The 10 Essential Traits of an Innovation Leader

By Brian T. Horowitz

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As companies look to dig their way out of the recession, it takes a certain type of leader to keep innovation going. The most successful executives also have a clear understanding of what the oft-used term means.

"Innovation is a lot more than whiz-bang new products," said John Kao, chairman of Kao and Company, a firm that advises corporations on large-scale innovation strategies. "It's about how the technology is used, how different processes are put into place. Innovation is about paying attention to how you change the way things operate in society," Kao explained. He names Steve Jobs, Ford's CEO Alan Mulally, and former IBM CEO Louis V. Gerstner as examples of excellent leaders who know how to push breakthrough projects forward. Here are 10 traits found in leaders such as these:

Ability to set the agenda - Kao said leaders such as Jobs have the “vision and relentless attention to detail” to maintain control over a company’s plans for implementing new technologies or processes. "Steve Jobs is able to set the agendas that propel Apple forward, which is why people consider him to be indispensable to Apple. He has that ability to be fluid in terms of his cognitive skills, and that's why he's infatuated with great engineering and great design."

Remarkable courage - Despite the possibility of being shot down, an innovator has the courage to show how a project can change the company. While making the case, the innovation leader also needs to show a sense of urgency, according to Stefan Lindegaard, innovation consultant and author of the upcoming book Next Stop: Open Innovation.

He notes that leaders also must have the courage to face the uncertainty that they or the company may not succeed. "Finding people with an innate sense of urgency―who are able to see the opportunities lying behind many of today’s business challenges and who are excited about those opportunities, instead of just being fearful of the challenges―will help assure the success of your innovation efforts," Lindegaard said. "Innovation projects are by nature uncertain."

A stomach for uncertainty - "Innovation leaders and intrapreneurs (a leader that works to promote innovation yet adheres to the culture of the organization) accept the high level of uncertainty with regards to market, technology and organizational issues, and are comfortable making decisions based on what they know right now," said Lindegaard.

"Indeed, most executives list the acceptance of risk and its companion quality, tolerance of failure, among the top attributes of innovation leaders," writes Jean-Philippe Deschamps, author of the book Innovation Leaders: How Senior Executives Stimulate, Steer and Sustain Innovation.

Networking and communication prowess - While researching and spreading the word, innovators know how to network using excellent communication skills, according to Lindegaard. "Innovation leaders and intrapreneurs need to be clear communicators who can persuade and inspire other people, including those who are reluctant to embrace change."

A passionate champion for new projects - While spreading the word of innovation breakthrough works within the organization, innovation leaders also must know the ins and outs of the organization.

"Innovation leaders need the ability to read the corporate landscape, and they need to be able to maneuver within corporate politics to secure the necessary internal resources for the innovation projects," said Lindegaard. "They must attend to the issues of many stakeholders, including senior executives, middle managers, and external partners."

Meanwhile, innovation leaders need to show passion when promoting new plans. "Their drive makes them like a piece of cork floating in the ocean," said Lindegaard. "No matter how rough the waters get, they will rise to the surface again and again."

"Passion seems to be a common trait of all innovators and innovation leaders, whatever the company," said Deschamps.

Adaptability - "True innovators also understand that lessons from one arena can often be used to drive innovation in another, so they usually do not confine their learning to just their own narrow field," said Lindegaard.

Kao agrees: executives need to have a certain amount of flexibility with new projects. "Sometimes you have to tighten up and sometimes you have to loosen up. I think that it's very important to understand that innovation is not just one thing. It's the flexibility that's so important. There's no algorithm for innovation, a lot of it is about human beings."

Executives must also experiment with new ideas they find within but also outside the company, a process called open-source innovation. "Business and technology leaders are increasingly aware of the need to tap all possible sources of technologies and ideas, both internally and externally," said Deschamps.

Creativity and practicality - Innovation leaders know when to be creative, know what works and what doesn't. In his book Deschamps calls this a mix of "emotion and realism" and "creativity and process discipline." According to Deschamps, innovation leaders are creative in searching for ideas, thinking out of the box and finding new ways of running an operation, but they also know when to pull the plug on an ill-fated project when innovation falters. "Killing projects, particularly when there is no obvious technical reason to do so, only market or economic uncertainties, is generally one of the most difficult and less understood parts of a leader’s job," notes Deschamps. "All chief technology officers (CTOs) and R&D managers know it well."

An eye on the "Big Picture" - "Since their role involves ensuring that innovation becomes part of the corporate DNA, innovation leaders need to be capable of analyzing the big picture both in and outside the company," said Lindegaard. An understanding of forces outside the company as well as the political dynamics within a company help a leader move an innovation agenda forward, he explains.

Forming a team - "Innovation is absolutely a team effort, and innovation leaders know how to make and build teams, because you need a number of capabilities at the same time to make it happen," said Deschamps. "And balancing that team is a capability that you quite often see as the strong point of an innovation leader."

Always an optimist - According to Lindegaard, innovation leaders see new challenges as opportunities rather than problems. "Setbacks that would cause others to fold their tents don’t shake the faith of these optimists; they are confident in their ability to succeed at anything they set out to do," he adds.

Brian Horowitz is a freelance technology writer based in New York. He regularly follows innovation, mobility and the convergence of technology and health. He has contributed to more than 20 publications, including Computer Shopper, InternetNews.com, Fast Company, FOXNews.com, NYSE Magazine, and USA Weekend, as well as other consumer and trade publications.