When we think of innovation leaders, we think of the likes of Steve Jobs (CEO, Apple), Mary Barra (CEO, General Motors) and Jeff Bezos (Founder and CEO of Amazon), each are globally successful innovation leaders indeed. But Innovation Leaders are not just CEOs or founders of multi-million-dollar start ups. They can be team leaders, division managers, HR and marketing professionals that see opportunities for change and inspire their colleagues to do the same.

Innovation leaders are creative visionaries with big ideas and the ability to motivate the people around them to turn those ideas into reality. They don’t have to be the person who creates the idea behind the innovation, they are able to recognise a great idea and envision the path that leads it to fruition.

Rather than micro-manage, they coach and mentor. Rather than leading by demand, they motivate. Rather than tell, they inspire. Rather than withholding information, they share knowledge. Rather than leading with authority, they influence.

10 Qualities of a Successful Innovation Leader

Creative thinking

  • Focuses on the big picture, works with creative thinkers who add to the vision and make it greater.

  • Seek to generate insight and knowledge through non-traditional ways such as experimentation and prototyping.

Problem seeking

  • Seeks out the real problem to be solved in order to identify issues before they become massive problems or insurmountable obstacles.

  • Innovation leaders understand that there is always a better way to solve a problem – constantly seeking new opportunities to improve existing business processes.

We want to push to be more of a learn-it-all culture than a know-it-all culture.
— Satya Nadella, CEO Microsoft.

Openness and Communication

  • Communicate their vision and generate enthusiasm.

  • Motivate and inspire team members – they see the vision and are willing to spend time and resources to bring it to fruition.

  • Receptive to and open to exploring new ideas, even radical ones.

  • Open to sharing information and knowledge.

Authority is a function of history and hierarchy; influence is a function of character, risk and caring.
— Henry Doss, Forbes


  • Develop, inspire, enable and enhance people’s capabilities.

  • They coach, mentor and develop their people encouraging creative contribution – while innovation projects may start as a single idea, the end is a result of multiple ideas improving the original concept, how to implement it and how to solve problems as it’s developed.

  • Facilitates the process of collaborative enquiry encouraging open dialogue between people who are involved in the project.

  • Say ‘Let’s go!’ and ‘Follow me!’

Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.
— Steve Jobs, CEO Apple


Image: Jason Yip, Senior Agile COach at Medium.com

Image: Jason Yip, Senior Agile COach at Medium.com

They are T-shaped people. They’ve got a depth of knowledge in one or two areas, and a breadth of knowledge and skills across others. This allows them to add knowledge in their area of expertise and either support or defer to others in different areas.


  • Willing to change direction or kill an idea when necessary. Needs to know when a project isn’t working and when to kill it if it won’t deliver enough value, no matter how emotionally invested. This is very important and difficult, especially for a pet project.

  • They are willing to return to different stages of the innovation process if the ideas gleaned, or the test results show that the problem is not being sufficiently solved.

  • They can adapt to new insights even when they arise late in the process.

When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.
— Confucius, Chinese philospher

Risk Taker

  • Innovation carries inherent risk. Successful innovation leaders have a high tolerance for risk and an ability to consider all possible eventualities to make well-calculated risks.  

  • According to risk management expert Steve Culp, learning to professionally manage risk can stimulate rather than impede the innovation management process. He uses the example of venture capitalists who understand that many of their investments will fail but manage the risk to ensure overall profitability. (See Incremental vs Radical: Your Innovation Strategy Guide).  

  • They have a healthy relationship with failure embracing a framework of exploration and experimentation. It doesn’t matter whether expectations are corroborated or not, every outcome is a win because it takes us closer to genuinely solving the problem.

Strategic Thinking

  • Brings a strategic approach to the innovation process.

  • Two-way dialogue between the organisation’s strategic team and those driving innovation is vital for the success of both.

  • Innovation must adhere to aims of the business strategy and the business strategy must be flexible enough to change tack if necessary.  


  • Make entrepreneurs out of every employee by encouraging and empowering them to function as equal stakeholders in the idea generation process, driving suggestions for improvements and innovation from the bottom up.

  • Inspires teams, coaxing them away from fear toward the shared vision giving employees the freedom to engage in activities usually associated with leadership roles such as mind mapping, strategic planning, journey mapping and ideation.

  • Enabling employees makes innovation a collaborative effort.

  • Ask ‘how?’ and ‘who?’ not ‘why?’ and ‘what?’.

Having innovative ideas is great, but make sure your creative employees have the proper support to follow through.
— Pete Cashmore, Founded Mashable in his bedroom at 19.


  • Prepared to jump into the action and participate. They are energised by action and enjoy the exhilaration of leading change that leads to improvement and innovation.

  • Not only allow for creative ideas to flourish but have the skills to drive the project forward to its conclusion.

A great innovation leader is an influencer who inspires change in and from others, creating a culture of innovation where divergent thinking is encouraged. While we admire and have much to learn from the global innovation leaders, equally important are the innovation leaders in every industry creating the change within their organisations they want to see in the world.

Want to learn more? Join us on our upcoming one-day Masterclass: Leading Innovation.

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