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Leading Innovation: Lessons for Current and Aspiring Leaders

Linda HillBy Linda Hill, Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School

“People are our greatest asset.” It’s a mantra we hear across industries. In today’s service economy—and in our local innovation economy, in particular—this has never been truer. Attracting and retaining the best talent is at the heart of the success of any business. But how can leaders convert these words into action in their organizations? And how can young professionals develop into the type of leader they aspire to become? To address these questions and foster the next generation of leadership, organizations need to understand how to lead innovation and empower aspiring leaders.

Understanding How to Lead Innovation  

Leaders of successful, innovative organizations understand that talent development and retention requires more than rhetoric; it requires action. An organization’s talent is its competitive advantage, and great leaders must focus on creating an environment that both attracts top-level talent and, more importantly, retains it by fostering productivity and providing meaningful opportunities to move the business forward. Across industries, employees seek opportunities to develop their leadership skills, to make a difference in the organization and to be involved in meaningful work.  

To create these opportunities, however, organizations need to understand how to lead innovation. Innovation is not about getting people to follow; it’s about getting people to want to co-create with you. The challenge of being a successful leader is that you need to be a visionary, but you also need to understand how to make space for others to express their vision and creativity. With that in mind, effective leaders need to understand how to build a workplace culture and the types of capabilities that are necessary to innovate and drive overall business success.

Outlining Imperatives for Aspiring Leaders

Young professionals who are not yet in a position of leadership also need to focus on developing leadership skills. In my research, I have examined the following three imperatives that aspiring leaders should strive to follow:

  • Manage yourself. You can’t manage your network or your team if you can’t manage yourself. A leader needs to understand how to manage his or her own time and execute.  
  • Manage your network. In order to execute, you must manage various relationships with clients, vendors and others over whom you may not have formal authority.   
  • Managing your team. A successful leader must delegate tasks and empower others in the organization to execute to meet the organization’s objectives.  

Mastering these interdependent imperatives ultimately requires more than skill and intellect alone. Leaders also need to develop a strong emotional intelligence—which includes listening skills, empathy and understanding—in order to build healthy and constructive relationships in the workplace.

Ultimately, my message for leaders and aspiring leaders is very simple: if you want to innovate, you must be able to manage diversity and conflict, as innovation is rare without both. In today’s age of disruption, businesses can stall or stagnate at a breathtakingly rapid rate without innovative ideas. Ideas don’t happen in a vacuum, and leaders need to understand this. With the right processes in place, those who understand how to lead innovation can foster an environment of co-creation, empower talent to develop, and steer their organization on a path to success.

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