation process.

Birds of a Feather

Innovative leaders understand the value of teamwork and they're good at identifying teammates who can contribute to important stages of innovation. They are not worried about who will get recognition for a great idea, instead, they are extrinsically motivated to achieve greatness for the sake of benefitting others.

They enjoy assembling skilled individuals to collaborate on high-value projects and (regardless of their official title) this is where their leadership skills really shine. For example, they might recruit people who...

  • ...can think creatively and envision an alternate future.

  • ...can help connect with stakeholders across the business.

  • ...are good at evaluating the merit of a new idea and it's value for others.

  • ...productively collaborate and elevate the performance of others.

  • ...are highly organized and skilled at project management.

Devil's Advocate

Innovative leaders enjoy playing devil’s advocate, especially with their own ideas. They do not let pride or ego interfere with a group receiving the best solution in the end.

In his book, The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin writes that innovative thinkers possess the capacity to hold two diametrically opposing ideas in their heads without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other.

Asking oneself, or others, to imagine a completely different alternative can lead to truly original insights.

Start From Square Zero

Instead of trying to retain incremental steps that have built up within a process over the course of years, innovative leaders consider what the approach would look like if the process was being designed for the first time.

Standard thinking accepts existing circumstances but innovative leaders start from a zero-base point

When approaching a project or task, innovative leaders will ask a lot of questions. These questions are not intended to challenge the intelligence of past decisions (as is sometimes misinterpreted) but, rather, a desire to understand the why behind existing processes so they can be reimagined.


In Angela Duckworth's book, Grit, she talks about the intersection of passion (a deep, enduring knowledge of what you want) and perseverance (hard work and resilience) and we learn that, in the long-run, a major factor in someone's success relates to their ability to continue moving forward toward a goal with consistency and endurance. This is what we can expect to see in the most successful innovative leaders.

Innovative leaders expect obstacles along the way and they know objections are part of the process so they welcome opposing views.

Innovative leaders understand that whatever doesn't kill an idea makes it stronger and it is only by surviving objections that an idea earns the right to implemented.

We should note that even though innovative leaders are gritty it does not mean they are without fear. Instead, they acknowledge their feelings of doubt or inadequacy and then make a conscious decision to persevere anyway.

Take Action

This is the last section of this article because it is first thing you need to do, after you finish reading.

Innovative leaders take action. They see opportunities where others can't and they eagerly jump in rather than wait around for someone else to step up. In contrast, ineffective leaders dabble in innovation or regard it as a tool that can be dusted off occasionally. Ineffective leaders do not focus on building a culture of innovation and often feel like they don't have time to take action because their days are consumed by "urgent" issues. If this sounds familiar, revisit the section on "Quality Over Quantity" or read this article on structuring your day to help rebalance your workload.

Sporadic innovation is not a strategy and it will never lead to compound growth. Much like a muscle that atrophies without exercise, innovative thinking needs to be a part of our daily lives.

Commit to exercising your innovative muscles and you'll be strong enough to weather the resistance that comes along with spearheading change.

Lastly, refuse to accept any excuses from yourself. Not your history. Not your title. Not the timing. Not your company or its culture. Not __________ (fill in the blank). You owe it to yourself and to the talents you've been uniquely gifted with to make innovation a priority. Don't let fear rob you of your potential. You can be an innovative leader if you so desire. It all starts with the correct mindset and then, of course, action.

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