Your Stance on Innovation Depends Upon Where You Sit

Do leaders in different levels of the organization have to lead differently? Of course they do.

A line supervisor has very different leadership challenges than the CEO.

That’s where CCL’s leadership roadmap is useful in helping leaders figure out how they can grow and develop as their careers advance.

Similarly, leaders who are looking to drive innovation have different challenges. Innovation leadership is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Our colleague Dan Buchner, Director of CCL’s Innovation Labs, led some important work to help distinguish the differences among the leader levels. Knowing this is useful in helping leaders focus.

Given that schedules are too full already, it’s useful to know what to do, and this helps shape what not to do, as well.

Here then is a rundown of the roles and responsibilities by leader level specific to innovation:

Infographic: Innovation Roles by Leader Level

Leading Self – CREATING

At the level where one doesn’t have direct reports, but serves as a role model or perhaps a leader of project teams, the responsibilities around innovation fall mainly into the realm of knowing how to generate creative solutions and having a keen interest to participate on an innovation team made up of diverse participants.

Core to this is the ability to find sources of inspiration for new approaches, whether that means looking at other industries, engaging customers and stakeholders, or exploring patent databases for similar challenges that have been solved by others.

Leading Others – FACILITATING

Team leaders or line supervisors need to have other skills as well. They must know how to lead the group innovation process (i.e. Design Thinking, Creative Problem Solving, TRIZ, etc.), which requires special facilitation skills in addition to those necessary for being an effective team leader/project manager.

And for innovation to take root and spread through the organization, it requires an ability to obtain resources from outside their unit.


When one leads people who are leading others, one key value they bring to the challenge of innovation is supporting and protecting the innovation team from superiors/other parts of the organization.

Great leaders create a protective umbrella over their people to ensure that the discomfort, risk, and potential disruption of the business don’t cause others to try to shut down the innovation efforts.  Also required is to ensure that there is due diligence in building a case for grassroots innovation and bridging groups that are working on similar challenges to ensure constructive cooperation.


Leaders of a function or significant silo (or what one participant recently called a “cylinder of excellence”) need to provide clear direction for the scope of the innovation efforts and also need to manage conflicting demands for resources.

They also need to initiate strategic and structural changes to accommodate promising innovations and establish an innovation strategy that bridges the silos.

As if that’s not enough, they are critical to modeling behavior and driving communication that sets the tone in the organization that determines the support of innovation. They’re also critical in the management of innovation pipeline and balancing the portfolio “bets” that help determine the future direction of the organization’s innovation.

Leading the Organization – MANDATING/FOSTERING

Finally, we have the top of the organization. These are the people who have the critical job of setting an innovation strategy for the organization to ensure that the organization has clear direction on where the organization is to go.

More than that, they are the keystone for fostering a culture of innovation, a big part of which is modeling behaviors to ensure that the walk matches the talk, which sometimes means showing support for different/new/disruptive ideas.

Like other top leadership responsibilities, it’s imperative that they communicate the vision of innovation over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Perhaps the hardest job is finding ways to hear/see “unfiltered” concepts since the further one goes up the hierarchy, the less connected to “what’s really true” the leader becomes.

So, where are you in the leadership pipeline? And what do you need to do to keep the innovation pipeline full? We’re also interested in what other key tasks you see in the levels of leadership. Let us know!

23 thoughts on “Your Stance on Innovation Depends Upon Where You Sit

  1. This is incredibly helpful information.It helps to understand the different aspects of leadership and allows those of us who work in the training arena to better understand the needs of our clients and deliver accordingly.

  2. Ismet, I’m glad you found this useful and have some applications for it in the training arena. We have similarly found it helpful in articulating the needs of the people we work with. Thanks!!

  3. The main point of the article is that each level leads differently. For that to be true, followers would have to follow different things depending on their level. But that can’t be true because followers follow the value standards reflected in what management does and does not do. “Following” means to use those reflected value standards as how to do their work.

    Before we had leadership educators and gurus telling us what to do as leaders, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, who was in charge of US WWII efforts in the Pacific, said – “Leadership consists of picking good men and helping them do their best.”

    Note that this is not about commanding or controlling. It is about helping each person to be the best they can be no matter where they are in the chain of command. While people consider being directed and controlled as disrespectful of them as if they are not valuable, helping treats them with great respect as if they are highly valued. The former leads people to be demotivated, demoralized, and disengaged. The latter leads them to feel greatly valued and respected thus leading them to enthusiastically throw everything they have at their work. Everything means all their creativity, innovation, productivity, and energy.

