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A Matter Of Debate

Leading Through the Lens of Innovation: 5 Traits Everyone Should Master

Chess pieces on board

When I think of successful companies both large and small, great leadership and innovation are the separators. Leading through the lens of innovation is marked by five key traits that product powerful results, from better relationships to more engaged employees and greater productivity. It’s no coincidence that these behaviors also parallel what great minds like Jim Collins, John Maxwell, Walt Disney, and many others have said about high-level leadership.

To lead through the lens of innovation, practice these behaviors:

1. Stay humble.

Great leaders realize transitioning from team member or even manager to leader means it is no longer about them anymore. It’s about serving others and knowing how to best serve them. Asking for feedback is a great place to start: How can you better serve the customer? Ask your employees how you can help them do their jobs better. Is the mission clear, and do they understand how their roles contribute to it? Do they have the right resources, training, and tools to play their roles? Are systems and process bogging them down, or a supervisor holding them back? Employees see things you don’t, and they love to be heard. That can be a winning combination for you! You can’t and shouldn’t use all of their ideas; nor can you accommodate every request. But listening alone goes a long way towards employee engagement. Great companies like Disney solicit feedback and authentic supervisor-employee relationships.

2. Look forward.

Great leaders don’t just anticipate future needs and opportunities. They also think and communicate using aspirational language that empowers their employees to look for new opportunities, markets, and partners. Do you lead by controlling, or by encouraging forward thinking? Is there a negative vibe around your words and actions, or do you use aspirational language, conversations, and strategies? Forward-focused conversation leads to more creative brain activity — which drives innovation, increased productivity, increased engagement, and a higher quality of life for your employees.

3. Show care for your employees.

Soliciting feedback and simply listening goes a long way towards higher employee engagement and better relationships. Leaders that regularly provide a variety of listening sound posts not only get great ideas and feedback, they also earn the respect and loyalty of their teams. Great leaders are also cognizant of the fact that employees have lives outside of work, and respectful of the need for a healthy work-life balance. Learn about your employees’ family lives. Don’t worry about going too far—they will give you sufficient clues regarding their boundaries. Ask them about their spouse, kids, hobbies, and favorite sports teams. It took me too long to learn that authentic personal conversation is vital part for healthy relationships built on trust and mutual accountability. And the best part? Authentic relationships drive engagement, ownership, accountability, and the open flow of aspirational ideas.

4. Empower engagement, ownership, and collaboration to maximize results.

Micromanagers typically have either an ego problem or a self-esteem problem—or both. Their behavior leaves a lot of talent, resources, and time on the table. They prefer silos, as it’s easier to maintain control. But high-level leaders not only empower their people to scrutinize operations, they encourage problem finding, problem and opportunity reframing, solution formulation, and human ingenuity. By taking the pressure off leaders, this approach is incredibly freeing. It also maximizes results. Collaborative environments leverage diverse talent and functional perspectives, rather than requiring that any one leader, team, unit, or division solve every problem. It turns unhealthy competition into productive cross-functional teamwork.

5. Stay ahead of changes in the market.

Your employees have a vested interest in the performance your organization. Never forget that they are stakeholders too — your most important stakeholders! Engaged employees who are encouraged to look for opportunity will both help you not only stay relevant in the marketplace and help you be a pacesetter in your industry. In today’s rapidly changing and ultra-competitive environment, it’s more important than ever to stay ahead of market paradigm shifts and the competition. Look no further than the retail industry’s recent failures, such as Toys “R” Us and Sears. These former giants fell hard because they failed to stay ahead of the market and innovate.

Leading through the lens of innovation keeps you humble and aspirational. It gives your employees a chance to express themselves, be engaged, and feel a part of something special that really matters. Encouraging and empowering entrepreneurial behavior in any size organization means you and your leadership team don’t have to be the only innovators and producers. It multiplies your talents, and expands your sphere of influence and capabilities. Innovation, even when disruptive, engages employees, creates ownership and accountability, and drives loyalty and performance. It encourages high expectations, healthy relationships, and life fulfillment. Finally, treat innovation like an organizational value rather than an occasional event, and keep in mind innovation does not have to be radical to be effective. Have fun!


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Rob Mathews
Rob Mathews is the Director and Operations Manager of the Institute for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise at Ball State University. His new book with Michael G. Goldsby is Entrepreneurship the Disney Way (Routledge; November 7, 2018). Rob is a regular contributor to the CEOWORLD magazine.