Unleasing innovation through leadership

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What happens when ineffective leaders kill innovation in organisations? Does innovation get tucked away in a R&D function and remain starved for resources? Are employees allowed to make mistakes, get second chances and challenge work processes and leaders or will they be expelled from the company like so much flotsam? What happened to the belief that those with ideas should be nurtured and valued … that everyone’s ideas should be permitted to sprout from everywhere in the company?

These are serious questions but Ronald (not his real name) who works of a large organisation had a lot on his mind. We were eating breakfast on an early summer morning, drinking too much coffee. Ronald was concerned by what he saw happening in companies. Ideas were being stifled, creativity scoffed at and people were being treated with a lack of respect.

“Why don’t you leave?” I asked. “You can’t hope to survive in such a toxic environment.”

The restaurant manager asked Ronald in a polite voice, “How can I be of service to you?” Ronald ordered more coffee.

“I’ve been there a long time,” Ronald said. “I saw the company once in a growth phase when managers were keen to grow the business. I’m hoping the entrepreneurial spirit will come back.”

Ronald was yearning for something that had walked out of this company long ago. It sounded like the people were beaten up and demoralised.

“You’re the business consultant,” Ronald said. “What do you make of this? Should I go or stay?”

“I’m not so sure you should stay,” I said. “But that’s up to you to decide. All I can do is throw a few thoughts at you. Perhaps they’ll help make up your mind.”

Ronald was describing what happens in organisations in the absence of leadership. Senior managers become obsessed with operations and discard fostering innovation and conceptualising the business for the future. Innovation is relegated to R&D and operational improvements. This malady results in employees feeling useless, unable to suggest better, faster and more cost effective ways of doing things wherever they work.

“It’s pretty scary the way managers work in these companies,” Ronald said. “One little mistake and you’re out. If they can’t force you out on their trumped up charges, they’ll wait until you make another mistake to nail you.”

“I’m going to read you a quote,” I told Ronald, taking out a 3 x 5 card. “It’s from Robert K. Greenleaf, the guy who wrote “Servant Leadership.”

“The only sound basis for trust is for people to have the solid experience of being served by their institutions in a way that builds a society that is more just and more loving, and with greater creative opportunities for all of its people.”

Ronald listened, sipped his coffee and fell into deep thought.

“Who’s this guy?” Ronald asked. “That sounds like the stuff of fairly tales. I’d be laughed at if I said something like that where I work.”

It took some time to explain who Robert K. Greenleaf was and his concept of servant leadership for which he had gained much respect and admiration.

“Managers in the companies you describe may be laughing all the way to the bank right now but their shareholders may not with no one looking out for the future of the business,” I said. “The way people are being treated is unpalatable but predictable.”

Ronald was surprised. He called for the restaurant manager for the bill so I had to get my point across quickly. I described to him the two paradigms of organisation, borrowing from Stephen Covey – the antiquated “control” culture of the 20th century and the “release” culture required for the 21st century information age with social media and extended networks. In the “control” culture, managers treat people as expenses and relationships are transactional. Businesses, headed by a “chief” and structured in a hierarchy, are autocratic institutions administered through control. When employees cannot challenge or question the leadership, the company takes on the characteristics and tendencies of a cult. Look how Enron spat out dissenters. No dialogue spells disaster. In the “release” culture, leaders serve by liberating the potential, passion and talents of their employees. Employees are connected through mutual trust and respect. Ideas, product ideation and innovation flourish throughout the whole system.

“That’s all I can get across now. I risk being rude and taking too much of your time if I go on.”

“Though what you describe is abstract and theoretical the two models are interesting. But I still don’t know how any of us can change things and get to the Shangri-La you describe.”

“There’s no guarantee you’ll be able to,” I said. “Freeing up the control starts at the top with fundamental changes. When you’ve got some free time we can talk some more about what changes need to be made. In the meantime, try to influence your immediate sphere.”

“And if that doesn’t work?” Ronald asked.

“You know the answer to that one,” I said.

The restaurant manager came back to the table with the bill and Ronald paid him. He thanked Ronald and said something that sounded strange, “Thank you for the honour of being able to serve you.”

As we left the restaurant, I couldn’t help thinking how much work lay ahead in some organisations. These were the ones that had lost their way with heavy political agendas, covering behinds as they polluted the environment without regard to external social costs, colluding and overcharging customers for years and recklessly risking entrusted funds. Enron and Lehman Brothers are extreme examples but such arrogance and disregard is found all over the world. Turning 180 degrees, the flip side presented an opportunity for leaders with strength and courage to offer an alternative vision for the future where innovation and employees would be able to thrive.


Copyright 2010 Bell & Cray Business Research™. This excerpt has been used by special permission from Bell & Cray Business Consulting™. Bell & Cray Business Consulting™ is a division of Bell & Cray™. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be duplicated or re-disseminated without permission.


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