Should Innovation Be Managed or Lead: Is There a Subtle Difference

The Art of Leadership
The literature often debate on the difference between leadership and management. Both sides acknowledge that a difference exist, but have yet to reach a definite definition. An often cited quality of leadership versus management is that leadership is an art, not a science. De Pree, 19891, made this point clear, when defining leadership as “liberating people to do what is required of them in the most effective and humane way as possible.” By contrast the traditional management theories originate from the works of Frederick Winslow Taylor and Max Weber2, developed to address the early stages of the industrial age through planning, budgeting, and control systems.

If we accept these qualities then in the absence of leadership, would a company be more prone to pursue institutional or incremental innovations, where the attributes of planning, budgeting, and control systems are in focus; and in the presence of leadership, be better positioned to pursue more radical innovations?

Defining Innovation as Sign of Leadership
In my first blog I presented the results from the field research of my Henley MBA dissertation that only 20% of the studied companies had a formal definition of innovation. One reason could be that innovation has become a fluffy, meaningless term. A term used relentless and covering every initiative from old marketing gimmicks to new processes or products. If so, then innovation is not well perceived in these times of crisis where the executive focus is predominant on optimization, cash flow management, and the next order. A focus that is primarily addressed by the management of the company. But could the absence of a formal definition be the sign of absence of leadership in the firm?

Correlating Leadership to the Pursuit of Radical Innovation
I believe, we can all agree to three broad categories when assessing the innovation scope: from one extreme, institutional, which is primarily small incremental innovations, to the other extreme, radical, which is new innovations far from the existing paradigm. The in-between these extremes is what Birchall & Tovstiga3 define as evolutional innovations, which take the existing to a more radical level without being radical by scope.

Radical innovations are commonly accepted as more risky and far from the known; hence, the pursuit of a radical idea is likely to be the pursuit of a vision. This type of innovation cannot and should not be assessed using the company’s standard measurement KPIs, which make them easy prey in times of crisis unless a senior executive acts as an ambassador for the idea. Given the unpredictability of the radical innovation, would it be reasonable to assume that this executive displays true leadership, if his ambassadorship is real? Conversely, would it be reasonable to state that the primarily pursuit of institutional innovations is evidence of more managerial attributes than leadership? Is this the subtle difference?

Question: what is your experience of leadership vs management in terms of innovation?


1 De Pree, M. (1989), LEADERSHIP Is an ART, New York: Dell Publishing Group, Inc

2 Hamel, G. (2007), The Future of Management. Harvard Business School Press: Boston, USA

3 Birchall, D.W. and Tovstiga, G. (2005) Capabilities for Strategic Advantage: Leading Technological Innovation. Palgrave Macmillan: USA


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