The art in educating any diverse group is an exercise in good salesmanship. But as the chief learning officer, your goods and services are packaged differently from your sales counterparts. You’re selling intellectual property in the form of ideas, concepts and processes.
Here’s a lesson from your sales colleagues: The first step in any successful sales opportunity is to know your audience. This lesson holds true when educating leaders, especially the innovative ones. Knowing the innovative leader is vital to the success and outcomes of your educational opportunity, because if done properly, these leaders will wrap their creative energies around those ideas and employ them vigorously in new ways your organization never imagined.
The chief learning officer is the lead agent of change. If you’re going to get your organization to make radical changes that will slingshot it warp speed ahead of your competitors, it’ll be due to dedicated, passionate and visionary leaders who think and act boldly. That’s what Ray Anthony calls “the essence of innovative leadership.” Anthony is the author of five business books including his acclaimed, “Talking to the Top,” and he’s the president of The Anthony Innovation Group in The Woodlands, Texas. At last count, Anthony estimates there are more than 500 different definitions of leadership. “Perhaps the only common denominator of those is that a leader has followers,” Anthony said. “Although an executive or manager can be a leader, leadership is more a role and state of being than a position or title. Leadership is not about systems or procedures. It’s about people – about motivating, inspiring, directing and developing them for peak performance.”
Anthony defines leadership as the ability to get followers deeply committed to fulfilling a vision, objective or course of action. “An innovative leader,” he said, “is an exceptional and rare one, a person who promotes and focuses maximum effective creativity from followers to achieve remarkable breakthroughs in the organization. These galvanizers get people to attack things they’ve only longed for and dreamt of previously.”
Characteristics of Innovative Leaders
Anthony identifies at least 11 common traits and behaviors.
Fast and action-oriented: Speed, responsiveness and agility are everything to innovative leaders, who analyze situations, make decisions and act on opportunities. They find shortcuts to slash red tape. They’d rather make a wrong decision than blow a potential opportunity by cautiously sitting still.
Immersed in progressive change: Innovative leaders build organizations and foster a culture of ongoing, never-ending change. They ensure their organizations continually learn, adapt, evolve and improve. Their first objective is to deal with turbulent change around them, then become the master of that change.
Future-obsessed: The beckoning horizon ahead excites them. These leaders visualize their organization’s future and plot its course. They’re always asking, “What next? Where else?” They create the future by visualizing it now.
Masters of motivation and inspiration: Vanguard leaders get people excited, committed and moving. They tap into secret chambers of the minds, hearts and souls of people and know which buttons to push to activate their staff’s pride, faith, hope, drive and perseverance. Innovative leaders make their followers feel special, as if they were an elite exclusive team fulfilling some noble destiny. They help their employees fulfill a deep longing for creativity and innovation. They impart a sense of invincibility, power and control over their situations. They make people feel good about themselves, and they make them feel good about what they’re accomplishing.
Passionate: Innovative leaders are incredibly driven. And that rubs off on their followers. They express emotions freely and showcase their excitement about new ideas and change.
Super salespeople and evangelists: The secret of innovative leadership is not authority but rather influence and loyalty. President Dwight Eisenhower noted, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.” Innovative leaders persuasively communicate an optimistic, bright, enticing picture of the future for their followers. They elicit support along the way. They convince people to get on board and stay on board.
Rule breakers: The only rule they have is, “There are no rules.” Bureaucratic thinking, even in small organizations, focuses on strictly (oftentimes blindly) following rules, regulations, methods, procedures, formulas and policies. It’s about running a tight ship. Unfortunately, it stays in the harbor a lot, and that’s not what ships are built for. Innovative leaders get followers to discard their policy and procedures manuals and instead create common sense and flexible and ethical guidelines.
Mountain climbers: What do Alexander the Great and Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer, have in common? Both got their troops conquering more territory by repeatedly giving them challenging battles to fight and mountains to climb. But before the arrogance of complacency of victory set in, they announced yet another new and exciting goal to reach. By creating on-going, inspiring, short-term visions and galvanizing followers to rush toward them, innovative leaders keep interest and motivation peaked at all times. This is exactly what Jobs did by motivating his company to come out with a new video iPod, making the previous iPod practically obsolete while it was experiencing record sales. He knew that quantum-leaping product innovation had to be a regular exercise routine in his company.
Opportunists: Innovative leaders aggressively seek out and grab ideas and opportunities before others are even aware of their existence. They study trends, technological developments and are well-rounded readers. They’re always asking themselves questions such as, “How does this apply to my organization? How can I use it or get ideas from it?”
Builders: You can’t build good products in poor factories. The factory of creativity is the organization’s culture and operating climate. A major role of the leader is to create an environment where imagination, smart risk-taking, aggressive initiatives and bold tactics are encouraged and rewarded. As builders, they design their organization’s infrastructure to support every aspect of innovation by helping to create or modify the organization’s collective values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.
