‘Innovation Leaders’: A New Breed of Leader?

July 5, 2017 Richard Justenhoven
image innovative leader

What is an Innovation Leader?

The desire and demand for innovation from employees is something we hear about regularly. But what do leaders who are innovative (innovation leaders) offer to the business – and how do they stand out from other leaders?

Zenger & Folkman (2014) conducted a study with a telecommunications industry organisation whose leaders scored well above average on most managerial competencies. From this pool of leaders, they identified 33 individuals who scored at or above the 99th percentile on ‘innovation’, as measured by their peers, reports and bosses using a 360 degree feedback questionnaire. By interviewing these leaders along with some of those who had fed back using the 360 review, Zenger & Folkman were able to gain some specific examples as to how ‘innovation’ was manifested.

10 behaviours emerged defining this group of leaders as ‘innovation leaders’; their defining behaviours are listed here in descending order of importance.

Innovation leaders:

  1. Display excellent strategic vision: the most effective ‘innovation leaders’ are able to describe vividly his or her vision of the future.
  2. Have a strong customer focus: they seek to get inside the customer’s mind and tend to network prolifically with customers.
  3. Create a climate of reciprocal trust: Innovation often requires some level of risk. Not all innovative ideas are successful. These highly innovative leaders initiated warm, collaborative relationships with the innovators who worked for them. They made themselves highly accessible. Colleagues knew that their leader would cover their backs and not throw them under the bus if something went wrong. People were never punished for honest mistakes.
  4. Display loyalty to doing what’s right for the organisation and customer: they focus on doing the right thing for the project or company rather than pleasing the boss.
  5. Believe in a culture that magnifies upward communication: they believe that often the best and most innovative ideas come from below and so seek to create a culture that encourages great ideas from the lower levels of an organisation.
  6. Are persuasive: they are highly effective in getting others to accept good ideas, without force or pushiness.
  7. Excel at setting stretch goals: they’re able to get people to exceed original goals, not just by working harder but by finding new ways to achieve a bigger goal.
  8. Emphasize speed: they are more likely to support experiments and rapid prototypes rather than lengthy studies by large committees.
  9. Are candid in their communication: they’re described as providing honest, straight-talking feedback.
  10. Inspire and motivate through action: they inspire by offering a clear sense of purpose and meaning in the work.

These ‘innovation leaders’ are interesting and indeed we see some parallels with ‘transformational leaders’; these are those characterised by their visionary approach, intellectual stimulation, and ability to build trust between superiors and employees.  The positive effect of transformational leadership on leadership effectiveness is found in the work of Judge & Piccolo (2004).


Judge, T. A., & Piccolo, R. F. (2004). Transformational and transactional leadership: a meta-analytic test of their relative validity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(5), 755.

Zenger, J. & Folkman, J. (2014, December 15). 10 Traits of Innovative Leaders.  Harvard Business Review.

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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