Leadership and the workplace culture of innovation

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Tamara Kleinberg appears to be a versed leadership development professional. Ms Kleinberg, in her recent impressionistic article titled “4 Things Successful Leaders Say to Create A Culture of Innovation”, identified these four simple phrases that confident leaders say: 1. I am wrong; 2. Tell me more about that. 3. I do not know; 4. I want to share something personal with you.

While the article is an easy read, it does not actually say that all that is necessary to create a culture of innovation is for senior leaders to utter one or more of the identified phrases.  It is not explicitly clear from the article whether it is saying that leaders already employed in a culture of innovation are more likely to say one of these phrases because of their understanding of leadership, of because a culture of innovation demands such a disposition. The article seems to be saying that confident leaders are not afraid to utter one or more of the preceding phrases in the presence of or to their peers and/or functional subordinates. Yet, not one of the phrases is “earth shattering”.

The first three are essentially gateways to unlock information resident in the minds and experience of those within the leaders proximity while the purpose of the fourth is create a trusted bond through which information can flow freely. Skilled leaders distinguish between facts, data, interpretation and subjective truth. Facts and data are both objective.  Data and facts may provide “objective” truths. Interpretation reflects subjective truths and realities. When a leader says I am wrong, it does not necessarily mean the she or he was not right about either the facts or the data.  Rather, the struggle may have been at the level of the underlying truths that influence interpretation.

Every leader is one important centre for the collection, synthesis and interpretation of complex information that helps to achieve and or sustain organizational success.  Getting an accurate read of how facts play out in complex, macro environments is necessary for leaders to make sound evidence-driven decisions. So, saying that I am wrong, then, is contextual more so than not.  A leader who is confident enough to say that “I am wrong”, or “I do not know”, or “help me understand”, instantly submits to the expertise of the subject. Roles get switched and the leader becomes the pupil while the other person the teacher. That is very empowering, “   That is why it is not uncommon to effective leaders also say “I am here to learn”, regardless of whether they are in a culture of innovation.

Any one of the first three phrases when said has the consequential delivery to the leader interpretations, inferences and experiences about which she or he may have previously been unaware. In a sense, then each of the first three phrases is simply a gateway for scholarship and the collection of subjective knowledge that good leaders know may make difference between a good decision and a bad one. Most importantly, the phrases are empower and demystifying; and effective leaders know that. Here is the thing; great leaders know that leadership currency is not resident solely in authority. Rather, it is a function of how well they are able to mobilize followers. Without followers, there can be no leader. Effective leaders spend time to discern what they need to know to become the trail blazer. Effective leaders move on evidence, not just facts of data.

Great leaders are driven to make distinctions between the emptiness of facts and data as compared to the subjective meaning derived from experience that may not have been captured either by facts alone, or data alone. Meaning is never objective, something about which good leaders are always aware. That is why effective leaders get to the why.  A good leader is always ready to collect information to equip herself with the answer to the question why. Said differently, good leaders are always on the prowl for evidence to answer this question: so what? Having accurate facts alone is insufficient for effective leaders can test out and resolve competing theories to answer the question: so what?

What Ms Kleinberg describes in her article are ways in which confident leaders navigate between facts, interpretation and explanatory theory.  Great leaders are attentive. They have well developed listening skills, and are continuously testing theories to develop enabling knowledge to make tactical and strategic decisions that are more often right than wrong.

Effective leaders know that they must connect at the emotional level with the subject, they must tap into unfamiliar knowledge, they must accept uncertainty in data to develop certainty in subjective fact and they must be willing to learn that there may be several answers to any one question, each of which is correct, sometimes along a different trajectory. Whether those “learnings” when put into practice create or even sustain a culture of innovation remains an open question, though.

The entire article can be found at http://innovationexcellence.com/blog/2018/02/12/4-things-successful-leaders-say-to-create-a-culture-of-innovation/.

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