High-gain risk-takers: You won’t find innovative leaders thinking small. Their plans are grandiose. Their actions big and daring. They seek large gains and aren’t afraid to take smart, calculated risks.
Now that you know what innovative leaders are made of, you have a better sense of where you might fall on this scale and where learning can focus its energies to evolve the innovative aspects of existing leaders and those emerging within your organization.
Innovative leaders learn by falling forward. Unafraid of mistakes, let alone failure, they are ready to take bold risks to move the organization ahead in areas such as productivity, efficiency and market dominance. Where the traditional leader wants incremental improvements, the innovative leader wants monumental improvements. They feed on change and continuous improvement, making them ideal candidates not only as learning participants but also as key stakeholders for learning’s strategic initiatives. They empower the concept of a learning organization – more correlation between innovative leaders and chief learning officer. Float a forward-thinking idea about learning or innovative change to one of these leaders and you’re likely to gain support immediately. What’s more, innovative leaders require less justification to support and implement change. They like to act quickly. Time is of the essence because speed of deployment is everything for the innovator.
Innovative leaders need to evolve and grow just like traditional leaders in terms of core competencies. However, their curriculum must walk a dual path. The first path should focus on efficiency and productivity using your existing business model and environment, looking for ways to improve the now. The second path focuses on the future, examining paradigm shifts and the rebuilding of existing, perhaps already well-built, processes and procedures, creating a dramatically better model of efficiency and productivity without causing chaos. Innovative leaders don’t need to stop the flow of traffic to make grand improvements. Building creativity, risk management and effective decision-making into your curriculum will give your leaders the skills they need to implement changes without disrupting daily activities.
Innovative leaders are sponges for diverse information and experiences. They enjoy studying topics such as philosophy, religion, science, the arts, technology and theatre. They know that this highly diverse and broad base of knowledge and experiences will enable them to assimilate novel ideas and connect seemingly unconnected pieces of information.
Innovative leaders tend to be more impatient than their traditional counterparts when it comes to education. They thrive on activities that stimulate their brains and boost their adrenalin. They tend to view education as a vehicle to improve every aspect of the company continuously. Innovative leaders are generally more open to diverse topics of study rather than narrowing the scope of education. More so than other leaders, innovative leaders appreciate education that’s both informative and entertaining. If the education challenges them, gives them a sense of competition, and is fast-paced and hands-on with activities that make the information real and relevant to their needs, innovative leaders like it. Innovative leaders oftentimes perceive traditional leaders as bland and unexciting. So, if they are in a learning situation with their conservative counterparts, they tend to feel their energy decreasing. However, when innovative leaders get together, there is an atmosphere of electricity, energy and excitement in the air as they explore far-out ideas, truly visionary concepts and play what-if scenarios.
There Is No Finish Line
Where traditional leaders endorse innovation, innovative leaders see it as the only way to get a lead in the industry and keep it. They move fast to grab opportunities before others do. They rarely stop, and they rarely look back. Take 3M for example, a highly innovative company. Its slogan is “Never kill an idea, just deflect it.” 3M sets an annual innovation quota for its leadership team.
Like their traditional counterparts, innovative leaders are measured on the financial aspects of the organizations they lead. Financial measures typically show a lagging or coincident indication of success. But because innovative leaders live more in the future than in the present, like at 3M, innovative leaders are measured on how many ideas are implemented throughout the organization. After all, creativity is the act of coming up with useful ideas. Innovation is implementing and commercializing those ideas. Innovative leaders focus on getting ideas implemented that improve operational aspects such as productivity, efficiency, effectiveness and quality, all of which affect financial performance.
Even governments are calling out innovation as the key to staying competitive. In his most recent State of the Union address, President George W. Bush called on corporations and higher education institutions to stimulate innovation to drive economic growth. Anthony and others consider innovation a national security issue. So what is Anthony’s countermeasure? The Innovation Olympics: A non-threatening platform to teach and encourage creativity and innovation in individuals through five energizing events – a pentathlon of sorts.
Leadership can be taught like any other skill. It is a structured process that organizations and people can learn and implement. There is also a process for creative thinking that helps develop left-brain-oriented people into more right-brain, imaginative employees. Research shows that people can be trained to be more creative. However, like anything else, there are those who seem to be born with an imagination gene encoded in their DNA. What really accelerates someone being both creative (thinking) and innovative (doing) is feeling the exhilaration of a spectacular achievement or a sense of doing something new and exciting.
The road to innovative leadership never ends. As the chief learning officer, you already know that. Along the way, there will surely be winners, but in your race to innovate and implement change, there is no finish line.
Chris Moore is president of Zeroed-In Technologies, a learning technology firm and creator of CLO Dashboard. He is also an advisor to the CLO Institute. Chris can be reached at email@example.com.
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