What Is Innovation Leadership? (And How to Practise It)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 17 September 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Working as a leader often involves determining the right leadership style for you. One style to consider is innovation leadership, which can be a good choice if you work in an industry that benefits from creative thinking. Understanding how innovation leadership works can help you determine if this style is right for you and your role. In this article, we define innovation leadership, describe how to become an innovative leader and practise the approach with your team and identify some of the key traits of an innovative leader.

What is innovation leadership?

When answering the question 'What is innovation leadership?', it's important to remember that there are many leadership styles. Innovation leadership uses innovation and creativity to manage people and projects. Innovative leaders inspire productive action in new and unique ways, particularly during times of invention, uncertainty, creation, ambiguity and risk. They usually look at solutions from a different perspective. It's a valuable leadership style for an organisation looking to develop innovative products and services.

Unlike some other types of leaders, innovative leaders are more willing to consider a unique or unconventional approach. They're also open to creative ideas from all levels of the organisation, recognising that team members throughout an organisation can offer insight and successful ideas. Innovation leadership is about being willing to adapt to change, experimenting with unfamiliar concepts and envisaging a path to success.

Related: What Does Leadership Mean? (Benefits and Steps to Improve)

How to become an innovative leader

If you're interested in becoming an innovative leader and practising this leadership style with your team, here are some steps you can follow:

1. Become a lifelong learner

To become an innovative leader, it helps to be open to personal development throughout your leadership career. Look for opportunities to develop a range of skills, not just those that specifically relate to your job role or industry. Ongoing education can offer opportunities for you to consider new creative concepts and ways to solve problems.

Personal development can also ensure you have relevant knowledge related to a service or product and enable you to continue learning about new and emerging ideas. Innovative leaders tend to be naturally curious about everything and are interested in learning as much as possible in a new situation. In addition to formal education, look for opportunities to leave the office to learn from the real world.

Related: 9 Personal Development Goals and How to Achieve Them

2. Learn from other innovative leaders

Learning by example helps identify some critical skills required to be a successful innovative leader. When looking at others, consider how you can apply those skills to your leadership style. Consider leaders who have proven their success as innovators. Research what they did differently and what worked for them. In addition to studying innovative leaders, consider reaching out to leaders in the business community to seek mentorship opportunities, or organise a meeting to see if they're open to sharing their insights.

Related: How to Find a Mentor: A Step-by-Step Guide with Tips

3. Identify how you can improve upon current concepts

Some of the best innovative leaders don't necessarily introduce new concepts but start by improving on products and ideas that already exist. Innovation isn't always about invention. It's a way to introduce a new idea in a new way. For example, Steve Jobs didn't invent the personal computer, but Jobs changed how customers used and interacted with the personal computer.

4. Set realistic goals

To be a successful leader, it helps to regularly set realistic and measurable goals for yourself. In addition, it's often your responsibility to set goals for your team members. To measure your success, set goals that are manageable, transparent and easily understood. When you set a goal, consider why the goal matters to the business or the end customer, what your goal aims to achieve and the impact it can have on you, your team and the company.

Related: How to Utilise Goal-Setting Theory in the Workplace

5. Be willing to adapt

Innovation centres on change, which can be challenging for some people. Embracing change involves adjusting your mindset and adapting to different ways of thinking. Being adaptable and open to the many benefits that change can bring is an essential skill for an innovative leader. Adapting processes, behaviours or ways of thinking can offer numerous opportunities for innovation, no matter what industry.

6. Discover your passion

Being passionate about the industry you work in, the people you work with and what you do daily can help you achieve greater fulfilment as a leader. Being fulfilled can help you share your motivation by inspiring others on your team. When you work to further something you believe in, your passion can be a powerful driver of your success as a leader.

7. Persevere

Not all innovative leaders succeed the first time they try something new. You may fail multiple times before achieving success, but failure can bring many opportunities. Not only can your perseverance set you apart from others, but you can learn from your experiences. Failure can be a necessary step in the innovation process because it offers learning, adaptation and iteration and allows you to build new concepts.

Traits of innovative leaders

As an innovative leader, it's necessary to have specific skills, regardless of the industry you work in or the team you manage. Here are some of the key traits required for innovation leadership:

Communication

Innovative leaders demonstrate excellent verbal and non-verbal communication skills. As a leader, you're responsible for inspiring and motivating people within the organisation to deliver your goals. Clear communication can help ensure they understand what you're working towards and their role in getting you there.

Related: Communication Skills: Definitions and Examples

Willingness to embrace opportunities

Innovative leaders are typically more open to embracing new ideas and opportunities than those who practise more traditional styles of leadership. A willingness to embrace opportunities can help to create a culture where people are confident to contribute and not afraid of failure. As an innovative leader, your openness to opportunity also means you're likely to focus on concepts on a larger scale instead of looking at the details, which you can delegate to other team members.

Empathy

As an innovative leader, empathising with others can help you understand your workplace better. Whether you're developing empathy for customers or team members, it's important to understand what matters to them, what they wish to accomplish, the problems they face and how you and your workplace may be able to assist them. Interacting with customers and your team can help you understand these issues to develop solutions to deliver results.

Related: What Are Empathetic Leaders? (Plus Tips and Benefits)

Imagination

Being imaginative is an indispensable trait for an innovative leader. Being able to envisage the result that grows from a simple concept – and what that means to the company's customers or stakeholders – can help with your success. An imaginative mindset allows you to consider the various steps to achieve a specific goal using creative approaches. It also helps you to keep an open mind and be willing to take on imaginative ideas from others that you may not consider on your own.

Efficiency

Innovative leaders are typically highly efficient in the workplace. This efficiency can help motivate others in the organisation so everyone can focus on completing their tasks. Being an efficient leader can also help to build a highly effective culture within the organisation, which can help ensure success.

Related: 13 Key Leadership Competencies for Career Progression

Persuasiveness

As an innovative leader, your ability to persuade is an important skill that can earn support from others in the organisation. Many leaders might not have developed successful products or services if they hadn't persuaded a board member to say yes. When communicating, innovative leaders sell their ideas by being prepared. Focus on the benefits and avoid getting caught up in the technical details.

Always think about who you're presenting your ideas to and adapt your communication style to best fit their needs. For example, if you're convincing your CFO about a new product, focus on the financial benefits that the new product can offer, and use diagrams and charts to help convince them of the potential.

Related: 7 Examples of Persuasion Skills (With Definitions)

Self-awareness

Innovative leaders are aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Knowing your competencies can enable you to delegate responsibilities to others with the right skills to get the job done. It can also allow you to work collaboratively with other leaders and understand any areas where you can improve your decision-making abilities.

Related: How to Identify Your Strengths in the Workplace (With Types)

Creative brainstorming

Regular creative brainstorming can be a valuable practice for an innovative leader. Brainstorming is a great way to get creative and develop new ideas. Successful leaders may set aside time to think creatively and write their ideas to avoid becoming preoccupied in daily tasks. You may wish to consider turning off emails or switching your phone to silent so you can focus purely on the creative process, using visual cues, a whiteboard or a flip chart to chart your ideas.

Explore more articles