Innovation and Leadership

Both these words are positive things that most of us want more of. However they both defy any definition. There is to my mind, no single way to interpret these terms. This is evident from the fact that in spite of thousands of books and theories available on the subjects, there isn’t a book that might enable us to be either a leader or an innovator. Isn’t that strange?

Actually not. If you look carefully, innovation and leadership are very closely related. Leadership is essentially in more ways than not about creating a better future. In this sense, leaders must be innovators.

Why are we not able to become a leader or an innovator by reading an expert book on either? I will attempt to answer this throughout this paper. I will also attempt to open our possibilities for developing leadership and innovation. A short and very obvious answer though is that both innovation and leadership are relative to our circumstances or to change we are creating.

Lets take an example to delve right in – In the middle ages when people were attempting to fly, they would make wings, go to a high spot and jump. For centuries aspiring innovators assumed that there was something wrong with the wings so they kept working on a better design and continued to kill themselves.

In 13thcentury, though, a gentleman named Roger Bacon wrote an article describing that human beings have solid bones as compared to birds that have hollow bones. He proposed a design for a machine that flapped its wings to enable flight. That didn’t work either because at the time – no one understood gravity. However as and when these details unfolded, as and when we understood how nature or the world worked – we could actually fly well.

I read a definition of innovation which I think is a very powerful way of thinking what it means: intentionally ‘bringing into existence’ that can be sustained or repeated and which has some value or utility.’

If you put these both in context – Innovation is related to ‘in-the-world’ value – and – to bring about innovation we need to understand how ‘our’ world works so we can avoid being tipped off in our quest to create change.

Innovation or Leadership is not to be equated with change. Change is happening all the time. There may be an accident leading to a random change, but that does not amount to innovation or does not make an innovator so to say. From time to time we all might have had some ideas we did nothing about. Suddenly one day we discover someone has accomplished exactly what we thought about. This is reality. This is what differentiates innovation from dreaming. Remember the definition – innovation is ‘bringing into existence’.

It’s our relationship with the circumstances, especially when we fail, that determines whether we respond as innovators or leaders or simply accept what is happening.

Let’s take an example of this: Much like China is doing today, the Japanese economy during 60’s to 80’s started at low end of the industry and invaded markets with inexpensive products. It was disruption of sorts. They moved to the top of markets and moved competition out. Today Japanese companies are enormous and manufacture some of the world’s best products. However they do not have venture capital available to them to start new venture that may lead to such growth again. They are stuck much like, the American companies are as well. The world is therefore looking at BRIC as the other countries cannot create creative disruption by themselves anymore.

As I wrote earlier, its our relationship to the situation that will decide whether we respond as leaders or not. Innovation will occur in some context to create a Breakthrough – or to change a status quo. Both leaders and innovators will change the context, change the point of reference.

For example in the above illustration of economies – the current point of reference of economic revival is in working with business models that are itself the cause and detrimental. The same business models that led to growth are becoming the reason for slow down. Thus the ability to creatively destroy existing business models actually becomes the key to growth in the whole economy. An innovator or a leader will identify and change it.

However assuming that change is constant and always occurring, whether in our knowledge or not, contexts are being established every now and then. These contexts will vary from person to person depending upon ‘our’ world and view of the situation.

There are a few ways noted below on how we relate (or can) to change occurring all the time. How we do actually relate to these, lay the foundation for us becoming leaders and thereby opens or closes opportunities for innovation.


Resistance is probably the most common way to relate to change. Resistance implies standing apart and ‘not being as it should be’.

For example the world at large has been resisting evidence that India provides on involvement of Pakistan in terror activities. Pakistan resists it today. It’s very simple why – Resistance gives power to the status quo – and it’s convenient to be temporarily blind to what is occurring moment to moment.

Resistance, though is rooted in the past and grounded in negative assessment and encourages a ‘spectator’ relationship with reality.

Normal leadership response to resistance is then ‘fixing’ the ‘broken’ for example – perceive the broken as a dialogue between India and Pakistan – try to fix it. The problem is it doesn’t work. We are trying to change something which is pushing against (resisting) something that is also happening.