From Silicon Valley to Capitol Hill, experts warn that without continuous innovation, companies and even entire economies will fail. And in leadership circles, you're still thinking inside the box if you don't drop the word "innovation" at least once at a meeting. But with all the talk about the "I" word, how do you know if your leadership style, or, more importantly, the way your workplace views and rewards leaders, opens the floodgate of innovation or dams it?
Through my research and countless interviews of leaders, I have come to the conclusion that the four basic pillars of innovation are imagination, drive, curiosity and attitude. You might think you're a strong leader in all of these areas. Test your leadership prowess by answering the five practical questions below to determine if you're truly a friend of innovation or an unwitting innovation killer. And remember that while your weaknesses in any of the areas questioned can be toxic to innovation in the workplace, they can also be reversed with awareness and work.
1. Do you set an example and create an environment for others where balance and mental readiness can thrive?
Neuroscience tells us that to generate new ideas, the brain performs optimally when a person creates a balanced psychological state. Too much stress narrows the brain's ability to produce new ideas. So it follows that habits such as maintaining work-life balance and taking regular breaks are friends of innovation. Working 70-hours a week and demanding your staff to do the same? Murderers of innovation.
2. Do you have the courage to make mistakes and allow others to make them as part of the growth process?
All great leaders have war stories about their failures. However, some organizations still cling to the notion that failures should be hidden or even punished. Communicating that failure is a necessary step to learning and success will not only build respect with employees, but it will also help them to stay competitive in the innovation economy.
3. Are you an inspiration to others in your organization?
You might be thinking, "How would I really know if I'm an inspiration to others?" Perhaps you're too humble to admit it. And it's true that many of our most inspiring leaders are humble. Humility is indeed a proven measure of whether others find leaders inspiring. But in assessing whether you are an inspiration, you should reflect on other factors, including three key "E" words: ethics, enthusiasm and engagement. Innovation begins when a culture of inspiration exists.
4. How adaptable are you to change?
Odds are, you will say you are "very adaptable." However, in my experience working with and coaching leaders, the least likely deficiency for a leader to acknowledge is an inability to adapt to change. This brings up another very important element of effective leadership to foster innovation, which is awareness of one's inner world and external environment. The adaptability shortcoming is difficult for leaders to recognize because many view themselves as agents of change in their organizations. Also, leaders can unconsciously become less flexible and adaptable the higher they rise in the leadership hierarchy - because they don't have to be! Ask others in your organization if they think you are adaptable. Companies that trumpet agility should assess their top leaders' adaptability.
5. Do you embrace intuition in the workplace?
Yes, left-brain leaders, intuition definitely needs to have a place at the table (and in the heads) of leaders of the innovation era. According to neuroscience research, decision-making that integrates intuition and other right-brain functions is more effective. We all have intuition. But many old-school, left-brain dominated organizations don't encourage using it in the workplace. Incidentally, women are sometimes faulted as leaders if they make decisions "from the heart," while men are rewarded for making decisions "from the gut." These are describing identical behaviors of embracing intuition. And both should be encouraged and rewarded if you want to lead in the age of innovation.
So you aced the innovation leadership quiz, but what about your company?
Your leadership is critical to workplace innovation. But your company's culture is equally important. If companies want to survive and thrive in the innovation era, they need to implement a leadership development program that positively addresses these five questions.
The innovation era is approaching a tipping point. Soon, Gen Y workers will make up more than half the workforce. Reinforcing and encouraging these 'innovation-positive" behaviors to Gen Y workers BEFORE they become leaders may be the true test of whether a company will survive in the innovation economy.