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On Innovation, Risk & Leadership

November 23, 2009

Innovation, risk, leadership …. these are topics that retain our interest across time because they lie at the heart of human progress. On the radio last Saturday, I listened to two programs that shed some interesting light on these subjects.

On the question of leadership, there was an interview with Sir Stuart Rose, Executive Chairman of British retailer Marks & Spencer. He commented on ‘being equipped with an extra battery’ and how similar sustained energy was something he observed in other leaders. The interview also revealed the interesting combination of self-sacrifice and selfishness that is involved with getting to the top – especially as it relates to family life.

But the part I found especially interesting is that Sir Stuart is a cultural hybrid. Although born in Britain, both of his parents were recent immigrants (one of Russsian origin, the other from Egypt but of mixed European blood). And while he was still very young, the family left to spend almost 10 years in Africa. I don’t know what proportion of successful business leaders have strong multi-cultural influences, but I suspect it is relatively high. I think the reason for this is that such exposure to other ideas and cultures is for many extremely broadening and opens our minds to new influences and new perspectives. For while leaders must be focused, they must also be open to wide understanding of the world around them.

Perhaps the experiences associated with ‘being different’ also change attitudes to risk. I imagine that the impacts could go either way, but for those who lose the fear of non-conformity – and perhaps realise that there are always new places to go – concern about failure also reduces. The second program was exploring innovation in the food industry and cited the fact that some 95% of new product ideas come from individual entrepreneurs. As in many industries, the source of innovation is rarely the large and dominant corporations. Ultimately, tehy may fund the development of successful products, but they rarely invent them.

The venture capitalists and executives being interviewed were agreed that the corporate world stifles innnovation because there is little incentive to take risk. Unlike the entrepreneur who is driven by a mix of personal dedication and perhaps substantial personal rewards, the balance of risk for a corporate employee is too strongly weighted towards the negative consequences of failure. ‘There are too many people with a long list of problems’, observed one, describing the obstacles that internal innovators usually face.

So a few thoughts come from this, a few questiosn that we might ask ourselves on a Monday morning:

  • Do I have the ‘extra battery’ that might propel me to leadership? Have I the energy and selfishness that it takes to get to the top?
  • Am I open-minded, curious about other viewpoints, tolerant of new or contrary ideas?
  • Do I leap to identifying the potential problems and reasons why something will fail, or am I naturally looking for ways to overcome those problems and enable innovation and change?

I am sure you may think of other key questions that we should ask ourselves on our personal journey to improving our contribution (and indeed, in answering how far we really wish to progress) – because of one thing I am convinced. The level and quality of our contribution, whatever it may be, is significnatly enhanced by the honesty of our own self-awareness.

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