When you take on a leadership role, you can rest assured that you’ll encounter change and innovation on a frequent basis. These two common words – change and innovation – will challenge and test you and may even determine the success of your leadership. The path to positive leadership outcomes is paved with the skills to lead staff, teams and organisations through any transformation. This is how you master the arts of change, innovation and leadership.
What does leadership mean?
Leadership in business is about setting and modelling the culture, values and goals of the organisation. Effective leaders can also empower employees and inspire self-motivation to create job satisfaction. But are these leadership qualities enough in this modern era of constant change?
Adjunct Professor at Victoria University, Alan Kohler sums up the greatest challenge to leadership in one word – internet. He explains, “It’s change and disruption brought about by the internet” that’s created “such a huge change.”
“Ten years ago, Facebook basically didn’t exist... twenty years ago the internet wasn’t there in the form that it is now,” he clarifies.
For growth-oriented businesses, this massive digital disruption calls for strategic or entrepreneurial leadership that will stimulate staff and find a competitive advantage in the market. As well as incorporating the qualities above, leaders must be flexible, fast, strategic and innovative.
Characteristics of a great leader
To lead takes courage, tenacity, patience and the ability to take and hold responsibility. In addition to directing and leading from the front, leadership also demands that you listen and follow people in various ways.
“In order to become a great leader, you have to have a great ego, but you have to submerge that ego to be the great leader,” declares Kohler.
For Victoria University’s Deputy Dean, Romana Garma, it all boils down to ethics and your strength of character. She says, “What makes a great leader is honesty.”
“It’s being sincere and having integrity, and that tends to build trust with employees,” Dr Garma elaborates.
Aside from being accountable and responsible, great leadership is also built on effective communication. Dr Garma recommends being upfront with people about what you want and to specifically articulate what your vision is.
“With change, there’s always uncertainty, so what people need is constant communication – what is happening, why is it happening and always relating it back to the reason for it.”
Leading in a time of change
Change is hard, really hard, and the key role of a leader in managing change is to help people deal with it, to make it easier. The internet and digitisation more broadly are having an impact on each employee and every stage of the value chain. At the same time, employees are increasingly seeking a greater sense of meaning in their roles.
Reflecting on the change he has seen during his long career (which started in the 1970s), Alan Kohler recalls a workflow that’s almost unheard of these days.
“My job as a reporter consisted of ringing people up, so I spent eight hours on the phone. These days I’m online and I’m getting government reports online and I’m not ringing people up anywhere near as much as I used to.”
“Employees of an organisation usually find change difficult. So, I think the role of a leader is to make it easier, simply that. To show people that change is not only constant, but it’s also easy and it can be done,” he adds.
What Mr Kohler is describing is the difference between change management and change leadership. Change management is about reducing the distractions of change, keeping things on budget and maintaining normal situations. Less common is change leadership, which is visionary, strategic and empowers people who want to make something happen.
Dr Garma recommends that leaders play an active and personal role in change and reminds us that, “you’ve got to inspire employees and show that strength of character.”
While the terms are often used to describe the same thing, innovation and change are quite different things. Innovation is the idea, vision or strategy that prompts change – so of course, change is the action of bringing that innovation to life.
One thing that innovation doesn’t have to be is invention. While some innovations are completely new ideas, more often than not, they are simply an improvement.
“The thing about innovation is that it always builds on what’s been done before… and then (it’s) knowing how to build on it,” confirms Mr Kohler.
When it comes to successful innovation, almost all executives believe that people and corporate culture are the essential ingredients. This suggests that innovation leadership is less about coming up with revolutionary ideas and more about cultivating an organisational culture of innovation.
It’s something that Silicon Valley’s tech giants have become famous for – in fact, Google has established nine core principles of innovation. One of these principles is to allow employees to spend one day a week working on their favourite idea. While that might not be possible in every workplace, it highlights the importance of leaders listening for upwards communication.
How change, innovation and leadership work together
While Google’s core principles of innovation are a great guide, they do not represent a process for innovation. That’s because, unlike change and leadership, innovation doesn’t rely on processes, but on problem-solving. That being said, to execute innovations successfully you will rely heavily on the processes inherent in change and leadership.
The good news is that you don’t have to do it on your own. Innovations are usually not the lightbulb moment of an individual and innovation leadership doesn’t mean you should spend all your time in the lab until you shout eureka!
Most innovations emerge from networks and cross-functional teams working collaboratively. So, it’s vital for innovative leaders to create a climate of reciprocal trust, be candid in their communication and display excellent strategic vision.
Alan Kohler suggests that the important leadership traits for innovation are courage, curiosity and a willingness to learn. Dr Garma agrees that successful innovative leaders drive curious organisations.
Of course, any innovation can only be successful if change is managed successfully. Ultimately, leading for change requires urgency, conversion, vision and even more communication. Without these qualities, any effort to change is doomed to fail.
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