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What Leadership Approach Best Fosters Innovation?


Many companies, small and large, want to establish greater levels of innovation in individuals, team and whole departments but this often comes down to whether or not the leader creates the right climate in which this can occur. This means that we should appreciate what leadership style (or approach) best fosters greater levels of innovation and in the list below are 10 that seems to emerge as being most helpful.

  1. Build a climate of trust. Any leader who really wants a lot more innovation needs to give people as much “room” as possible to think differently and feels that the risks that they take will not be frowned upon or punished. Without trust at all levels (and starting with the leader) it’s almost impossible to get individuals to step “beyond the norm”.
  2. Talk about the value of ideas, creativity and innovation. A successful leader will ensure that most of their communication stresses the value of ideas, innovation and creativity in general and not necessarily sticking to the rules or doing things the way they have always been done.
  3. Have a strong vision. The most effective innovation leaders should ideally describe the clearest vision of the medium to long-term future possible. This helps people to appreciate what they are working towards and then be more creative about how they might get there. JFK’s putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade was a fine example of this.
  4. Set clear goals and milestones. Along with the overarching vision, a leader is well served to set clear goals-once again in broad “what” and not “how” terms. In JFK’s moon mission, there were many broad goals that drove innovation at many levels and projects, many of which had tangible millstones to measure whether or not they were making positive progress.
  5. Focus on customer needs. Some innovation can occur without reference to the customer but in organizational life the most powerful innovation directly or indirectly served an end customer need. This helps people to create real, measurable and tangible value when applying their creative thinking.
  6. Encourage cross and upward communication. Many of the best and most innovative ideas come from front-line or “sharp-end” individuals. As a result, communication needs to be encouraged to occur both across team and departmental lines and upwards so that leaders can support any new or different thinking and not be threatened by it.
  7. Be optimistic. If a leader is pessimistic about the future they stifle innovation. An optimistic leader, on the other hand, conveys that the future is bright and could be very different to the present.
  8. Push quantity over quality. Both creativity and Innovation (and ideas in general) tend to flourish best by encouraging quantity over quality to get people thinking in new ways and challenging the status quo more. The best ideas can then be assessed more closely and carefully (and slowly) at a later stage.
  9. Offer quick and positive feedback. Leaders should ideally provide honest but positive and encouraging feedback when people put ideas forward. The quicker this is done, even when an idea needs more work, the better, in order to encourage more thinking “outside the box”.
  10. Be a role model. Last but not least, a leader should act as a role model for innovation as much as he or she can. This means being open to new ways of doings things and changing his or her approach frequently.

There may well be other behaviors that can be added to the above list, but any leader doing half of these or more will have an extremely positive impact on their team and will create much more innovative thinking and practices at all levels.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. Kevin NamakyOctober 29, 2016 at 5:05 pm

    Jon: This is a great list. Thanks for sharing.

    Some related themes that may be helpful to call out are:

    Autonomy – Empowering people and giving them freedom is an important part of nurturing creative minds.

    Curiosity – Cultivating a sense that learning is important and that it’s OK to ask questions. Mastery leads to better work.

    Safety – Making it clear that risk-taking is OK. This goes with your idea of creating trust. But even more than trust, an atmosphere where people feel safe to stick their neck out.

    Positivity – You’ve mentioned in #9. Encouragement to keep going, without focusing initially on “right” or “wrong.”

    Thanks again for the post.


  2. Koos GroenewoudOctober 31, 2016 at 7:04 am

    Great Column. It is all about NEW leadership and Benaviour.

    Best regards from Koos Groenewoud, Lelystad the Netherlands

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Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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