Where Does Innovation Come From?
According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, the golden age of American innovation was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But it wasn’t a lack of regulations, or a search for stability, or a need to keep people in their traditional places that motivated these changes. It was a visionary drive that grew out of thriving and diverse new communities. Fueled by ambition and profit motives, visionaries like Ford and Edison created new technologies that challenged the status quo of their time, and created the status quo we call “normal” now. But innovation is disruptive, based in long term thinking, and transforms the future even as it responds to current challenges.
They found: “Innovation was more prevalent in some areas than others. The map below shows regions that today are declining, such as the Rust Belt, used to be innovation hotspots during the golden age. Our research finds that innovation flourished in densely populated areas where people could interact with one another, where capital markets to finance innovation were strong, and where inventors had access to well-connected markets. States with a legacy of slavery were considerably less innovative, and religion had a negative effect, too, though to a lesser degree. Places that were economically and socially open to disruptive new ideas tended to be more innovative, and they subsequently grew faster.”
Innovators at this time tended to be privileged people, mostly educated white men, largely motivated by profit and a celebration of growth. And they brought riches to their communities, companies and families, through experimentation and trial and error, and careful application.
So, what does this say about leadership?
Arguably, there are two kinds of leadership, the kind that looks forward, thinking in the long term, and the kind that fights to preserve the past in the present, aiming at short term solutions to current challenges. I’d call the first kind innovative leadership, and the second retrograde.
Innovative leadership isn’t necessarily altruistic, but it’s responsive to changes in the world. Retrograde leadership is reactive and ultimately self-protective, characterized by nostalgia rather than forward-thinking.
Both kinds of leadership can make a profit, and each satisfies a basic human need. Innovative leadership satisfies a need for ambitious and visionary invention, the creation of something new. Retrograde leadership satisfies a need for stability and self-preservation, guarding comfort and familiar ways of doing business.
Therefore, it makes sense that innovation (and innovative leadership) thrives in environments where diversity and competition with a long-term vision are celebrated. Profit and ambition may be motivations for all inventors, but retrograde leaders are motivated by stasis and innovative leaders are motivated by transformation.
There’s a dark side to each motivation. An innovative leader’s unbridled ambition sometimes batters the present to create a place for the future s/he imagines. Retrograde leaders sometimes gets lost in rigid nostalgia that blinds them to current crises that can’t be solved with tried and true strategies.
The question is, which kind of leadership do we need today to stay competitive in global markets? I lean towards forward-thinking innovation, but perhaps we need a combination, with some conservative values to preserve programs that honor core principles like human rights and a healthy planet. It’s a balancing act, especially in a time of crisis and polarization, like the one we face now, where rallying cries of “innovate or die!” clash with “stability or die!” in daily headlines.
My grandfather used to say that human beings are clever enough to solve any challenge, if we put our minds to it. So far, so confusing, right? That’s why leadership is so important on every level of human society. Forwards and backwards we go, onward, as best we can.
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