What are the qualities of good leadership, or better yet innovative leadership? According to Margaret Wheatley, author of many books on innovative leadership including, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, perseverance in the face of challenge is one quality that stands out. Another is the ability to motivate those around you and energize their work, maintain a disciplined approach and value your team. What stands out most, however, as one of the most critical components of good leadership when looking at innovation within your organization is the ability to avoid the marginalization of innovators. Part of a leader’s job is to create a firewall so that staff can operate free from the bureaucratic, change-resistant forces of the larger organization. Keeping innovators inspired and motivated is no small task for a leader when typically innovators are operating in ways that are counter to the larger organization.
In a recent interview with Strategy and Business magazine’s Art Kleiner, Meg Wheatley describes what can happen when leaders misunderstand the initiatives and motivations of their own people, innovators who are successful but operating in a way that is largely counter to way things are always done. It is natural for fear-based leaders to ignore and even marginalize these team members because they don’t desire to learn new ways of doing things and fear the impact of these new ways.
Fear-based leadership practices come in many forms but what they all have in common is an operational mentality of maintaining status quo. This creates toxicity within the organization for innovators who are all about pushing the bounds of status quo, bringing in new ideas and garnering change. One way to overcome fear-based practices is for leaders to acknowledge they don’t have all of the answers. Another way is to avoid feeling ill-equipped for change because this resistance to change is futile. Change is. Maintaining status quo is no longer relevant in the complex world we operate in today.
But, what is so unique about effective, innovative leaders?
Innovative leaders have elements of a spiritual life or a personal spiritual discipline. They take the time to cultivate quiet in their lives to reflect upon the people and the processes within the larger context, bringing an enlightened understanding to their work.
I have worked for a lot of different leaders in a variety of settings; education, consulting, large organizations, small non-profits, and those leaders that I felt the greatest respect and the most gratitude towards were those that had an element of contemplation. I could find a resonant frequency within them that depicted some element of personal strength and awareness that came from something greater than themselves. What they possessed was a vision for our organization, and created a belief among our teams that we could bring into reality ‘greatness’ within our organization. They embraced change and guided the organization through times of change with great thought. They valued innovators and saw their potential to enhance the way forward. They were a pillar of strength for innovators to flourish and built the necessary constructs for innovators to thrive. These leaders were authentic and inspiring to work for.
Emily Riley: Innovation Practitioner
I was walking through a book store about a month ago and came across the following maxims on a page within a recent release of a book about and by John Wooden, the classic and classy coach of UCLA from back in the day who passed away in June of this year.
Here’s what he wrote:
1. Do not mistake activity for achievement.
2. Things work out best for those who make the best of the way things work out.
3. A player who makes the team great is better than a great player.
4. The best way to improve the team is to improve yourself.
I like his maxims. He claims fondness for maxims because they convey so much with so little. I think they are very applicable to innovative teams.
I think that while activity and ‘doing’ is important and even for managers who are moving towards higher and higher levels of leadership; doing is important in order to continue to understand the reality on the ground. However, activity for the sake of activity is not effective or helpful within the high performance team environment. Collaborating effectively with your team members is a much better use of your time and will move the team to greater levels of unified, collective intelligence and therefore impact on the company or organization’s objectives.
I think that we all take ‘hits’ in our work lives, particularly those of us who stand out from the crowd and ‘push the envelope.’ I think that we are often taking negativity, or what many people are calling attacks from the antibodies, within organizations that are inherently resistant to change. So, it requires thoughtful examination, evolutionary approaches to our work life and positioning with respect to issues and concerns within the company, and we make the best of certain situations when the forces and powers that be are much greater than our individual influence. The ability to reposition, to stand again, and to continue to be innovative despite set-backs is what I look for in mentors, is what I aspire towards, and what I think makes great leaders in the end.
Hands down we must all have the ability to play within the team environment and know when to pass the ball. I had the dean of engineering at University of Dayton whom I view as a mentor say to me, you played basketball so you must know how to think in the moment and with all five fingers or players in mind (like Phil Jackson’s metaphor of the hand making a great team with all five fingers in synch) . He’s right that in sports and particularly basketball, although I am probably biased since this was my love, is where we have an opportunity to learn to be about the greater whole and that even a loss can be a win if we as a team played together and built trust, comraderie, and communication needed to succeed. Even though we lost the game, we won as a team.
Finally, I love the fourth maxim because it challenges us at our core. The best way to improve the team is to look in the mirror and work on the things that we have before us as our own personal and professional challenges to overcome. In doing so, we take responsibility and we contribute to a better team by working on those parts of ourselves and our practices that need polish, or need re-positioned, or need to acknowledge the greater whole or our team members whose work we rely on. In all, this is #4, and yet to me the greatest of them all and represents the greatest rate of return for a team. Truly awesome teams are built by individuals who have the courage, the strength and the determination to take on themselves and their challenges to make themselves better and therefore the team better.
Best wishes in your pursuits for innovations, higher performance within your teams and collaborations, and for a better world.
PS: John Wooden’s book is called, The Wisdom of Wooden: My Century On and Off the Court.
Emily Riley: Innovation Practitioner