When I started this blog, the first thing I did was look at my definition of leadership: Leadership is the courage to bring people together and the art of engaging them so that they can accomplish great things.
But it didn’t dawn on my until now, how that connects with everything I’ve been pursuing in my life. My work with early-stage biotechs, my experiences in the cadet program, the choice of subjects I picked during my MBA…it all leads to a study of innovation–how to encourage it and how to develop its ideas and bring them to reality. The biotech angle and the school courses are obvious how they fit in, but it’s only now that I’ve been able to tie my feelings on leadership to innovation. I just realized how fundamentally they are linked.
The most vital job of a leader is to make sure there’s an environment where innovation can occur.
The funny thing is this clicked into place during the adult karate training camp I just attended, because even karate leads to innovation. We were watching the leadership video from Simon Sinek on why good leaders make you feel safe. He says that leaders are responsible for creating a circle of safety for the tribe, which is necessary for innovation to occur. Otherwise, we spend all of our energy protecting ourselves from each other.
However, safety is only half the equation. Most innovation results in failure and people have to feel safe failing, but the other problem stopping innovation is that some organizations are too safe and are swimming in a sea of complacency. A leader also has to help the tribe identify the danger they are fighting. And there’s always danger, regardless of the industry, regardless of where it is in its life cycle, regardless of what the competition is currently doing. Because things change all the time.
So maybe when we talk about a lack of innovation, what we’re really talking about is a leadership problem. And we’re talking about a lack of innovation all the time, only the solution hasn’t been to change the leadership, the solution has become to buy up innovative companies instead. (See tech giants, Valeant Pharmaceuticals.)
Instead of defining the danger, instead of providing an environment where the tribe can create new and wonderful things, the leaders just make the circle bigger, relying on the fact that someone else has already created it. The problem never really gets fixed, just postponed a little bit longer. But if we look smaller, not bigger, focusing on the smallest units within our organizations and empowering them and protecting them, allowing them to try and fail and try again, we can start to create (and destroy and create again) thousands of new, and wonderful things.
And sometimes at this lowest level, we’re just an accidental leader. We didn’t wake up this morning intent on world domination, we’re just supervisors, parents, teachers, team leads, neighbors, and office mates. But, I think that’s the most important position of all.