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Innovation in Leadership Seen as Stagnant

Leaders’ ability to innovate and foster innovation, as well as confidence in leadership in general, is low, according to a study by Development Dimensions International.

August 15, 2011
Related Topics: Leadership Development, Innovation, Leadership Development, Technology

Innovation has been a key watchword in business in the last decade, as industry leaders such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, IBM, Toyota and Amazon — the top six most innovative companies in Bloomberg Businessweek’s 50 Most Innovative Companies for 2010 — continue to introduce new products and services and refine existing ones in ways that make their respective marketplaces thriving and creative.

Anyone in business is likely looking to follow suit. “Any time you talk about innovation, people’s ears perk up,” said Jazmine Boatman, manager of the Center for Applied Behavioral Research at Development Dimensions International (DDI). “It’s just such a buzzword and it’s become a mantra for a lot of organizations lately. But where the confusion sets in is typically when you think about innovation, you think about people’s ability to create new products and processes.” She compared these new products and processes to lightning. “The real importance of innovation from a leader’s standpoint is not just their ability to create lightning, but their ability to create the atmospheric conditions that allow for lightning.”

This is where the problem comes in. According to a 2010 report by the Boston Consulting Group titled “Innovation 2010: A Return To Prominence — and the Emergence of a New World Order,” which saw response from 1,590 executives across a range of industries, innovation is only moving upward as a business priority: “Seventy-two percent of respondents said [innovation] is one of their company’s top three priorities, up significantly from the 62 percent who said so in 2009.” Yet, according to DDI’s recently released “Global Leadership Forecast,” which drew response from 1,897 HR representatives and more than 12,000 leaders from 74 countries, half of leaders rated themselves as ineffective at fostering creativity and innovation.

In looking at the bigger picture as presented by the study, perception of leadership quality was low overall. Only one out of four HR representatives rated their organization’s leadership quality as very good or excellent. Leaders themselves weren’t giving themselves high marks either; just over one in three leaders rated their leadership quality as very good or excellent.

“It’s a cry for help, a cry for support,” Boatman said. “People [are] saying that they’re not getting development in the skills they need in order to be effective leaders and basically their organizations aren’t really preparing them to be successful in their roles [and] they’re not getting help when they transition into new roles.”

Going forward, the picture doesn’t get much better. Just 18 percent of respondents to the DDI survey rated their future bench strength as strong. Boatman said to counter this, organizations need to develop leaders and leadership skills that directly meet their future needs. “When you think about development you also have to think about what you’re developing in people and how you’re developing [that],” she said. “What skills are you focusing on? Are development programs only developing skills that they’ve developed in the past out of precedent or are they really focusing on the skills that leaders are actually going to need in the next few years?”

But addressing this means change, which, Boatman points out, can be difficult for organizations to do but is a hurdle they must get over if they strive to innovate. “When it comes to changing practices you have to encourage people [and] model these behaviors from the top,” she said. “If senior management embraces this idea of changing rigid practices and models and rewards those behaviors, they let people know it’s OK. If you’re trying to, say, facilitate an environment of risk taking, then you need senior leaders who show that you can take risks and even when they don’t pan out, they’re not penalized for that. They’re supported for taking calculated risks that benefit the business.”

Daniel Margolis is managing editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at

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