My ‘fantastic four’ of innovation leadership

Going through the subtle writings completed by Gautam Mukunda on leadership, “Leaders Don’t Matter (Most of the Time)”, I was wondering: “who are the leaders who mattered to me?”

The long tail of leaders

I’m not going to argue about a list of world-class leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Alexander The Great, Julius Caesar, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, or let’s be French, Henri IV, Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle!

Neither is my argument about business leaders: in my industry, Steve Jobs is iconic; Intel guys Gordon Moore and Andrew Grove, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin surely have an influence through the companies they have built and the way they manage innovation.

They revealed a wide range of innovation triggers going from ‘Apple non-conformists Fellows’, ‘Moore’s law’, ‘Intel paranoia’, ‘Amazon tenacity:”We don’t give up easily… it took three tries to get it right” to ‘Google private projects rule’, demonstrating to various extents how ‘Associating, Observing, Experimenting, and Networking’ are the innovator’s DNA (‘The innovator’s DNA’ by INSEAD professor Hal Gregersen).

It’s not about the precious learnings provided by the passionate innovation thinkers that are Alan Turing, highly influential in the development of computer science, and media visionary Marshal McLuhan. More recently, Gary Hamel, Ikujiro Nonaka, Henry Chesbrough, Eric Von Hippel, Clayton Christensen, Vijay Govindarajan, Don Norman, Tom and David Kelley and their Ideo story, Jerry Hirshberg and the creativity lessons from Nissan Design, and the practical lessons of Smith and Reinersten in my core topic, ‘Rapid Innovation’, make me believe in a sparkling innovation community.

The ‘Fantastic Four’

Hereafter, I want to remember people met ‘in real life’ who, through a lasting daily cooperation, impacted my behaviour, inspired me, enlarged my way of envisioning things, and enhanced my skills in managing innovation initiatives. Positive coincidence: this is as well the angle chosen by Deborah Mills-Scofield (@dscofield) in her post: ‘Four Lessons From the Best Bosses I Ever Had’.

First of all, it took me five minutes to select my Fantastic Four!

Some more time was necessary to figure out which aspects of their character marked me, and how they would embody leadership archetypes.

The conversational leader

I call him the conversational leader with reference to the ‘conversational organisation‘ concept, recently described by Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind as “the process by which key ideas and crucial information circulate within a company”.

This leader is the kind of person who lets you think that initiative is possible : failure is an option! It becomes natural to share your thoughts with your peers, thus encourging a knowledge flow to circulate through the company, which is the cornerstone of innovation. In a company where anxiety, fear of failing, systemic command and control management sometime excessively prevailed, he revealed himself as the man who unties the nodes of crispation.

Being part of a company quite large, I did not have frequent opportunities to meet with him: when it happened, I remember from our interaction the candid expression of tenderness when he was answering a unexpected question about his family and his children. This flash both surprised and stroke me. Another metaphor to describe this leadership style would then be: someone who sees his employees as his children, helping them to grow.

The man of convictions

I was once talking to this second leader about shaping a vision of what the future of our industry might hold, and how it could inspire our company. He told me: “I don’t know if I am a man of vision, but I’m certainly a man of convictions. There are only a limited number of them who shape my way”.

Belief and convictions made him a leader who commits, and engage his team. I had often the feeling of being in a meeting with a runner: you’d better listen well and hang up, other way you would loose his track as he was already running to the next challenge. “The train is leaving, get on board” was resoning to my ears.

In our context of rapidly evolving markets and uncertainties, speed was a pledge of quality. He was a quick decision maker, with the ability to change direction, and undo his own decision, if business requires it: no misplaced ego in this guy, watchfulness and constant adaptation to the rules of the games were his guidelines.

His way of interacting was to empower you: listening to your idea, mashing it up with his personal conviction, and pushing you to lead the project that would transform the idea into product.

You would step in because you’d buy into his beliefs. As a result, the company he lead to success emboddied his identity and values: it was agile, risk-taking, intuitive, “without beating about the bush”, and moreover the products delivered to or customers were resembling this fast-moving organization.

The systemic listener

This third kind of leader is the one who would in every occasion listen accurately to you at first; he would then emphatically challenge your ideas, let you shape additional scenarios,  give you an hand when you’re in a trap, always finding a systemic approach to a problem. This way, next time, you could apply the same winning approach.

Personally, I found this ‘soft power‘ and intellectual framework very reassuring, and I felt very secured in this environment.

I valued very much the ‘multiple scenarios‘ approach: being creative and optimistic,  I have a tendency to unfold great ‘best case’ scenarios. He teached me how to question my assumptions by asking the “what if?” question when advancing storyline, envisioning less favorable environment, and unexpected outcomes: it lets you anticipate mitigation actions, or refine your choice between two options. Instead of choosing the best of two options, you take into consideration the impact of each option in case things go bad. “What if things derail?” : does it change your view on this assumed best scenario? I have adopted this approach in many cases as well in my personal life.

I was impressed by his calm approach about handling his daily priorities: not being frustrated by the long list of actions one has not the time to complete, his simple review at the end of the day was: “did I handle the right priorities today?”.

The persuaders

As the title indicates the Persuaders were not one, but two leaders! They leveraged on the strength of a pair or two-person team. This was like one person with twice the brain as, most of the time, I was in contact with both of them at the same time. Though they were quite different, one could not perceive the slightest gap between their position: it was one direction with twice the wind blowing.

This was more early-days in my work lifetime, so they basically taught me how to work: they used the metaphor of the prop, accompaniying the plant in its development. Thinking forward, never going to a meeting without having a prepared agenda in mind, structuring analysis and work tasks, getting things done in a timely manner and flawless operation, thinking out-of the box, being self-starter, making interactions with others worthwile, are some of their guidelines which I, in turn, tutored to my teams.

Following this structured and efficient way of working, seeking for perfection, they distorted me as well! Since these days, it’s difficult for me to be part of a meeting where I have the feeling that things are not moving forward consistently.

School of demand, permanent questionment to get better, this challenging environement was balanced by the feeling of an indefectible support from this pair of leaders.

The common thread

“Successful managers master people skills as nobody can achieve anything on their own” claims Innovation manager Cor Bosselaar at Kimberly-Clark.

A leader stands out because of its humanistic attitude.

He’s the one who makes you feel enriched every time you spend time with him, who provides you with inspiration, hope, ideas, motivation, on a basis of a trust relationship. It’s not about jumping hurdles and closing gates.

Moreover, a leader doesn’t give meaning to my action, he helps me figure out the right sense for me in the long innovation run, my personal “reason why” to start moving. The “reason why” to innovate is not external: it lays deep within me. “Does it make sense for you?” is therefore a recurrent question I raise to my team members.

Once the reason why and the direction are defined, leader supports in designing the path: he listens, challenges and drives you to an enhanced framework and better solutions. Thus he manages to bridge the gap between spiritual identity of the company, and the material process of manufacturing and distributing its products, between ‘what we are’ and ‘what we do’. A company ensuring consistency between its products bd its organization is outstanding to the eyes of its customers.

Natural leadership, humanistic management, development of coleaders (“Teach your leaders to be free and responsible” formulates Jeff De Graff), creating a world of work that values autonomy, agility, creativity, and collaborative play, are the key patterns embraced, each in their own manner, by my ‘Fantastic Four’ in innovation leadership.

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