How to Become an Innovative Leader


November 7, 2019

Last year a CEO in a global organization asked me to dinner. We’ve known each other for more than a decade, and he’s had a steady ascent up the corporate jungle-gym. (We all know it’s not actually a ladder.)

Now that he had the view from the top, I asked him what looked different. He was quick to reply: The lack of original ideas that made their way across his desk. He’d always been one to push the envelope in his own unique way. But now as CEO, he found that his organization’s culture was killing creativity and innovative thinking. It was stripping anything bold out of new ideas and making them weak, watered down and sterile.

He’s not the only leader who feels this way. Innovation is such a hot topic in business today because it’s the fuel that drives growth. And not just the products and services that you sell, but how you execute in every corner of the business. Uncertainty is a given, and it’s hard to go beyond next week’s priorities, much less next month’s.

Actively pursuing innovation means you need leaders at every level who understand why it’s important. It starts with support from the hierarchy and a culture that values and nurtures original thinking and creativity.

It also requires people to have courage and pursue creativity in their personal lives. Practicing innovative thinking and creative problem solving outside of the office builds your competence. And that builds your confidence – a subtle, but important difference. Because when an opportunity pops up at work and you have an opportunity to step forward, you’re already practiced in how to look at problems and think about potential answers.

The difference between business thinking and innovative thinking

In its report, Becoming a Leader Who Fosters Innovation, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) pointed out the distinction between business thinking and innovation thinking.

Many of today’s executives are trained and skilled in the traditional ways of business thinking – left-brained thinking that involves research, formulas, data and ROI. They’re taught to make quick decisions and stomp out ambiguity.

However, ambiguity isn’t something that can be managed away.

Instead, you need to slow down, make time to reflect on the work you’re doing and look at it with the lens of innovative thinking.

Source: Center for Creative Leadership

Innovative thinking is the opposite of what you’ve been taught about business thinking. It doesn’t draw on past experiences. Facts don’t carry weight. Instead, it imagines what the future could look like. And instead of shuffling through ideas and deciding if they’re “right” or “wrong,” it looks at how to find a better way. Most importantly, it encourages you to ask the question, “What if…?”

As the CCL authors David Magellan Horth and Jonathan Vehar point out, “Innovative thinking is a crucial addition to traditional business thinking. It allows you to bring new ideas and energy to your role as leader and paves the way to bring more innovation into your organization.”

Managing the tension between business and innovative thinking isn’t easy. It takes a special skill to acknowledge that both exist, are important and depend on each other. If all you do is think innovatively, nothing will come of it without business thinking to make your what ifs come to fruition. But if you’re only focused on business thinking, you’re in dire straits. Your competition is breathing down your neck, customers are pounding on your door, and you’re stuck in a business-as-usual mood. You won’t keep the lights on for long.

Building blocks for innovative leaders

Even in cultures that are stagnant, you’ll see champions survive. They’re able to come up with great, reliable ideas on a consistent basis and then see them through. They’re the orchestrators who lead fearlessly, despite the often hostile and toxic culture that pushes back.

Bob Rosenfeld, an innovation systems expert, describes these people as “having the ‘secret grid’ that enables them to navigate the organization that would otherwise reject their ideas.”

How do they do it?

Horth and Vehar say it’s because they understand the three building blocks that underscores innovative thinking:

  1. Toolset: The collection of tools and techniques used to generate new options, implement them in the organization, communicate direction, create alignment and cause commitment.
  2. Skillset: A framework that allows innovation leaders to use their knowledge and abilities to accomplish their goals. More than tools and techniques, it requires facility, practice and mastering the process.
  3. Mindset: The attitudes and resulting behaviors that allow the tools and skills to be effective. The mindset is the fundamental operating system of the creative thinker and distinguishes those leaders who enable creative thinking and innovation from those who shut it down.
Source: Center for Creative Leadership

These are things that you, too can learn. And they are foundational if you want to become and succeed as an innovative leader.


