June 2, 1868: the Union Army and the Confederates were locked in a brutal struggle for supremacy. One of most innovative leaders in American military history, Robert E. Lee, was bringing his forces into the North to try and end the war. His right flank advanced further into enemy territory. All that stood between the Confederates and victory were a few small brigades of Union volunteers from Maine.
After running out of ammo, these brigades violated a direct order and left their line. They performed a bayonet charge against the opposing forces. The man credited with this charge, Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain, was just a schoolteacher from Maine. However, his innovative leadership changed the course of the bloodiest battle in American history.
Chamberlain wasn’t a leader in the army, and he wasn’t used to making this kind of decision. However, he came through in a pinch. This kind of ability to think quickly and come up with new ideas is exactly what innovation means.
Leaders in Innovation are Everywhere
History shows us that leaders in innovation are found at any level of an organization, in any position. Often, these people are not the ones who hold all the power and prestige. Innovative leaders are people who are in the right place at the right time with a good idea and the courage to act. Kouzes and Posner call this “Leadership is Everyone's Business.”
Humans are innovators by nature, and a forward-thinking organization will create change by implementing new systems and processes. The “universality of innovative potential” states that business leaders should focus on paving the way. These people make sure that everyone in an organization is empowered to participate in innovative leadership. Rather than just focusing on their own advancement, they seek to involve others.
Positional Leaders Can Squelch Innovation or Empower It
When creating a culture that inspires individual innovators, it is important to consider the concept of positional leadership. These leaders have power to allow or deny change in an organization. Innovation and leadership can originate from all levels of an organization. Positional leaders are instrumental in making sure that good ideas are recognized and implemented.
Cultivating a Culture of Creativity
The goal of a leader in an organization is to cultivate a culture of creativity. This means that any individual involved within an organization has the potential to change it.
Elon Musk and Mark Benioff are both leaders of innovative companies recognized by Forbes' Magazine’s 2015 list. These forward-thinking leaders have built companies recognized by both investors and the general public as innovative powerhouses.
Elon Musk is currently the most well-known innovative business leader in America. President of both Tesla and SpaceX, Musk has crafted some exciting brands. Tesla produced the world's most talked-about electric car, which is a game-changer for the auto industry. SpaceX successfully sent the first private space travel mission to LEO (Low Earth Orbit) and back. Musk’s accomplishments are recognized by everyone, not just those who know business.
It is important to see how Musk works with his teams to build cultures of innovation at Tesla and SpaceX. Recently, Musk was faced with a scandal at Tesla, when whistleblowers questioned the company’s outsourced labor practices. Tesla's response to the allegations shows his strong leadership. While Tesla could easily have claimed no responsibility (since the questionable practices were the actions of subcontractors), the company instead publically admitted a moral obligation. They even feel responsible for those who are not technically on the payroll.
A key part of creating a culture of innovation is treating employees well and acting with integrity. Innovative leaders never lose sight of the necessity of a strong and engaged team. Engaging in questionable practices or treating employees like disposable resources is not the way to get the best ideas. When employees feel a sense of ownership and pride in the organization, they’ll feel empowered to try new things and give you their best.
Marc Benioff is the president of SalesForce, number two on Forbes' list of innovative companies. SalesForce has been called “the fastest-growing top ten software company in the world and the largest CRM company.” Benioff creates a culture of innovation through a “multistakeholder approach to leadership.” This approach seeks to include people besides just shareholders in decision-making: it involves everyone from employees and customers to partners and the communities where SalesForce operates in the leadership process.
Because of the multi-stakeholder approach to leadership, SalesForce has developed a strong and united software system community. While many organizations focus only on how to boost their bottom line, SalesForce has opened up substantial portions of their software to third-party developers. These innovators are free to create additional plugins for the software.
This variation in style has led SalesForce to become one of the most flexible CRM systems on the market. SalesForce encourages innovation from unexpected sources, including outside its own ranks—and this openness to all possible ideas has made it one of the most successful software companies in the world.
These companies demonstrate that innovation is a team process, and something that comes from all levels of an organization and even from outside it. Businesses that aren’t afraid to look out of the box for new ideas are the ones that truly succeed and make change. The greatest leaders encourage everyone around them to lead in their own ways.
Leaders in innovation are everywhere in an organization, and it is the job of those in power to cultivate a culture which will empower them to introduce ideas. Contact me to learn more about leading innovation in your organization.