I once heard, “In order to be great and stay great, you need to beat the gravity of success.” What an interesting and grounding thought. Basking in the glory of success for a second too long can result in failure.
It is hard to imagine successful organizations like Apple or Microsoft losing their competitive edge but we do see these scenarios unfold in the media.
Toyota, one of the most respected organizations credited with quality assurance and quality improvement methods, went through a period of time where recalls became a problem. To the point of losing its status as the best in the industry.
It almost unfolded like symptoms of a disease. One by one the symptoms (reports) escalated — recall after recall, then stock prices dropping, then a decline in the number of cars sold. There may be many factors that contributed to the drastic decline of the Toyota brand for this once on-top-of-the-world company.
Ultimately, the decline in products and services had to be due to deterioration in processes or standards. Could they have been caught up in the gravity of their success?
Despite the challenges, Toyota has managed to turn itself around. How did the company do it? What did the leadership team do to inspire the innovation in its people? How is innovation influenced within an organization? Research in leadership and innovation provides great insights into these questions.*
How leaders influence innovation
What surfaces from this research is six ways that leaders influence innovation. Not only do these areas impact innovation, they have a profound impact on cultural congruence, employee engagement and employee productivity.
1. Vision development
Vision development describes the behavior of creating a vision that is compelling and realistic while driving the desire to reach attractive goals. Leaders that have this skill can make it personal and relevant to their environment and circumstances.
Akio Toyoda, the president and CEO of Toyota Motor Corporation, fostered a new vision for a new Toyota, one which used innovative and modern car design with an edge. This was also balanced with a strict adherence to remain fiscally responsible.
2. Idealized influence
This is a fancy way of saying that leaders model behavior that inspires others to take action. The leader becomes an example of the behavior they want to inspire in others. The leader can even be considered a type of visual/behavioral anchor.
Akio Toyoda did this very thing when he took over as CEO in 2009. He became personally involved in ensuring product excellence — getting behind the wheel and test-driving vehicles the company created. He also took the lead with promoting Toyota. He stepped out of the board room and became connected with Toyota’s product and its customers.
3. Inspirational motivation
Motivation requires more than a moving speech, though great motivational talks such as the ones frequently given by Akio Toyoda can build excitement. The Wall Street Journal tells a story about Akio Toyoda leading a chant at a recent convention shouting “Waku-doki, Waku-doki,” meaning heart pounding excitement.
Inspirational motivation is intentional stretching of an individual’s thinking. The leader models behavior that others aspire to achieve while giving clear and meaningful goals. Simply leading people from a boardroom has the potential of disconnecting the business from its customers.
4. Individual consideration
Influential leaders develop others through one-on-one interaction such as coaching and mentorship. Individualization is very important because it provides the space needed to try and have permission to make mistakes.
5. Intellectual stimulation
I remember my teachers throughout my life reframing questions in different ways to get me to think. One of the best ways to get people to create is by simply asking questions. Healthy questioning of existing practices and approaches facilitates thinking, problem solving and learning.
Toyota’s leaders were faced with having to determine what went wrong. Some of the questions that may have been asked are:
- How did the economy play into our financial position?
- What could we have done differently to weather the financial down turn?
- Is our product still relevant?
- Do people want to buy a Toyota? What would make them want to buy a Toyota?
Questioning had to occur to begin to address the issues that were plaguing Toyota.
6. Contingent rewards
An influential leader uses levers such as rewards to drive behavior to specific actions. More importantly, he or she knows which rewards drive the right kind of behaviors.
Influencing innovation requires a disruption of the status quo
Influencing innovation requires a disruption in thinking or a disruption when a lack of thinking exists. Executives seeking to establish a culture that breeds innovation must not think of innovation as a thing that occurs, but rather as the result of a collective group of behaviors that is accepted and valued.
Akio Toyoda provided great examples of developing a new vision, idealized influence, inspirational motivation, and intellectual consideration. If we were to dig deeper, we more than likely would find that Toyota has a culture of continuous development established through individual consideration and contingent rewards.
Your turn: What do leaders in your organization do to inspire innovation in your people?
For more on the connection between leadership and innovation, and on the Toyota story, check out these resources:
- Bass, Bernard M., Ruth Bass, and Bernard M. Bass. The Bass Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications. New York: Free, 2008. Print.
- Dawson, C. (2012). Toyota Chief Grabs the Wheel to Turn Around Humbled Auto Giant, The Wall Street Journal
- Elenkov, D. S., Judge, W., & Wright, P. (2005). Strategic Leadership AND Executive Innovation Influence: An International Multi-Cluster Comparative Study. Strategic Management Journal, 26(7), 665-682.
- Tabuchi, H., & Vlasic, B. (2014). Rapid turnaround, Toyota is on track to post record earnings. The New York Times