“What do great innovation leaders do that other leaders fail to do?”  It was a pointed question from a way-too-obvious skeptic during the Q&A following my keynote.  I prefaced my answer with a line often spoken by my good friend, Bruce Fritch, “True leadership is on the order of spears, not sand.”

The word “spears” is not intended to be a representation of a weapon.  Instead, it is a metaphor for deliberate focus, concrete passion, and inspirational courage.  The reference to “sand” in Fritch’s line was his allegory for a foundation-less, wishy-washy bureaucrat concerned only with granular minutia and officious form.  Bruce and I worked together at a major bank many years ago and saw lots of examples of sand-like administration (falsely labeled leadership) and few illustrations of spear-like leadership.

Innovation requires certain conditions to flourish. Examine the culture of those organizations with the largest number of breakthroughs, patents, and industry-bending inventions.  You will likely find the compelling pursuit of a clear goal or focus, an against-all-odds resilience driven by unmistakable passion, and the confidence and push to buck tradition, break patterns and constantly experiment. Leaders who effectively serve innovation demonstrate those same features.

Deliberate Focus–The operative word is “deliberate”—meaning intentional and chosen.  It is far more precise than, “go west, young man.” It is a focus that is unambiguous with laser-like precision.  When Polaroid beat Kodak to the market with a revolutionary camera that “hands you the photo,” their research and development unit were not just pursuing “a really cool camera.”  Their direction was crystal clear.  Innovative leaders take time to spell out in unblemished terms the focus of their enterprise.

Concrete Passion—As mercurial a person as he apparently is, James Cameron waited for ten years to direct the block-buster movie, Avatar.  His focus was clear but the technology needed to craft the movie was not yet invented.  So he pushed and needled cinema inventors until the right stereoscopic capacity allowed shooting the movie to begin.  His passion led to a major breakthroughs in how movies could be made.  Passion is infectious and it energizes all associated with the endeavor.

Inspirational Courage— And, ingenuity is borne of a willingness to risk the novel and try the untested.  It means innovation leaders must be patient with failures, encouraging with setbacks, and tenacious with picking up and trying again.  That type of courage propels associates to persist when all the signals around them are telling them to halt.

We live in an era with a huge thirst for innovation.  We cannot achieve success anymore through incremental improvement.  Yet, we occupy a time with a paucity of leaders able to effectively influence the innovation process.  It means balancing the pursuit of short-term profits with homage to long-term investment. It requires celebrating “mad scientists” who fail to conform to cultural convention or show respect for the status quo. And, it demands leaders more concerned with their corporate vision than with their personal portfolio.  Like a spear, it takes people willing to demonstrate boldness.