How to develop the skills of innovative leaders
I attended a private school until the eighth grade. The only students were my brother and myself because we lived on a remote cattle ranch in Wyoming. The nearest town was 90 minutes, one-way, on a dirt road.
There were no other kids to play with, so I played with trucks and dolls when I was young. As I got older, I spent time with animals. I talked to them and treated them as friends -- indeed, the only ones I had!
When we role-play, we imagine ourselves in different situations. One week, I would be a veterinarian and patch up all sorts of ills that befall animals on a ranch. Or a John Wayne character who packed a gun and brought justice to the wild west.
I always imagined myself to be someone whom I aspired to become like when I grew up. At that age, my hero was someone very real to me. My imagination gave me permission to walk in the shoes of my hero, if only for a few moments.
Research tells us that children who have a good imagination grow up to be more creative as adults. Imaginative and creative people also tend to be more innovative as well.
Innovation is the secret sauce that can accelerate a company’s profits and growth beyond its competitors. In a recent study, innovation was ranked a long-term challenge for driving business growth. It is a key talent needed at all levels of leadership, starting with the CEO.
Despite its importance, innovation is a difficult quality to cultivate in both leaders and organizations.
As a leader, what if you feel you’re not innovative? You may need to fake it until you make it, but it is possible to create a mindset that will allow you to develop your creativity. Oscar Hammerstein wrote that by whistling a happy tune, “when I fool the people I fear, I fool myself as well.”
Creating an innovative mindset takes work and may require some retraining, but anyone can innovate if they develop these core competencies:
1. Seek out innovative environments
Our environment plays a major part in developing our innovative characteristics. We can’t change the circumstances of our upbringing, but we do have a choice in the kinds of people with whom we associate and surround ourselves.
We tend to take on the same characteristics as the people we spend the most time with, so be picky! It’s fine to spend time with school chums and old acquaintances, but we need to challenge ourselves to develop new friends who will truly nourish our desire to be the person we want to be.
Likewise, spend time with colleagues who possess high levels of innovative traits.
Tip: Create a learning environment or community that generates new knowledge and perspectives. This type of networking will expose you to different perspectives from individuals with diverse backgrounds and experiences.
2. Observe and be curious
Innovative leaders score high in curiosity. They desire to know more and take the initiative to learn new information. They keep their skills and knowledge current to give them a competitive edge.
Innovative leaders are mentally tough because they believe they will prevail in their circumstances, rather than hope their circumstances will change. If an obstacle pops up, they react with curiosity as they investigate the endless possibilities before them.
Innovative leaders see possibilities everywhere and constantly add new information as they learn more. They are curious about other people and come up with many of their own innovative ideas as they observe others.
Tip: Become an investigator who looks at an obstacle or roadblock from many perspectives. Curiosity and observation are two important traits in innovative people. Look for the possibilties in your situation, not the dead end.
3. Pinpoint self-fulfilling prophecies
We all have self-limiting beliefs about ourselves that often lead to self-fulfilling prophecies about what we can and cannot do in life. We can place limitations around ourselves when we predict the outcome of a situation. We change our behavior so that the prediction comes true.
If you think you’re going to fail a job interview, that belief may lead to behavior that ensures you do, indeed, fail the job interview.
Tip: The self-fulfilling prophecy can work in the opposite direction as well. Stay positive and rein in self-limiting beliefs that can sabotage your performance.
4. Shake things up
The same study cited above also revealed that innovative leaders scored 25% higher than non-innovative counterparts in managing risk.
Risk ignites innovation because it moves us out of our comfort zone. Risk does not cohabitate with complacency because embracing risk is experimenting with the unknown. We try new experiences, take things apart, and test new ideas.
Innovation requires us to make something out of nothing. It requires the grit to keep working at something until you find a solution.
When you shake things up and embrace risk, one of two things will happen: You will succeed at meeting your goal, or you will succeed in getting an education.
Tip: Seek out new experiences that will stimulate your thinking and avoid the mundane. Habits are the killer of innovation.
5. Seize opportunities
Innovative leaders take risks, and when they do, they seize opportunities. Because they are also careful observers, they change direction when the advantage becomes apparent.
Innovative leaders can anticipate potential obstacles and are not surprised when they pop up. They are prepared for them and are able to pivot and move forward, without losing valuable momentum.
Tip: Rather than accept the learning opportunities when they occur, intentionally broaden activities in strategic areas. Be proactive in moving into those areas where you want to expand.
6. Avoid phony at all costs
Aristotle once wrote, “Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a certain way.” That is the source of the "fake it until you make it" mantra.
While you can fake it until you make it when you start out, there is an important caveat: Don’t expect it to take you all the way to the top.
Innovation is a mindset. As such, you work to create a mindset that seeks ways to move around obstacles. If you are a talented individual, you can fake your way through the learning process until it becomes a genuine skill you own.
Tip: If you do not have the talent, desire, or confidence to take your career to the next level, no amount of faking it will help. You risk being seen as an imposter.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.