Innovative leadership is about being at the front edge of change. It’s cliche to say, but… in today’s rapidly evolving environment, it’s more important than ever to have leaders who are not afraid to act as “the tip of the spear.”
Although I’m not a fan of military analogies, this one is particularly relevant to today’s leaders, founders, and investors.
The term “tip of the spear” refers to the forward-most element of a military force, the one that makes first contact with the enemy. It’s used to describe the most advanced, or cutting-edge unit or individual that is leading the way in a mission. It also implies this unit or individual is taking on the most risk and facing the most danger.
For our purposes, we’ll use it in a broader sense to describe anyone who is leading the charge in innovation, business, politics, or social change. Sometimes, all three at the same time.
You can recognize examples of this kind of leadership in people like Jacinda Ardern, Yvon Chouinard, John Mackey, and Jacqueline Novogratz. If you are not familiar with them yet… take a few minutes to look them up.
They are all examples of the kind of people who are redefining what it means to be a transformative leader in today’s world. If you are reading this article, there is a good chance you are on that journey as well.
I’ve been fortunate to work with founders, senior leaders and investors in sustainability, cleantech, education, and government over the last few years, and I found 7 common qualities among the most innovative leaders I came across.
So, what makes a “tip of the spear” leader?
Seeing over the horizon
First, and perhaps the most formative quality innovative leaders bring to the table is their ability to see beyond the horizon.
Their vision goes past the next quarter, next year, and even a 5-year strategic plan. They are able to imagine and see a future that doesn’t yet exist, and experience it in such a visceral way that it creates a compelling pull forward. It’s almost as if they time travelled into the future and experienced it personally.
That vision then becomes the basis for how they enrol stakeholders, how they raise funding, and how they make daily decisions.
Most of us tend to think in limited time – next month, next quarter, next year. Over a long enough career, the realities of shareholder relations, economic fluctuations, and daily responsibilities degrade this ability to look beyond the next obstacle.
Frankly, most of us lose touch with our imagination. We focus on what’s currently available, rather than what is possible. Innovative leaders on the other hand look 10, 20, or 25 years out into the future, and imagine possible, positive scenarios.
Not just a continuation of the current trajectory, but rather the best possible scenarios. What would the world look like if we solved climate change? If work was fully equitable and inclusive? If we used AI to provide world-class education and health to everyone on the planet? If we created new ways of growing and distributing food? If conflict was eliminated?
If you feel compelled, take a few moments and just imagine a future, 25 years from now. If everything worked out in the best possible way — what would it look like? What would you be doing? What would your life look like? What if you used that as an aim, and then made daily decisions that would help you move the world in that direction, one tiniest step at a time?
There is a theme in personal and professional development about the locus of control. I have written and presented about it. Over the years, my views about it have also changed.
For some, the relationship to this concept comes from therapy, coaching, Stoicism, or related books. However, the way it’s interpreted, like many things, leaves a lot out.
Some business leaders unintentionally relate to it as an abdication of responsibility: “these are the things that are within my control” (how I speak, what I think, focusing on making sure we hit revenue targets for the next quarter), and “there are things that are outside of my control” (climate change, political change, societal responsibility, impact of your products or services on the greater world).
It becomes a nicely packaged excuse, falling neatly into a very individualist worldview. However, while our world may have been individualistic, and still is — the way forward requires a different kind of thinking.
Innovative leaders see their scope of responsibility as much larger comparatively.
Their scope of responsibility will scale out from themselves to their team, to their company, to their stakeholders, to their community, country, society, and world at large.
Innovative leaders tend to be global-scale thinkers, some even looking beyond the globe into lunar and space exploration for the good of mankind.
Through it all, they hold a belief that is contrary to the common locus of control narrative. That belief is “I CAN do something about it”.
Once that switch from “outside of my control” to “within my control” is flipped, a new array of possibilities opens up and they start looking for ways to a contribution (however small or large) that would guide the impact of their work.
If you considered this idea, what might be something you could take responsibility for? Within your team? Within your organization? Vendors and stakeholders? Your community? What kind of contribution would you want to make?
With a compelling vision and a way to communicate it to the right people at the right time, anything becomes possible.
That is one unfair advantage innovative leaders have. They have a high degree of emotional intelligence — in other words, they can empathize and understand others; they are great at deeply connecting with others (they will often have a varied and wide network); and they communicate in a genuine and authentic way.
There is a Silicon Valley fable where Steve Jobs convinced John Sculley to join Apple at a pivotal time. Granted, if you know the rest of the story – you may not be as thrilled with the example, but let’s just focus on that one moment. The moment where Steve enrolled John into leaving Pepsi to join Apple.
They’ve known each other for some time, and the story goes that – they would meet occasionally to hang out. This particular meeting was on the last Sunday of March 1983.
