Innovation : Leadership

Both these words are positive things that most of us want more of. However they both defy any definition. There is to my mind, no single way to interpret these terms. This is evident from the fact that in spite of thousands of books and theories available on the subjects, there isn’t a book that might enable us to be either a leader or an innovator. Isn’t that strange?

Actually not. If you look carefully, innovation and leadership are very closely related. Leadership is essentially in more ways than not about creating a better future. In this sense, leaders must be innovators.

Why are we not able to become a leader or an innovator by reading an expert book on either? I will attempt to answer this throughout this paper. I will also attempt to open our possibilities for developing leadership and innovation. A short and very obvious answer though is that both innovation and leadership are relative to our circumstances or to change we are creating.

Lets take an example to delve right in – In the middle ages when people were attempting to fly, they would make wings, go to a high spot and jump. For centuries aspiring innovators assumed that there was something wrong with the wings so they kept working on a better design and continued to kill themselves.

In 13thcentury, though, a gentleman named Roger Bacon wrote an article describing that human beings have solid bones as compared to birds that have hollow bones. He proposed a design for a machine that flapped its wings to enable flight. That didn’t work either because at the time – no one understood gravity. However as and when these details unfolded, as and when we understood how nature or the world worked – we could actually fly well.

I read a definition of innovation which I think is a very powerful way of thinking what it means: intentionally ‘bringing into existence’ that can be sustained or repeated and which has some value or utility.’

If you put these both in context – Innovation is related to ‘in-the-world’ value – and – to bring about innovation we need to understand how ‘our’ world works so we can avoid being tipped off in our quest to create change.

Innovation or Leadership is not to be equated with change. Change is happening all the time. There may be an accident leading to a random change, but that does not amount to innovation or does not make an innovator so to say. From time to time we all might have had some ideas we did nothing about. Suddenly one day we discover someone has accomplished exactly what we thought about. This is reality. This is what differentiates innovation from dreaming. Remember the definition – innovation is ‘bringing into existence’.

It’s our relationship with the circumstances, especially when we fail, that determines whether we respond as innovators or leaders or simply accept what is happening.

Let’s take an example of this: Much like China is doing today, the Japanese economy during 60’s to 80’s started at low end of the industry and invaded markets with inexpensive products. It was disruption of sorts. They moved to the top of markets and moved competition out. Today Japanese companies are enormous and manufacture some of the world’s best products. However they do not have venture capital available to them to start new venture that may lead to such growth again. They are stuck much like, the American companies are as well. The world is therefore looking at BRIC as the other countries cannot create creative disruption by themselves anymore.

As I wrote earlier, its our relationship to the situation that will decide whether we respond as leaders or not. Innovation will occur in some context to create a Breakthrough – or to change a status quo. Both leaders and innovators will change the context, change the point of reference.

For example in the above illustration of economies – the current point of reference of economic revival is in working with business models that are itself the cause and detrimental. The same business models that led to growth are becoming the reason for slow down. Thus the ability to creatively destroy existing business models actually becomes the key to growth in the whole economy. An innovator or a leader will identify and change it.

However assuming that change is constant and always occurring, whether in our knowledge or not, contexts are being established every now and then. These contexts will vary from person to person depending upon ‘our’ world and view of the situation.

There are a few ways noted below on how we relate (or can) to change occurring all the time. How we do actually relate to these, lay the foundation for us becoming leaders and thereby opens or closes opportunities for innovation.


Resistance is probably the most common way to relate to change. Resistance implies standing apart and ‘not being as it should be’.

For example the world at large has been resisting evidence that India provides on involvement of Pakistan in terror activities. Pakistan resists it today. It’s very simple why – Resistance gives power to the status quo – and it’s convenient to be temporarily blind to what is occurring moment to moment.

Resistance, though is rooted in the past and grounded in negative assessment and encourages a ‘spectator’ relationship with reality.

Normal leadership response to resistance is then ‘fixing’ the ‘broken’ for example – perceive the broken as a dialogue between India and Pakistan – try to fix it. The problem is it doesn’t work. We are trying to change something which is pushing against (resisting) something that is also happening.

Essentially in a situation such as this ‘progressive’ or ‘regressive’ leadership operates in the same context.

Status quo remains.


Accepting is a positive alternative to resisting. It essentially re-directs us to problem –solving. However this too is counter-innovative. Yes, innovation may happen but mainly as a Reaction to circumstances and not ‘intentional’ for creating ‘value’.

