“Leadership for innovation is more about leading from behind than leading from the front. It is about shaping individual and collective experiences to foster innovation rather than about setting direction and mobilizing people to follow“(Kindle, 7530).
When you begin to research leadership, there is no shortage of theories, schools of thought and studies. Leadership can be seen in various forms and exemplified in many different ways. The concept of what it means to be a great leader depends on the context from which a person is required to lead. What can be said across multiple contexts is that leaders must be effective in their role in whatever capacity needed by the people that they serve. The Handbook Of Leadership Theory and Practice by Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana is comprised of 26 chapters each with a scholarly perspective on leadership. In chapter 21- “Unlocking The Slices of Genius In Your Organization – Leading for Innovation” by Linda Hill, Maurizio Travaglini, Greg Brandeau, and Emily Stecker they discuss their collaborative project focused on leading for innovation. “The art of leadership for innovation is about (1) creating a world to which people want to belong-one in which individuals are affirmed in their identity (unleashing their slices of genius and values) and able to be a part of and contribute to something larger than themselves (harnessing the diverse slices of genius to develop innovative solutions for a collective purpose) and (2) developing the individual and collective capacity for co-design” (7528). Innovation is inspired when people have an environment or community where they have a strong sense of belonging. One that affirms their individual and collective contributions. Where everyone has a common purpose and values. Innovative communities recognize the talent in everyone and does not focus on the talented few. The process by which innovation is realized is done through a concept they call co-design. Co-design is a process by which three core activities are done within a team in tandem with each other- creative abrasion, creative agility and integrative problem solving.
- “Creative abrasion refers to the process of creating a marketplace of diverse ideas, generating as many ideas, options, or alternatives as possible and then refining, editing, and developing those ideas, options, or alternatives” (7569).
- “Creative agility refers to the process of experimentation and iteration that innovation entails“(7581).
- “[I]ntegrative problem solving refers to the process of taking a systems perspective and using difference and conflict to create a solution in which the whole is truly more than the sum of the parts” (7591).
Although innovation is not absent of challenges and failed experiments this process allows for innovative teams to be agile in their thinking and problem solving. In doing so, mistakes and failures are seen as learning opportunities.
As a leader within these communities it is imperative to trust and empower the individuals by allowing for innovation to take place from the bottom up. This is strikingly different than leadership models where the leader is providing direction in a top down management approach. For leaders of innovative teams, structure is not used to control but as a tool that is used to promote the core-design process within the organization. To illustrate how this can be done, they used an analogy of a Shepherd. “A leader … is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind” (7800). By no means are they inferring that the people within our organizations are mindless sheep but in this analogy the nimble sheep are leading the other sheep. “We need leaders who see their principal role as creating a world or work environment in which others can share their diverse talents and realize their potential for the well-being of the team or organization. It is an acknowledgement that leadership, like the co-design process, is a collective and fluid activity in which different people at different times-depending on their particular slice of genius or “nimbleness”-come forward to move the group in the direction it needs to go” (7802).
I am not one who believes all business leadership theories apply in the same way in other leadership contexts. However, I do believe that there are common threads or ideas that can be helpful in how we see ourselves as leaders and therefore, expanding our capabilities and effectiveness. Despite the fact that this research project was focused on leading for innovation within a business, I can’t help but wonder how shifting our leadership paradigm from top down to bottom up could have an impact on our ability to be effective leaders in our ministry contexts. In ministry, we see our ministry leaders as Shepherd’s that lead from the front. Guiding us in the right spiritual direction. I found it interesting that in this discussion the Shepherd analogy implied that the strength of the Shepherd was not in leading from the front but by guiding from behind. While reading through this chapter I found myself asking questions. As leaders, are we seeing and affirming the value of everyone and fostering an environment that allows for individual and collective contribution? What would our organizations look like if we created a structure that made room for diverse ideas and creativity? How can our faith communities also be communities of innovation and collaboration? I am challenged in my thinking as I ask these questions. The more I seek out answers the more questions arise. I do believe that there is something significant about shifting our thinking about leadership as a front or top down approach to a behind and bottom up approach. Leadership is not about controlling the lives of others but it is about fostering an environment that allows for them to grow and live out their God given purpose and potential. “… leaders of today and the foreseeable future must know how to turn their organizations into innovative communities instead of practicing what Gary Hamel has referred to as “creative apartheid”-a scenario where only a few “gifted individuals” are given responsibility for innovation, with the other members of the organization seen as unimaginative.” It is time to recognize that creativity is widely distributed and that innovation comes from nurturing the slice of genius in everyone. The time has come for a revolution in our thinking about what makes an effective leader” (7950).