“Steve paused and thought for a while, and then he was about 18 inches away from me — and in those days he was in his 20s and he had jet black hair, very dark eyes and he was right in my face — and he said, ‘You want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?’”
“On April 11, 1983, Sculley joined Apple as the CEO. And from 1983 to 1993, he was the CEO. In that time, Apple went from having revenues of $569 million to $8.3 billion.”
Innovative leaders leverage the power of a compelling vision, express it through their natural ability to deeply connect with others, and enrol them. It’s less about persuading someone to see things your way, and more about seeing a way to this future by working together. Inviting others into your vision, and into making a contribution through your idea.
This is also a skill evident in town hall meetings, where compelling leaders are able to articulate their vision for the future, and how that future connects to each individual contributor’s current activities.
If you reflect on your ability to enrol others in your ideas and projects – if you had no positional power – how might you go about bringing someone on board?
Default to collaboration
When it comes to shifting things at a greater scale, no one does it alone. Even the people most western media look up to as singular, individual examples of genius are backed up by companies, investors, and employees who make their idea a reality.
Terry Rock, the president and CEO of Platform Calgary (you can listen to his interview here) illustrated it perfectly. If we are all moving toward this better possible future – it’s faster and more enjoyable if we journey there together.
His way of building an innovation centre that aims to revitalize not just the city, but also the province (or state if you are in the US), and have a national impact — was to build strong partnerships. Rather than competing over the same grants, funders, and resources, Terry looked at other similar organizations as partners on the same journey. He initiated conversations that eventually led to a large partnership group and the launch of one of Canada’s largest innovation centres.
Innovative leaders will look for ways to accelerate movement toward their vision, by looking at the competitive landscape in a different way. They will look for opportunities to collaborate, share resources, and negotiate ways to accelerate each other’s progress.
At the core of it, there is a belief that a rising tide lifts all boats. This also requires a different kind of conversation with shareholders and stakeholders – where we are no longer looking to isolate, compete, and win – but rather to collaborate and accelerate.
There is a term coined some time ago by Ray Noorda, CEO of Novell in 1992, that redefined relationships in the computer industry at that time. He called it “coopetition” — a way of working together with a person or company who may be your business competitor in a way that benefits both of you.
If you looked at your current situation, where might there be an unprecedented opportunity to partner with someone who you may have seen as competition in the past? How might you propose a mutually beneficial idea?
DrawING out the best in people
Leaders who change things have the ability to draw out the best in people. For some, it’s a natural talent and for others, it’s a learned skill.
Attentive innovative leaders aim to build a culture that fosters open innovation from all places. They do this by prioritizing what most are now calling psychological safety, making open invitations to share ideas, and creating a container where ideas can incubate and develop through conversations without judgment. This approach creates the conditions for ideas to snowball into possibilities and testable experiments.
One way innovative leaders do this is by setting up what I call guardrails and supports. Essentially, giving their teams and employees the ability to dream, innovate, experiment, try things, and share their thoughts and opinions – as long as they are moving toward the outlined, shared vision, with some clear creative constraints.
Complimentary to guardrails are what we call supports. They put systems, structures, and cultural expectations in place to make this possible. They allocate actual time to innovate and think (Google 20% rule). They allow ideas to percolate and tumble. They make it safe to share ideas that might not be great at first glance. They make tools and resources readily available. They simplify processes. They make sure to reinforce a judgement-free environment.
One way to think about it is to act as a shepherd. The leader’s job is to take care of the people in their employ, protect them from outside and inside threats, nurture and nourish them, and also help them move in the direction of a shared common vision.
Interestingly, you can also use this approach to draw out the best in people outside of your organization as well. In an example of open innovation, LEGO created a strategy called Shared Vision, which eventually led to the launch of LEGO Ideas, where consumers can design their own lego sets. The ideas are voted on by the community, and if the idea reaches a certain threshold, LEGO then turns it into a real product and shares the revenue.
These are not hard and fast skills, but rather an art of drawing out the best in people. You do that by taking responsibility for creating an environment that makes that possible, getting to know your team at a deeper level, and removing obstacles out of their way.
How do you go about bringing out the best in your people now? What do your engagement scores and 360 reports look like? Do people actually feel safe to share their ideas, and have their ideas be heard? Do they feel secure in knowing that you have their back? Is your work environment free of judgment and privilege?
LeapING Into Uncertainty
Here is an unpleasant fact — when you set off on an innovative journey, there are no guideposts in front of you. If you follow someone else’s path – it’s no longer innovation, but drafting. Drafting has its advantages, but that is not the MO of an innovative leader.
Innovative leaders seek to blaze a new trail, rather than follow an existing one. Not for the sake of doing something differently, but for the sake of doing something that hasn’t been done before. For the sake of solving a challenge that few are willing to step up to. And there are no guides, manuals, maps, or certain ways of getting there. Only the ones they create.