    It matters not whether you are the leader of a small team of 5 people, in charge of a 200 person unit, or the CEO of a 20,000 person company. Leadership is the same no matter the level.

    Does “helping” include what you say to do such as “provide clear direction”, “initiate strategic and structural changes”, “driving communication”, “setting an innovation strategy”, or “communicate the vision of innovation”? Never. These are all features of a top-down command and control approach to managing people, essentially telling people what to do and no one likes to be told what to do. As you say, if you do these things “the hardest job is finding ways to hear/see “unfiltered” concepts” because telling them what to do shuts them off. Helping on the other hand, turns them on. Why? Because in order to help the boss must listen to employees 24/7 and give them what they say they need to do a better job or explain why they can’t have it. Everyone loves to be treated in that way.

    When I made the shift from directing and controlling to helping, after not so many months productivity per person rose over 300%, absenteeism and people quitting disappeared, morale went sky high, creativity and innovation went sky high, and almost everyone literally loved to come to work.

    Sorry to be so long, but helping and not directing is the key to great leadership.

  4. Ben you raise some good points about leadership, and I’d agree that in most (but not all) cases, helping is going to be more effective than directing, which is a conversation about situational leadership that is worthy of another post.

    The key to this article is that leaders at different levels have different roles and responsibilities in leading innovation.

    The values of leaders may well be consistent up and down the organizational hierarchy, but what they pay attention to must be different. The CEO of a manufacturing company doesn’t have to know how to do each function on the line, but a line supervisor does. The line supervisor doesn’t need to know what the new product pipeline looks like for the corporation, but the CEO does. Leaders have different roles and responsibilities depending upon their level of the organization.

    When focused on innovation, that does not change.

    I do appreciate your point about command and control leadership being different than helping, yet the items you point out like “provide clear direction,” “setting and innovation strategy,” etc. are not necessarily command and control. “Providing clear direction” can certainly be a command and control activity, but there are many other ways of providing clear direction, which can be an extremely collaborative or self-directed process. Command and control is a style of leadership, and is not a description of a function, role, or responsibility.

    I appreciate your comment and the clarity you provide. If I left the impression that leaders must tell people what to do rather than help them to deliver value through innovation, then I apologize. We agree that for innovation to happen, leaders must help their followers be successful.

  5. Jonathan,

    My point was that regardless of level, the job of creating an environment that elicits every bit of the innovation and creativity each employee has is the same. Once that innovation is known, each level does have a somewhat different job. Actually, it is a function of leadership or leading people to be Superstars and leadership cannot be delegated.

    As concerns “providing clear direction” etc, I said that helping never includes those. That is not help, that is telling people what to do which they rarely need if fully engaged. With the help of management, employees can determine the right direction which management then sanctions so that everyone is on the same page.

  6. Ben: I agree with your first paragraph! Regarding the second paragraph, I believe we agree in concept, if not wording. I’d say that “management sanctioning direction” is the same as “providing clear direction.” There are many strategies for creating and distributing direction, and generating that with the help of employees in most cases is incredibly effective.

  7. This is excellent.

    Having had the privilege of working in, with and sometimes against all of these leadership functions during my four decades of experience in business, I can see that this model can be a very useful tool for organizing thoughts and plans around innovation.

    A fundamental block to innovation within organizations (particularly businesses) is that workers, managers and most leaders are measured by and rewarded for their ability to maintain the status quo (results first!). That is to say “getting the job done in a reliable, repeatable and quality manner” is the basic yard stick that determines pay and job security.

    Even R&D leaders are driven up against organizational expectations that limit internal innovation. They are even more hard pressed when they take those innovations out of the lab into the real world of the status quo.

    My observation is that all 5 “Leader Levels” must coexist to some degree at all times to achieve innovative results. The mix of individual preferences, organizational dynamics, culture, the product and the methods demands flexibility. The 4-P’s prevail…

    1. Steven: Thanks for the kind comments! And yes, the tension between “status quo” and “doing something new” is a significant sticking point. The tension between those two polarities is a focus of CCL’s work on innovation.

      Thanks for pointing out what a complex issue this is! If only there were a pill…Until then, it’s hard work to develop all of those things you mention!

  8. To the other comments about leadership and ‘we all want to be helped and not told what to do’, I think it would be preposterous to say that people cannot or should not be directed, or a leader cannot tell people what to do. There are so many times that someone in a leadership position must direct, must take control of the helm and make some decisions, and then direct others to help carry them out.