Tools are a natural starting place when you want to begin promoting innovation. Do a search for books on innovation tools, and in a millisecond you’ll have a list of over 10,000 from which to choose. That’s a lot.

Here’s a less overwhelming list with which to get started:

  1. Prototyping. You’ll hear this a lot with product and service innovation, but it works for any kind of idea. As you look for support, one of the things that you’ll constantly bump up against is the spoken or unspoken question, “How will we know it’ll work?” That’s kinda the point of a new idea…it’s new. And by its nature you won’t know it will work. But mock-it up as best you can, whether that’s physically or digitally, and then have people give it a go. Listen to the feedback people give you and resist the urge to explain away their input. The changes you make based on feedback will help you build support on your idea journey.
  2. Brainstorming. There’s a right way and a wrong way to brainstorm. Most companies do it wrong, and that’s why the wheels fall off the bus. But if you follow Alex Osborn’s original process, you’ll generate bigger, better ideas.
  3. Mind mapping. This is another often-used tool for groups and people working on their own. Mind mapping is great because it helps you think in terms of relationship. You can use words, pictures or both to show relationships and how one idea ties into another on. You’ll see how taking a slightly different bent on one idea can lead to a completely different one down the road. And you’ll also easily see what thought process took you there.
  4. Forced connections. When it comes to innovative thinking, 1 + 1 can equal an exponential outcome way beyond what you ever could have imagined. It starts with forcing yourself to see the connection between something that’s radically different from your problem, and seeing how it sparks association. It’s what philosopher Arthur Koestler called “bisociation.”  (If you’ve never read it, check out his book The Act of Creation.)


Innovation requires collaboration across teams and departments and everyone has a part to play. Horth and Vehar break them down this way:

  1. Individual contributors need to know how to come up with their own unique solutions. Then, have to understand to work as part of a team that has people who are different (sometimes very different) from them.
  2. First-level managers are the ones who take what they know as individuals then blend it with other skills, such as how to be an effective team leader and project manager. Ultimately, they blend that with resources they can find from outside their group.
  3. Mid-level managers provide an umbrella of support for the innovation team, protecting them from higher ups and other areas that want to squash what they’re trying to advance.
  4. Managers of functions know that there’s always conflicting demands for resources, and conflicts around change that need to happen for innovation. This group is key to working across silos and heading the communication that sets the tone and support for innovation.
  5. Executive leaders at the top not only set the strategy for the organization, they need to foster the culture that supports and reward innovation. They need to model the behavior they want to see – no more, “Do as I say, not as I do” nonsense. By setting the vision, regularly communicating it and recognizing people who model it, they make it clear that new and different ideas are safe, and there’s no reason to de-risk everything before it bubbles up to their level.


All the tools and skills in the world don’t mean a thing if you have a team of people who don’t have an innovation mindset. Here’s what you need to look for.

  1. Curiosity. This may be the one characteristic that makes people successful with innovation. Curious people walk through life with little judgement and lots of questions. They’re always on the lookout for new information, whether that’s why something was done or how. We’re all born highly curious. It’s your job to make sure it doesn’t get taught and rewarded out of you.
  2. Awareness. Slowing down, paying attention, mindfulness. There’s lots of labels that you hear and it’s because to be more innovative, you need to be more reflective. And you can’t do that when you’re running an 100 miles (or kilometers) per hour. Honing your awareness lets you take a deep breath, and notice something that didn’t catch your attention the first time around. It also helps you look at a situation from many different angles.
  3. Customer-centered. When you pair awareness with looking at things from your customer’s point of view, you’ve just discovered a gold mine. Now “customer” doesn’t have to mean someone on the outside of your organization. Think about who your customers are internally. You’ll see all kinds of places where you can innovate that help your business serve the customers outside your own four walls better.
  4. Tolerance for ambiguity. Let’s face it, if you can’t handle working in the unknown, then innovation is no place for you.  

Photo credit: Pixabay

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.