“If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

–  Woody Allen

Eammon Percy
Eammon Percy

Last week’s article on called Creating a Culture of Innovation which featured the six most important steps I believe a leader should take to build a highly innovative culture. The step that generated the greatest interest is leading by example, which is the subject of this article.

One of the biggest errors a leader can make while building and leading an innovative company is underestimating the impact of their own action. It’s not their words that count, but the actions which impact culture.  Leadership is life under a magnifying glass. Every trait, nuance, skill, error, belief or genius idea is first exposed and then magnified, its rawest form. Great leaders are humbled by this and strive hard to improve and build upon their strengths, or at least mitigate their weaknesses. Average leaders are eventually exposed and, if they are fortunate, are given an opportunity to develop, or rebound at another time, hopefully, wiser. This is good and healthy, since most people, whether in an innovative culture or not, demand much of their leadership and detect uncertainty much better than leaders think they can.

An insightful leader will start with a full, honest and comprehensive appraisal of themselves through a process of reflection, analysis and objective 3rd party assessment. Not just once, but on a continuous basis with the improvement reinforced with accountability partners.

They will also embark on a process of lifelong learning and renewal. Developing leadership skills requires tremendous effort and time dedication with a constant reinforcement of better habits.

A leader striving to lead by example will make the distinction between a company where innovation is revolutionary or evolutionary and then modify their approach accordingly. Revolutionary innovation requires transformative thinking, disruptive business models and nerves of steel. Evolutionary change requires exceptional management, timing and a high EQ to manage competing interests as the company transitions.

A good leader will recognize that any innovative company will need financial resources to see major projects through to fruition, and therefore, will maintain a long-term source of funding to maintain staying power. Strategies include full product pipelines with good margins, business unit portfolio management, and good access to capital.

Finally, leading an innovative requires any leader to show humility and turn to his talented people, not out of weakness, but out of strength. This will encourage all employees to embrace a culture where it is okay to admit that they don’t have every answer to every question and that the true innovations coming from closing that knowledge gap in a way that creates something bigger for the company and better for the customer.

Eamonn has a B. Eng. (Electrical) from Lakehead University, MBA (Finance) from University of Toronto, and has completed Executive Education at Stanford University Graduate School of Business. He lives in Vancouver, Canada. Follow him on twitter @EamonnPercy