    I do disagree that people in leadership don’t need to “know” each other’s work – especially when working in non-profit/ human services settings where staff and managers are often wearing and donning so many hats. At every non-profit I have worked with (too many to count), the biggest barrier to innovation and creativity was the management (leadership’s) inability or conveniently forgetting the most challenging, time-consuming, or cumbersome aspects of the direct services and/or middle mgr jobs. This meant that there was NO NEED for innovation. This has been observed even when the innovation would result in improved services or service delivery.

    I do like the imagery in the post (roles) and agree with most of the post – because the other barrier to evolving, innovating across the agency or company, is the dealing with, accepting…..the ‘disruption’ of what comes from change, innovation! So, if the system has a broken thermostat – the leader who does not acknowledge that something needs to change, accept or even want to see that innovation is possible, that workers have better means to get things done, then stagnation and even dysfunction will ensue.

    It may seem that I would be describing human services and outputs of therapy, services, and helping others, but my analogy just as easily plays out for computer programmers who have code to write, programs to execute, and some excellent thoughts on how things could be done, but if the directors two levels above him do not understand their job and have no desire to let those folks share their ideas, then that too creates stagnation (lack of innovation). So I guess I’m coming to the same conclusion as you are – that innovation must play a part all throughout the company in order to work.

    I am just discovering these blog posts and really enjoying reading. It’s nice too to read the posts and responses! amanda

    1. I would rather a gree that acceptance by all those involve in innovation is critical to its success. Middle level managers and employees that perceive innovation as likely going to have nagetive consequencies on them will resist innovation. For example, innovation that lead to down sizing of workforce and eventual pains of joblessness by a good mumber of middle managers and employees may not be accepted by them even if such innovation is to enhance service delivery or prifitability.

      The need to have a total buy-in at all levels of the organization is important to the success of innonation.The leadership is to effectively communicate essence of innovation among all members of the organization as well as create enabling environment for innovation to flourish.

  9. Amanda: Thanks for your thoughtful post and kind words. I agree that direction is critical, and you point to the need for varying approaches depending upon the situation. Thanks for articulating that clearly. The complexity involved with leadership, whether it’s about knowing the job of others, providing direction, understanding how to deal with disruption, can become overwhelming when you start to pull it apart. I’m glad you found value in this post as we try to make sense of one slice of the challenge of leadership.

  10. “How do we become a more innovative culture and where do we even start?” is a question I have been asked by several people in large organizations recently.

    This blog post – I believe – is a great way for these people to start to look at and focus on the people side of innovation. Innovation is such a complex phenomenon that by breaking it into levels as you propose in this article, I think it becomes much more approachable for people to take on and be deliberate about.

    The one suggestion I would make is that I think that modeling behavior is such an important signal that can often cascade through an organization, that I might include it in the title section of Leading the organization – MANDATING/FOSTERING/MODELING.

    Thanks for the blog post!

    1. Russ:

      Thanks for making the connection to the use of this. I believe that you’re right that this provides a framework for planning what to to do develop individuals and the organization.

      I also agree with you about the importance of modeling…we wrestled with that one and determined that it was so important that it’s a critical behavior at ALL leadership levels…so I appreciate your calling that out!!

      Thanks for the kind words and endorsement!

  11. Thanks Jonathan, this is an excellent paper.

    I have experienced directly (in roles and responsibility) the 3 first levels and inderectly (in advisory roles) to two top layers) in large public organizations. Your paper does provide a great framework to describe most situations and what the leadership roles and responsibility could be. I see it as a framework, to help clarify, discuss and exchange about leadership roles and responsibility, yet as a flexible one that can be nuanced to adapt to specific situations. It can also be used as a reference during organizational audits and possibly as a model to strive for.

    Being visual, I immediately remarked the choice of colours. Was it a deliberate choice of you? Yes, the leading manager is the hottest spot (red is the hottest spot of the visible light spectrum!). This position is where the ability to sustain tension is the most important (the tension between the green and the blue levels). This is the position at the crossroad of the bottom up and the top down expectations.

    The challenge of this position and associated skill requirement may however vary greatly depending on the culture of the organization, i.e. where, how and by whom decisions are made. Discussing this 5 level framework in association with this following white paper also from CCL would be interesting.

    This red hot spot is also the hardest place to be in time of organizational transformation, specially if the transformation forces organizational culture changes which is associated with shifting or displacement of power centers. For example, when the traditional “green” level have to relax control, when the “blue” level sudainly have to assume more responsibility without necessarely be prepared for it. I would even say that in transformational time, this is the most crucial leadership level. It can be the most exalting role to be in or the riskier if not adequately supported.

