I recently read a Harvard Business Review Blog post by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, Research: 10 Traits of Innovative Leaders. I actually really like this list and will share it here, but I do have a couple qualifiers.

First off, let’s recognize that there are an uncountable number of lists out there claiming to distill “leadership” traits into an easily digestible number — not possible — Though, for my part, I do continue to read them when they crop up — and the many numbered lists do prompt thought and consideration around the “whats” and “hows” of leadership. My goal some day is to distill my own list, my own approach, down to a one thing.

Second: I wouldn’t relegate this particular list to only “Innovative” leaders. This is a good list for any leader, boss, manager, person responsible, person in charge. In this context, I am not even sure what “Innovative” means — Best clue is the first sentence which states, “Many organizations would like their leaders to create more innovative teams.” So what we are really talking about is “leaders of innovation” as opposed to “innovative leaders.” I would rephrase as, “Leaders of people (teams) working together to create something new, interesting, and valuable.”

What is most innovative, to me, about this particular list is that the authors went through the hard work of interviewing and understanding leaders, and leadership, from 360-degrees — gaining insight from people who surround these leaders, peers to bosses to direct reports.

Here’s their list, and I’ll leave it as my 2014 last word on “Leadership:”

  1. Display excellent strategic vision. The most effective innovation leaders could vividly describe their vision of the future, and as one respondent noted about his boss: “She excelled at painting a clear picture of the destination, while we worked to figure out how to get there.”
  2. Have a strong customer focus. What was merely interesting to the customer became fascinating to these individuals. They sought to get inside the customer’s mind. They networked with clients and asked incessant questions about their needs and wants.
  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 fearless loyalty to doing what’s right for the organization and customer. Pleasing the boss or some other higher level executive always took a back seat to doing the right thing for the project or the company.
  5. Put their faith in a culture that magnifies upward communication. These leaders believed that the best and most innovative ideas bubbled up from underneath. They strived to create a culture that uncorked good ideas from the first level of the organization. They were often described as projecting optimism, full of energy, and always receptive to new ideas. Grimness was replaced with kidding and laughter.
  6. Are persuasive. These individuals were highly effective in getting others to accept good ideas. They did not push or force their ideas onto their teams. Instead, they presented ideas with enthusiasm and conviction, and the team willingly followed.
  7. Excel at setting stretch goals. These goals required people to go far beyond just working harder. These goals required that they find new ways to achieve a high goal.
  8. Emphasize speed. These leaders believed that speed scraped the barnacles off the hull of the boat. Experiments and rapid prototypes were preferred to lengthy studies by large committees.
  9. Are candid in their communication. These leaders were described as providing honest, and at times even sometimes blunt, feedback. Subordinates felt they could always count on straight answers from their leader.
  10. Inspire and motivate through action. One respondent said, “For innovation to exist you have to feel inspired.” This comes from a clear sense of purpose and meaning in the work.