For example in accepting terrorism as a problem, India, is REACTING to instill an independent agency (NIA or whatever its called). In reacting, the scope of NIA activities, will be defined and limited. In comparison if NIA was thought as a progressive tool, it might well be dealing with terrorism as one of its objectives besides corruption, discrepancies, governance etc. More dangerous than this is that such reactions will stop further innovations till this one fails.

Leaders in this situation therefore get sucked in to ‘justifying’ limitations and encourage ‘work around’ strategies for getting the job done. While this may produce results, the leader ends up as a ‘part of’ the limitation and ceases to innovate.


Responding and Choosing are both different.

We respond to problems. We can choose not to.

When we are responding, we are innovating to the extent that we have some intention, we are not reacting and we are bringing something new of ‘value’ into existence.

To determine whether we are responding or reacting – there is a simple question – “for the sake of what are we responding?” – Now check the intention behind action. – In the NIA example – why is it being created is because of public outcry the government felt compelled to do so – the proposal has been there for years – Responding would have been choosing earlier – now its reacting.

Leaders who are responsive are not blind to problems versus those who are reactive. They are not attempting to ‘fix’ problems but intending outcomes.

For example – For years Srilanka has been reacting to LTTE. The latest government decided an outcome and responded.

Choosing is beyond Responding. Its free. Its like an independent observer. You can imagine all possibilities and choices that may remain buried otherwise. Its an effortless state of innovation. Please be noted that the circumstances are ‘still there’ but you are relating to it as separate.

Leadership here becomes creative. It starts to create visions and possibilities.

For example – The problems of Bush legacy are there. They have not disappeared. Obama however has initiated a ‘separatist’ state where people are choosing for a ‘vision of change’ fully knowing that the problems wouldn’t disappear. Where as McCain was presenting a ‘response’ to his predecessor by laying down a ‘better place’.


To create is a very rare ability. This basically implies that you are not ‘choosing’ circumstances that are occurring but relating to the world as if you have the power to create circumstances themselves.

Innovations thus, in this state can be seen as – unpredictable – challenging assumptions – appear obvious after the fact.

I’ll quote three embarrassing examples here:

Ice cream was invented in 2000 BC. Yet it was 3,900 years later before someone figured out the ice cream cone.
Meat was on the planet before humans. Bread was baked in 2600 BC. Nevertheless, it took another 4,300 years for somebody to put them together and create the sandwich.
And the modern flush toilet was invented in 1775, but it wasn’t until 1857 that somebody thought up toilet paper

It all seems a bit too obvious today, however someone challenged assumptions and it took a lot of time to do so.

Leader who ‘create’ are seen as visionary and charismatic and forward moving. From the point of view of this leader though – vision is not even a big goal or a picture – just a ground of being from where to create reality.

That’s right. Vision to many others is a simple truth for these people.


One step further from choosing circumstances is inventing entirely new inquiries. New domains, new possibilities, new openings.

For example – not sandwich, ice cream cone – they are bi-products of what exists.

Mastering is a form of mastering both what is happening in ‘our’ world and what isn’t. This is beyond cognitive boundaries of perceivable reality. Almost crazy.

Leadership in such situations may even seem inconsequential at times. A perfect example is

Mahatama Gandhi – no force – showed no signs of any powerful leadership for most of his life – yet showed how NOT RESISTING can be powerful for change.

Leaders in this stage are constantly inventing – Gandhi never stopped. They are always beginners (he always began something), learning and creating every moment.

In Summary– Breakthroughs take place at difference levels and depends on how we react to the world. The world is always changing and presenting contexts. Its where we assume the context to be. If we are resisting or accepting– we see no innovation, no breakthrough. The change that we will see reactive and the circumstances will continue to persist. If we are responding or choosing– we are in a position to innovate and will do so as well. It’s based on what we observe to be possible. Change is likely to be an improvement over what exists. When we are Creating or Mastering– we are not only innovating, we are also compelled to do so. It’s a state of being. We do not assume limitations. We imagine. We generate. We are likely to create breakthroughs continuously.

Leading and Innovating is bringing ‘new realities’ into existence. Innovating is a primary process of leading and innovations must then be examples of leadership outcomes.

Chetan Walia

** Article is a conclusion based on several other readings and experiences / experiments on innovators (who), innovations (what) and innovating (how).


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