How Visionary Leaders Can Stifle Innovation

By Linda A. Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback

Every day we hear more leaders call for increased innovation from their organizations. They recognize what's now obvious. In a world of rapid change, the ability to innovate over and over is probably the only enduring competitive advantage an organization can have.

Over a decade ago, we began studying innovative organizations and their leaders. Our goal was to fill a void. Though there are thousands of books about leadership and an equal number on innovation - with more of each coming every year - few if any focus on the connection between innovation and leadership.

Does leadership matter for innovation? If it does, what is the role of the leader? What do leaders of innovative organizations do that leaders of less innovative organizations don't do?

To find the answers, we have spent hundreds of hours with leaders around the world - from Silicon Valley to Europe to the UAE to India and Korea - in industries as diverse as filmmaking, e-commerce, auto manufacturing, professional services, high tech, and luxury goods. In the end, we studied in-depth sixteen leaders who included talented women and men of seven nationalities serving different functions at different levels in their organizations, all of whom were known for their ability to innovate again and again and again..

We found, of course, that leadership is important to organizational innovation. If you examine anything an organization creates that is new and useful - our basic definition of innovation - you're almost certain to find it the work of multiple hands, not the product of a solitary genius. One of our leaders called innovation a "team sport," and the way we came to describe it is that truly innovative organizations are consistently able to elicit and then combine their people's individual slices of genius into a single work of collective genius.

What did surprise us, however, is that we didn't see any of our leaders playing the role of a great leader as that role is now commonly understood. Read popular business literature today and talk, as we have, to countless practicing managers, and a general consensus emerges: the best leaders are those who have a clear and compelling vision and inspire others to pursue that vision. Yet this is a role our proven leaders of innovation actively avoided.

They didn't see themselves as setting a direction and then leading the charge. A little thought will make clear why. Visionary, "I know the way!" leadership works well when defining a problem and finding its solution are fairly straightforward - in other words, when real innovation isn't required. But it's counter-productive in settings that cry out for truly new and useful solutions. In those settings, no one can know in advance, no vision can foretell - by definition - what "new and useful" might be. That's why leaders who expect their groups to pursue their vision or direction are too often restraining the group's ability to consider a rich range of options and choose the best.

The leaders we studied understood this. They knew they could not be "chief innovator" or the driver of innovation who proactively "made it happen." They had learned that casting themselves as a "Follow me!" leader was far less likely to produce the collective genius we described above.

Instead, they consistently saw their role as that of creating a context or setting - it could range from a team to an entire firm - where people are willing and able to do the hard work innovative problem-solving requires. As one of them told us, "My job is to set the stage, not to perform on it." They "set the stage" not by setting direction but by creating an organization that is, first, united around share purpose, values, and rules of engagement (willingness) and, second, able to execute three difficult but crucial organizational skills (ability): collaboration, learning from trial-and-error, and integrating existing ideas in new ways.

As we hear leaders today call for more innovation, we can't help thinking that many of them might start not by looking at the people who work for them but by looking in the mirror.

Linda A. Hill is Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School; Greg Brandeau, former CTO at Pixar and Disney, works with startups; Emily Truelove is a doctoral candidate at MIT; and former executive Kent Lineback is a best-selling author and coach. They are co-authors of Collective Genius: The Art and Practice of Leading Innovation, just published by Harvard Business Review Press.