Leading Innovation

In Brief:  Your behavior as a leader can derail or speed up innovation in your organization. This includes your actions, decisions and policies.  Are your behaviors stifling innovation or spurring it on?

By Jonathan Halls

Leadership Behavior is Critical

If you want to lead a creative organization, managing your behavior is crucial.

No matter how inspired your staff is to innovate, you need to show it is a priority.  If you don’t, they will feel stifled or lose interest, focusing their creativity elsewhere.

When staff are stifled, you as the leader lose out because your organization is not reflecting the full potential of its people.  And staff look to other employers.

So, to develop an innovative spirit in your organization, what should you be looking at?  One place to start is your personal behavior as a leader.

Staff Imitate Leaders

If you sit back and watch workforce behavior, you’ll discover that staff will often use similar phrases to their bosses.  They’ll repeat their buzzwords.  They’ll even wear similar clothes.

This is because, despite what anyone says, the boss has a huge influence on the staff.

The result of this is that poor leaders inspire poor performance in their staff.  For example, if the boss is always late to meetings, a ‘late culture’ develops across the organization.

If the boss is sloppy in her communication, you’ll see staff also take little care in communicating the right information to the right people at the right time.

If you want to lead innovation in your workforce, make sure your behavior as a boss supports it.

Here are some thoughts about how you need to examine your behavior and the power behavior has in developing an innovative workplace.

Decisions Affect Creativity

Staff watch the decisions their bosses make very carefully.  Everything from whether you will sign off on extra training courses to whether or not you’re a stickler when it comes to overtime.

If you are telling your staff that they need to take time and space to come up with new ideas or review their current work practices, yet you don’t give them any slack in their assignments, you’ll very quickly lose their trust.

In one organization, a boss kept telling his staff that it was OK to make mistakes in the pursuit of innovation.  One young worker took this to heart.

However, when he did make a mistake that cost the company ten thousand dollars, the boss fired him.

No-one ever trusted the boss again.  Especially when he told staff meetings it was OK to make mistakes.  Trust was broken.  A cold breeze of cynicism blew away any spirit of creativity.

Making decisions that nurture innovation is not easy.  Sometimes it’s like swimming against the tide.  At other times, we lose focus and accidentally fall into old habits.  Guard against this at all cost.

Make sure your decisions reinforce your priority to make your organization innovative.

Personal Conduct

Your personal conduct will be the key indicator for many of your staff about whether you are serious about innovation.  Let’s not forget the old saying, “actions speak louder than words.”

When I was at the BBC, we had a senior management team that kept talking about collaboration.  They wanted the thoughts and ideas of the “proletariat.”  Actually, they didn’t use that word – that’s my editorial bias.

Anyway, every six months or so, they’d invite 300 staff from this department to meet together.  They’d give rousing speeches about working together.  And then they divide the room into groups to discuss and write down their ideas on how to improve the organization.

Unfortunately, the senior management team ignored the comments.  Even when one employee wrote a comment saying she had been insulted by a comment made by a senior manager at that meeting.  No-one followed it up despite her giving her name.

The first time the staff were brought together, they were enthusiastic.  The second time, suspicious.  The third, distrustful.  Innovation was crushed.  So was trust and respect.

Remember, your conduct, including the conduct of your management team, extends from leading large meetings to having individual conversations with staff.

Of course, it isn’t just about meetings and whether you are good to your word.  Do your staff see you walking around with a notebook to write down ideas?  Do they see you create time and space to dream new ideas?


Every leader makes policy.  It can be as simple as encouraging workers to start at 8:30 in the morning or as complex as how to deal with poorly performing staff.

Don’t create policies that stifle innovation.  For example, if some people work better in the afternoon, allow flexibility for them to come in to office later and work later.

If you want people to walk in the park and clear their head for ideas, don’t set a policy that states any time out of the office is allowed only in that person’s own time.

Also, think about how the amount of policies may hinder creativity.  Research has shown that the more policies an organization has, the more bogged down people become which stifles innovation.

Think carefully when you set policy about whether it supports or undermines an innovative environment.  Also think about unwritten policies that people follow for fear of punishment.


An important place to model the right behavior for innovation and creativity is in the conversations you have with your staff.

Are you displaying creative discontent and always asking, “How can we do this better?”  Are you always open to new ideas from employees? Or do you cut them off mid-sentence?

How do you convey the creative spirit in impromptu conversations with staff and colleagues you run into in the corridor or at the water cooler?

If you’re a senior manager, your conversations need to inspire your managers to have the same conversations with their staff and reinforce the importance of innovative thinking.

Conversations are generally informal.  They are a powerful way of creating stories in your organization that ultimately make meaning of people’s lives at work.

The rumor mill is a good example of this, although it’s usually a story gone bad.  The more conversations you have with your people, the more you can influence them with your vision and build trust.

If you don’t regularly walk around, put a walk and talk in your calendar now.  If you know they dislike you as a boss, now is the time to build back rapport and show them you’re human.  Without this, you’ll be stifling innovation.


Things like personal conduct, policies and decision making are crucial to conveying the spirit of creativity to your organization.  However, if you don’t have the right mindset yourself, these things will just be empty actions and your leadership will lack authenticity.

Make sure you are firmly behind the idea of creativity and it truly drives your thinking.  If there’s a chance that it does not, your staff will pick up on it quicker than you can believe.

Your behavior as a leader is important

Your behavior as a leader is critical in nurturing a creative workplace culture.  It’s not the only thing though.  The policies and structures you create can either unleash creativity or hinder it.  We explore those things in another post.