The Difference Between Leadership And Innovation

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Words like “leadership” and “innovation” are often tossed around among business people. You’re as likely to hear these words in a small company as you are in a big one, and as likely to hear them in an established corporate environment as you are in a startup company that can barely afford to keep the lights on.

Both leadership and innovation are crucially important concepts in business and in life, but an essential part of understanding them is knowing how they are similar as well as how they different.

Similarities between Innovation and Leadership

First, leadership and innovation are both statements about action.  A person who is leading is doing something. They are not sitting around and waiting for something to happen to them. The same is true with innovators. People and organizations that innovate are actively working on new ideas. If you’re contemplating something that might change the world but not actually building anything, you’re not an innovator. You’re just a dreamer.

Furthermore, leadership and innovation require total commitment to failure and responsibility. A leader is not someone who does everything personally. Consider the case of one NFL coach who failed to win a single game his entire first season. His name was Tom Landry. Leadership requires accepting that you will not win all of the time, and that as a leader you will move onward to determine what can be done differently. Innovation requires accepting that many new ideas you create will not succeed. Just like Thomas Edison’s famous 10,000 trials to find a working material for a commercial viable electric light bulb, a true innovator expects to experience failure on the road the success.

How Innovation and Leadership Differ

If leadership and innovation seem so closely aligned, how are they different? Leadership always requires facing opposition. On the other hand, innovation always requires exploring the unknown.

Leaders have a public role in their community, and through the act of leading they invite criticism from others. If you speak up in a school board meeting, you may be attacked for your beliefs. If you are recommending your product over a competing option, you may have defend your choices and answer difficult questions about your shortcomings. And if you want your team to be victorious, you have to make sure the other side admits defeat.
Innovation, however, can be pursued in relative isolation. You may be the first explorer in a new realm, or the first researcher in a remote area of study. You can innovate with a small team of peers or inside a large organization of compatriots. But in the same way that leaders know they will face opposition, innovators never know what they will discover. In fact, the outcome of innovation is often finding something valuable that you never anticipated.

Combining Innovation and Leadership 

It’s possible to be a leader without being an innovator. Sometimes, we don’t need to come up with new strategy. Instead, we need to execute the strategy effectively and build up the mental toughness needed to negotiate fairly with those oppose us. It’s possible to be an innovator without being a leader. Sometimes we need to be the researcher who is not limited by outside constraints, free to explore without the constant threat of problems.
The best leaders, however, are also innovators. And the best innovators are also leaders. These are the individuals who are defined by action, who understand the role of failure and responsibility, who willingly face opposition, and who are ready to head into uncharted waters.

 “A ship in harbor is safe – but that is not what ships are built for.” – John Augustus Shedd

Robby Slaughter is a principal with AccelaWork, a business improvement consulting firm in Indianapolis.

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