Innovation – A Leadership Skill We Seem To Forget

May 10, 2021

Lightbuld leadership innovation

Innovation – The Forgotten Leadership Skill

One Saturday afternoon my son and I were given an impossible task by my wife to “remove the hideous hedge” from her sight. We sat on the porch gazing at the uninspiring sight of the pick and shovel that lay before us and dreading the hours of hard labor to come.  “This is a really terrible idea,” my son said to me. “I know,” I said as my wife drove away blowing kisses, “but we don’t have a choice.”

As we began the arduous process my mind was opened to a vision of my rusty 1988 Ford F250 truck. It is a wonderful vehicle that looks like junk but has the heart of a lion.  I stopped my son, “I have an idea. What if we back up the truck, attach my trusty tow rope to it and then we wrap it around those shrubs to rip them out.” A slow grin spread across my son’s face as he replied, “That will be fun.”

We were given a really hard, boring task that afternoon, but when we introduced innovation into the mix it suddenly turned into fun. It was still hard work and I won’t go into the damage we may have inflicted, but what I learned from this experience was that innovation has the ability to inspire and motivate all involved in a powerful way.

I’m convinced there is a part of all of us that wants to be innovative. While it may be comfortable to do what we’re told, a wandering mind is free to dream of a better way.  It is in our nature to create, discover, and to invent the next best product or process. Why would organizations ever want to stifle their employees’ innovation? What is the value of an innovative workplace and this leadership skill?

Recently, my firm, Zenger Folkman, did a study with 700,000 participants to rank the importance of innovation among 15 other competencies.  This leadership skill ranked as number 13 out of the 16  in order of importance.

How Do Leaders Rank Innovation in Terms of Importance? 

Leaders rank importance of Innovation- Zenger Folkman

This ranking surprised me but I believe that people tend to focus on the immediate daily needs and not the long-term outcomes. As a result, the vital importance of innovation slips past them.

How Do Leaders Rank on the Leadership Skill–Innovation?

Next, I decided to see how leaders scored on the competency of innovation when rated in a 360 assessment. It turns out their effectiveness was in 10th place as compared to the other competencies in the chart below.

How Leaders Rank Innovation

How Do Leaders Rank Themselves in Innovation?

However, their leadership self-assessment rating placed innovation in 8th place.

Where leaders rank themselves in innovation

How Do Managers Rank Leaders in Innovation? 

Finally, when we singled out scores from direct managers the innovative ranking fell to 12th place. These scores aren’t unexpected because the low importance ranking obviously reflects the leader’s desire to focus on and improve this skill.

How Mangers Rank Leaders in Innovation

Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business Professor, has written many books on innovation. He made an interesting observation that unsuccessful companies put undue emphasis on customers’ current needs, failing to adopt technology or business models to met customer’s unstated or future needs.

How Can We Place More Focus on Innovation?

In many ways, the data we are presenting here supports Christensen’s assumptions. Most of the competencies that score high in importance ranks are useful in meeting customer’s needs. If innovation is one of the most important issues for an organization, then leaders need to focus on becoming more innovative. This requires a shift in mindset in order to recognize the ways of improving the bigger picture will positively impact the day-to-day. My son and I could have spent an entire Saturday digging and hacking at the enormous hedge, but opening our minds to a different path created a more effective and fun experience.

-Joe Folkman

(This article first appeared on Forbes)

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Learn more about Zenger Folkman’s 360-Degree Assessments and leadership development workshops on our website.


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