A way to look at this concept is like setting off on an adventure, exploring uncharted territory. When working with leaders, we often use this metaphor and brainstorm on — if I were to go on an expedition into unknown territory, knowing that what I seek to create is on the other end, what do I require? How will I enrol my team into coming along with me? What do they need? How do they relate to uncertainty? What can I do to make uncertainty feel slightly safer?
When setting off on an adventure, you have so many supplies, so many people, so many capabilities, and so much runway. As you travel, you’ll come across others who may ally with you on that journey and extend your runway. You’ll learn things, you’ll adjust course, you’ll upgrade your equipment, you’ll trade, you’ll meet others, you’ll make alliances, you’ll make mistakes and you’ll make discoveries that will make your adventure faster or your impact even greater than you first imagined.
When innovative leaders leave the comfort of the known and the predictable they know that they will make some less-than-optimal decisions. They’re ready to make mistakes and run into dead ends. Not every decision will be perfect. This leads to another commonality — looking at mistakes and failures as just another turn on the journey. It’s to be expected, and more importantly, to learn from so that you can optimize future decisions.
Given this kind of mindset and a long enough timeline — success is assured.
When I start working with new clients, I often ask them to watch the video below on Hero’s Journey. It’s a great illustration of what you are being asked to do as an innovative leader.
If you choose to watch it, here are some questions to reflect on: How do you relate to the idea of going on an adventure? Are you the kind of person who strives to blaze new trails, and explore new discoveries? How do you go about inviting others on that journey? How do you view failure? What kind of behaviours can others notice in you when you run into a dead end?
What would you do when supplies are light, and you are about to scale your most challenging climb yet? Would you choose to cut staff, or huddle and find another way?
Are you ready to go on an adventure?
The final common quality among innovative leaders we’ll discuss here is their ability to communicate. Specifically, their ability to create clarity for themselves and for the people they serve.
One way we can notice this is in the way they communicate the present as it relates to the future. In other words, they are able to make a clear connection from what each individual contributor may be working on at the present time, to the grand vision of the future they are moving towards. This is often a key element of how they create engagement and commitment in their teams.
In much more granular terms, they also make a consistent practice of clarifying. Ensuring that what was said and meant is what was received, and will be acted on in alignment across the board.
They actively seek out and eliminate assumptions and unspoken expectations. This is one of the secrets of moving forward faster and further.
Here is what happens and why clarity is important.
We all have our own individual stories and experiences. A boss you had when you were 15 that made you shy to share ideas, a book you read on creativity that made you think only some people had a “creative gene”, a course you took on assertive communications that makes you think you should communicate more directly. On top of that, maybe you’ve been fired. Maybe you had an employee that left your organization that you really counted on, and didn’t see it coming. Now you’re reluctant to hire someone with similar credentials. Maybe in your culture, it’s considered rude to challenge authority figures.
That was a very short selection of random experiences that will introduce bias into how you think and how you communicate. These will also add meaning to each of your interactions, often unconsciously.
What happens is that we may hear something — like a goal that the board of directors shares — and those words then go through all of our filters, stories, and experiences. Unintentionally, we add bias and meaning to those words. We interpret what was said. We assume what was meant. We predict based on our past experience. We respond based on our interpretation, not the intended meaning.
If you imagine that happening for each of your team members — it’s easy to see how miscommunication, misalignment and conflict can sprout up.
Astute innovative leaders will go out of their way to ensure all these biases, assumptions, expectations, and interpretations are cleared up before moving forward. They take the time to ensure what their team heard is what they meant, they clear up any misinterpretations, and they make themselves available for further discussion.
To lay these foundations requires a significant initial investment of time. However, once set in place, clarity becomes a cultural norm and progress is made faster with fewer mistakes.
To create clarity, you can start with standard questions like: What do we agree is our next step? Who is responsible for what, and by when can we expect it? What will happen if you run into any obstacles? When should I be notified if we run into problems?
Notice that you are asking, not telling — which is likely to elicit a greater commitment to the work.
In addition, you can also use a trick from active listening and ask your team members to paraphrase what they heard. “You heard what the goals are, and what I believe may be a way forward — so how would you explain it in your own words?”
In conclusion, “tip of the spear” leaders are able to navigate uncertainty with grace and commitment. They see their work as a journey, and they have the ability to enrol others into joining them on that journey.
The specific skills may range from verbalizing a compelling vision and developing resilience to leaning into empathy and intentionally designing a working environment for innovation.
For some, these qualities will come naturally. However, I believe we all have the ability to improve our innovation intelligence by intentionally practicing the kind of thinking these leaders use.
When we work on these qualities with executive clients, we notice a measurable improvement in their work, output, and impact. It’s entirely possible, and my hope is that you will take some of these qualities on in your leadership practice.