Recently we conducted a webinar on innovation to share the results of our research on what distinguishes leaders who are perceived to lead innovative teams from those who are not seen as leaders of innovative teams. Here are the key highlights of the insights we’ve gleaned. (For a detailed article on the full research results, visit here.)

What we found in the research is contrary to what many people think, and opens the aperture on how you – and many others striving to make an impact – can lead your teams to innovate successfully.

Our research on leading innovation was based on looking at over 700 executives from a wide variety of industries who completed the Bates Executive Presence Index (ExPI™). We looked at leaders who were identified as leading innovative teams and compared their scores on the ExPI™ to leaders who were identified as unsuccessful at leading innovative teams and found numerous differences that were statistically significant.

Setting the Stage: The Common Wisdom

We started the webinar conversation with a question we typically ask the teams we work with on trying to advance their ability to innovate.  

Which set of these leadership behaviors below (A or B) distinguished innovative from non-innovative leaders?

Group A

  • Calm, thoughtful style helps make sensitive issues discussable.
  • Self-assured enough to invite and consider dissenting views.
  • Knows the industry, latest trends, and where things are going.

Group B

  • Does not shy away from making his/her opinions, views, and reactions known.
  • Speaks his/her mind and can be firm without seeming harsh or shutting down discussion.
  • Challenges other points of view for a purpose and expects a reasonable response.

Before reading further to find out the correct answer, think about it and pick A or B.

Well, according to our research, the correct answer is B. But, over 67% of the webinar audience got it wrong. They picked A.

What could explain this?  In our view, most people still believe that innovation is led by the people with the most industry knowledge – the smartest person in the room. But this item had one of the lowest correlations with those executives who successfully lead innovation. So our research has led us to conclude that while many people think leading innovation is about knowing the most, it is actually about leading in a way that brings out the innovation in others.

Innovation Leadership Lessons

Here are four key lessons to take away about what differentiates innovative leaders:

Lesson #1: Being the smartest person in the room about the business is not a factor in being seen as innovative. The successful leaders facilitate a discovery process. They do not tell people what to do or think.

Lesson #2: Innovative leaders create safe environments that facilitate healthy, constructive debate to help teams work through differences. They don’t just facilitate a discussion of sensitive issues, they make sure there was a resolution of this tension in a way that leads to action – to the implementation of an innovative idea.

Lesson #3: Innovative leaders align people around meaningful goals and an exciting vision. They help people find ownership in the vision and motivate people to find ways to achieve even challenging goals.

Lesson #4: On average, women exhibit more of the behaviors we found to be significantly correlated with leaders who lead innovative teams, including aspects of humility, resonance and inclusiveness.

The bottom line is that leaders who drive innovation make intentional decisions that create an environment where it is safe to take risks.

Three Steps to Leading Innovative Teams

We led the group in a discussion about translating these findings into leading innovative teams in their organizations, and shared these three steps to focus your efforts:

  1. Align the team around a common cause and set of values
  2. Create a safe environment that supports taking reasonable risk
  3. Facilitate and champion healthy debate

To listen to the entire webinar recording, How to Lead Innovation When You Don’t Have Any Ideas, and learn more about the conversation click here.

You can also download our whitepaper "Championing Innovation" here.




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