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  • Writer's pictureGayané Grigoryan

Why innovation leadership matters?

The fundamental purpose of the innovation leader is to bring about transformations that create value for customers and wealth for the organisation.

This basically means building the capability to turn and accelerate innovation with as high efficacy as possible. In the literature, there is compelling evidence that leaders and their behaviour have a strong influence on innovation success. Several studies confirm that lack of the right leadership is one of the major causes of innovation failure, but also one of the major reasons for success.

There are four fundamental reasons for why that is:

  1. Leading into the unknown. Adventuring into uncharted territory where outcomes are uncertain requires a different leadership style and different abilities.

  2. Creating the right conditions. Innovation is different from business-as-usual, and requires entirely different conditions and capabilities to thrive.

  3. Transformation. Transforming an organisation into one capable of simultaneous innovation and delivery requires strong leadership.

  4. Continuous Change. Innovation outcomes will result in creative destruction that requires change, and this change requires leadership.

Let’s briefly explore each one of them.

Leading into the unknown

A culture oriented towards delivery and efficiency will be incompatible with one that promotes entrepreneurial exploration and discovery. Incentives rewarding efficiency will not promote exploration. Talent programs designed for developing traditional talent will not generate talent with innovation expertise and so forth unless they are equipped with the right level of understanding.

The second is that operational innovation leadership engagement by innovation leaders from all levels in the organisation– from CEO to the innovation leader in the project team – is what creates the right culture and engagement among employees.

As innovation is about creating change, leadership is an essential aspect.

Employees knowing that they have the support of leaders that understand what they do feel a significantly higher level of trust and experience more positive emotions – both essential for innovation performance.xi

Creating the right conditions

What makes innovation work is different from business-as-usual? As we have seen, innovation emerges from interacting with the adjacent possible, connecting-the-dots and imagination, which in the world of operational efficiency is sometimes considered waste. In the world of innovation, it becomes knowledge and structure. The leader has the job of creating the right conditions for innovation to sprout.


Incumbents that attempt to introduce innovation as a core business process will have to deal with a substantial legacy. After longstanding focus on driving efficiency, quality and cost optimisation, basically every component of the organisation has been configured towards that end. Incentives, business processes, talent development and promotions, recruiting and culture are structured for delivery, not for innovation.

To succeed, leaders must have the knowledge to understand how to reconfigure the system and rig it for simultaneous innovation and delivery, which is neither easy, nor a small feat. But striking the balance is essential if an organisation wants to make innovation a driver of change. They must also be able to realise it. This will almost without exception require that leaders make tough but thoughtful trade-offs between optimising for the now and creating the future. To deal well with these decisions, it is imperative that top management has the right level of innovation expertise. Unless they do, it highly likely that they make either of the following three mistakes:

  1. Make insufficient and inappropriate belief-based decisions

  2. Make the convenient decisions, but avoid the necessary but difficult ones

  3. Avoid making any decision altogether, falling back in old tracks

Continuous change

At a fundamental level, innovation is creative destruction that leads to change. This change will inevitably involve people in some way. Leading the change, and creating a culture that embraces change, is a big part of succeeding with innovation. It is not enough to kick-off creative workshops, develop ideas and dabble in small scale experiments with customers in isolated silos.

To generate wealth from innovation it is imperative that your organisation has the capabilities to drive the necessary change, at scale.


You might like to read further into innovation leadership in these suggestions below. These are some of the top works in the field and deserve a place on the shelf of any innovation leader.

  • Book: The Talent Code - Daniel Coyle

  • Book: Seven Habits of Highly Effective People - Stephen Covey

  • Book: Innovation and Entrepreneurship - Peter Drucker

  • Book: Principles - Ray Dalio

  • Book: The Lean Startup - Eric Ries

  • Book: The Innovator’s Dilemma & The Innovator’s Solution - Clayton M. Christensen

  • Book: The Innovator’s Guide to Growth by Scott D. Anthony, Mark Johnson, Joseph V. Sinfield and Elizabeth J. Altman

  • Book: Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer choice - Clayton M. Christensen

  • Book: The Curve Ahead: Discovering the Path to Unlimited Growth - Dave Power

  • Book: Crossing the Chasm - Geoffrey Moore

  • Book: 10 types of innovation - Larry Keeley, Ryan Pikkel, Brian Quinn and Helen Walters

  • Book: The Innovation Manager’s Handbook Volume 1 & 2 - Steve Glaveski

  • Book: The Ten Faces of Innovation - Tom Kelley

  • Book: Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne

  • Book: The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms by Margaret A. Boden.

  • Book: Human-Centered Design Toolkit by IDEO

  • Book: Good to Great - Jim Collins


  1. Evidence-based Innovation Leadership, p. 137



  4. Design and Innovation through Storytelling by Sara L. Beckman and Michael Barry International Journal of Innovation Science Volume 1 · Number 4 · December 2009


  6. Innovation Capital (HBR Press, 2019), (Mumford et al. 2002; Sarros et al. 2008)




  10. Mastering Change Through Innovative Initiatives, Johanna Pregmark, 2019, Chalmers


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