Leadership on the Cutting Edge

Over on Capsule’s blog, Aaron Keller has a thoughtful post on the role of the CEO as contrarian. He contends that, basically, someone has to be on the other side – either skeptical when the team is overly pumped or inspiring when they’re in the dumps. Keller talks about how the role of the organization is to reduce risk, and such a role, embodied in the leadership, is the antithesis of innovation, which involves plenty of risk.

The post got me thinking about the role of leadership during times of rapid, threatening change like, say, now, with social media, mobile, tablets, the always-on enterprise, and other intimidating and rapid technological change.

Rather than being the contrarian, I think leaders should be from Missouri – the “Show Me State.” Innovative leaders’ stance should not be, “That’ll never work” or “Whoa, that’s way too risky” but rather “Prove it to me.” Innovation requires a demanding skeptic, making sure that everyone has their ducks in a row, rather than a stomper of ingenious fires. Prove it to me seems like more of a positive role – I know you guys can do it, and so prove it to me.

However, to inspire continuous innovation, you also have to make room for failure – and irrational exuberance. An organization that tolerates well-meaning, ambitious failure is going to be more innovative, and won’t reject change agents, expelling them like a virus, as Keller says.

Years ago, when I brought a proposal to develop The Nielsen Company’s first Web application to the president, he told me, “Fail early. Fail often.” Radical words, but a good prescription for innovation. He was telling me it was OK to be bodacious. But he also asked me to commit to a deadline (and he also said he wouldn’t give me the money I was asking for; I found it elsewhere). He wanted me to prove it to him.

While he wasn’t Nielsen’s best leader, and was actually out of a job within a year, his advice has always stuck with me as has Edison’s retort when asked how he felt about failing so many times to create the light bulb: “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

How can you encourage that attitude and that determination in your team?

We’d like to hear about how you foster innovation in your organization. And if it happens to be about social media, so much the better. Use the Leave a Reply section below to let us know what you think.

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