We all want to be successful leaders, and if you’re reading this, you probably want to be a successful innovation leader.

But what does that mean?

What is a leader?

First, let’s clarify what makes a “leader” because we use it as a synonym for “manager,” they’re different. 

In a nutshell, leaders have followers, people who choose to work with or for them. Managers have employees, people who must work with them. There are, of course, lots of other differences, and this list is a good starting point.

For this reason, leaders can (and do) exist at any level of the organization, whereas managers exist at higher levels as defined by the company’s org chart. So, while you can be a leader and not a manager, or both a leader and a manager, it’s important to remember that not all managers are leaders.

How can I be a successful leader?

As a designer friend of mine says, “it’s contextual.”

And while that’s true, as you get into the detail, I’d argue that a successful leader is someone who does the right thing in the right way. 

Achieving that requires leaders to deliver required results and achieve those results ethically, legally, respectfully, and fairly. If you burn your people out, create or allow a toxic work environment, or engage in any number of harmful behaviors, you may be doing the right thing, but you’re definitely not doing it in the right way.

How can I be a successful innovation leader?

1. Action-oriented: You know that you need to take different actions if you want different results. You balance the need for thinking, exploration, and analysis with the need to create, experiment, engage in real-world learning.

2. Collaborative: You know that collaboration is more than simply showing up to the meeting. To you, collaboration is conversation, and the best conversations are the ones in which you talk less and listen more.

3. Committed: You’re in it for the long haul. You know that change happens slowly then fast and that billion-dollar businesses aren’t built in a quarter or even a year. You’re patient for growth and impatient for profit. You protect your teams from the impatient demands of others.

4. Engaged: You work with the team, talking to customers, building prototypes, and celebrating the wins and the learnings (which may be disguised as failures).

5. Honest: You are honest with yourself and your team. You earn your team’s trust because you don’t play guessing games, you’re transparent about how you make decisions, and you are consistent about how you make those decisions.

6. Intellectually Humble: You recognize and admit that the things you think you know may not be accurate. You are open to being wrong (yes, even publicly) because it’s part of learning.

7. Optimistic realist: You hope for the best and prepare for the worst. You know that things won’t always work out but that the odds of success increase when you do your best and inspire others to do theirs.

8. Tough: You know that “pioneers take the arrows, settlers take the land,” and you’re not afraid to take a few arrows. You know that people will question and doubt you and your team, but the promise of new or better is simply too irresistible.

9. Willing to take smart risks: You know that nothing is truly risk-free and that the further you venture from what’s known, the greater the risk. You also know that’s where the greatest rewards are, too. So you focus on managing and minimizing risks, getting just enough data to make the best next decision possible.

10. ?

#10 is for you

What is missing from this list? What characteristic(s) make you a successful leader of innovation?