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Why Most Senior Leaders Fail to Foster Innovation and What to Do About It

Fostering innovation within an organization is an increasingly important leadership behavior for every organization. No leader today is happy with the status quo and desires for their organization to stay exactly the same year over year. Leaders who want to foster innovation and be creative must be self-aware of their high degree of influence on the organization's innovation and be willing to take ownership of and action on new ideas when identified. Senior leaders too often fail to recognize that both their stated communication and their time allocation ultimately determine organizational innovation success.

A Failure to Endorse Innovation

The following are too often missing organizational signals for senior leadership's endorsement of innovation:

"personal example, resource allocation, hiring and promotion practices, internal/external communications, company-wide metrics, strategy alignment, and organizational structure development" (Gary Oster).

A Failure to Strive for Excellence

Senior leaders need to be inspirational to influence employees to create new ideas and collaborate to listen to their ideas. Research has proven that a transformational leadership style can encourage innovation. When the climate for excellence is high, team innovation is enhanced. Transformational leadership is made up of four components: (1) influence, (2) inspiration, (3) intellectually challenging, and (4) individualized focus. In today's world of asking employees to do more with less senior leaders can fail to adjust strategy and begin tolerating less than an employee's best.

"We will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence" (Vince Lombardi).

A Failure of Focus

When senior leaders fail to focus, it is costly and wastes time. Identifying worthwhile ideas requires seeing new patterns in the data everyone else in the organization is evaluating. As simple as this may appear, the challenge is that expectations shape perceptions. To break free from these perceptions, senior leaders need to avoid distractions and stay focused on the business. An extremely effective strategy for senior leaders is to

"start keeping a journal of problems that you find to be personally interesting" (Michalko).

Modern senior leaders too often are caught up in schedules that have them rushing from meeting to meeting, and they experience role overload. Innovation-related "recency bias" is a cognitive error to emphasize the most recent issue raised or the most often discussed problem instead of focusing on the most important. Using a journal helps the leader combat this bias in judgment by allowing for equal consideration of all the potential issues identified. Writing in a journal may prompt the senior leader to ask questions that will help expand and contract the problem's scope, and rewriting the challenge can help identify new patterns leading to innovation.


Eisenbeiss, S. A., van Knippenberg, D., & Boerner, S. (2008). Transformational leadership and team innovation: Integrating team climate principles. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(6), 1438-1446. doi:10.1037/a0012716

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Nov 11, 2020

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