“Leader” is a word that gets thrown around A LOT.

Senior Management Teams are now Senior Leadership Teams.

Business schools no longer train managers. They “educate leaders.”

Training programs for specific skills are now “Leadership Development Programs”

If “innovation” is a buzzword (and it is), then “leadership” is the grand poo-bah of buzzwords.

Let’s get one thing straight.

“Leadership,” as it is commonly used, is the “extra-ordinarization of the mundane.”

But it’s not meant to be.

If you are a leader, you use your personal qualities and behaviors to influence and inspire others to follow you because they choose to (not because the org chart requires them to). Any person, anywhere in the org chart, can be a leader because leadership has nothing to do with your position, responsibilities, or resources.

If you are a manager, executive, or senior executive, you have positional power, usually earned. These terms put you in a particular place in the org chart, define your scope of responsibility, and set guardrails around the human and financial resources you control.

There is nothing wrong with being a manager (or executive or senior executive). Those positions are earned through hard work and steady results. They are titles to aspire to, be proud of, and use in a professional setting.

But if you run around telling people you’re a leader, well, to misquote Margaret Thatcher, “Being a leader is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

Are you a leader?

There are thousands of books on leadership, millions of articles, and hundreds of experts. I am not a leadership expert, but I know a leader when I meet one. The same is true for the people around you. 

What do we see that helps us know whether or not you are a leader?

If the dozen articles I skimmed for this post are any indication, everyone has their own list, but there are some common items. To find the most frequently mentioned, I asked ChatGPT to list the qualities and behavior distinguishing leaders from managers and executives. 

Here’s what I got:

Here are my reactions:

  1. Uh, ok. This leadership list feels like what an executive should do, but I guess the difference between the two (executives focus on strategy, and leaders inspire and connect) proves my point (which is a bit discouraging)
  2. It feels like some leadership qualities are missing (e.g., empathy, fostering psychological safety, inspiring trust)
  3. Kinda surprised to see other leadership qualities (do you need to “foster creativity and innovation” to be a leader?)

That 3rd thought led to a fourth – if “fostering creativity and innovation” is a quality shared amongst all leaders, then is there a difference between business, operational, and innovation leaders?

Are you an innovation leader?

I’ve worked for and with leaders, and I can say with absolute confidence that while each of them was a great leader, few were great leaders of innovation.

Why? What made them great leaders in business and operations but not in innovation?

Do you even need to be good at leading innovation if you’re good at managing it?

What does it even mean to be an “innovation leader?”

What do you think?

Off the top of my head, qualities specific to innovation leaders are:

  1. Patient for revenue, impatient for learning and insights
  2. Oriented to action, not evaluation (judging)
  3. Curious and questioning, not arrogant and answering

What am I missing (because I know I’m missing a lot)?

What characteristics have you experienced with innovation leaders that make them unique from other types of leaders?