    1. Nicole:

      I also appreciate your endorsement, especially since you’ve been at all five levels. I believe this is a useful framework from which to begin the discussion and planning for individual and organizational development.

      As for the choice of colors, this graphic was created by CCL marketers a few years ago, so I can’t take any of the credit for the color. Although I will agree with you about the importance of the middle level. In my 20 years experience working with organizations to create a culture of innovation, it’s the middle where things can easily get bogged down. Top levels want it, lower levels embrace it, and the middle levels can be threatened by it. That indeed becomes a hot spot: things get tense, and there’s a need to apply energy to help address their concerns and needs.

      Our Leadership Development Program (, focused on “leading from the middle,” includes a module called the Organization Workshop, where participants learn more about how middle managers are “torn” between the pressures of their direct reports and their managers. It’s a tricky place to be and one that requires deliberate skill for leadership in general, and especially for leading innovation. Thank you for highlighting that!

      And, great link to the whitepaper! The whitepaper highlights key elements of a leadership strategy and is worth the read (IMHO).

  12. Thanks for a great article!

    What do you suggest for people who are at the “leading self” and “leading others” stage who bring ideas for innovation to the organization, but are not supported by higher leadership. This is a non-profit organization that identifies itself as a community where all have value. Ideas are generally shut down because of not fitting in the traditional boundaries and bureaucracy of the organization. Higher up leadership does not provide a pipeline or strategy for innovative ideas coming from individual contributors and lower level leaders – or if there is one, it is a complicated process that deflates motivation and inspiration. Instead of protecting and supporting innovators and innovative ideas, the higher up leaders (leading managers and above) allow ideas and creativity to be shut down because of policies and procedures and sometimes their own resistance to change. It crushes ideas, motivation, and creativity and gives a sense to lower leaders (self leaders and leaders of others), who genuinely care about the organization and want to see it embrace new ideas and make positive changes for the future, that they have no ability (or credibility) to be a part of creating change in the organization. Makes a person want to give up.

    Any suggestions for how to get organizational leaders to be more open to innovative ideas? How do you get organizational leaders and upper management to listen? Really listen.

    What happens to organizations where the higher leader levels do not think innovatively?

    1. This is a great question, and it speaks to a persistent organizational challenge. In many conversations about innovation, the assumption is that the task is to generate ideas, when in fact almost all organizations are not short of ideas! The challenge then becomes how to sell ideas through the organization (which is why the new CCL course Driving Results through Innovation* was created). It also links to the challenge of how to influence without authority.

      So this brings me back to your first question: how do you get ideas through? I once heard a Sr. VP from a large organization tell his team that “You are empowered. That doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want — that’s anarchy. What I mean by empowerment is that if you suggest an idea, and I say “no,” it’s because I must not have understood what’s great about your idea. So your challenge is to then figure out how to get me to see the value in the idea. Empowerment means that if you see something I don’t, then it’s up to you to convince me until either I convince you it’s a bad idea, or you convince me it’s an idea worth pursuing.” While that may not seem entirely fair, it is a reflection of the challenge of senior leadership: trying to move the organization forward despite being overburdened.

      So the bottom line is that having a great idea is not enough. You also have to have to the tenacity and courage to sell that idea through to the organization. Peters and Waterman found that successful innovators were “monomaniacs on a mission.” So take a look at your organization and notice how ideas move through the organization. What captures the attention of management? How do you gain traction for a concept? How can you highlight the problem that your solution addresses? All organizations have different cultures, values, hot buttons, and ways that things get done. The challenge is to discover what gets attention and movement.

      It’s commonly accepted that people are “risk averse.” In reality, people regularly take risks if they think the risk will pay off and if they don’t think they will lose much if the risk is not successful. Your challenge is to find out how to get the interest and attention of leaders about your suggestion. Start by helping them understand the problem that your solution addresses, and then be tenacious as heck.

      Good luck!


  13. That’s a tidy framework, but it falls into the old-school leadership development trap of being overly managerialist, leader-focused, and hierarchical.

    Your framework conflates position (organizational role) with leadership (behavior), and implies that if you have arrived at one level based on your role, you necessarily have mastered the competencies at the “lower” levels.

    As a result, it downplays the potential for anyone in an organization to develop their capacity at all the levels, and the reality of gaps in leadership competency for managers at a “higher” level positionally. It also ignores the importance of leading up and laterally, of practicing shared leadership, and leading across boundaries — all critical competencies for anyone in today’s complex, interdependent world.

    1. Max: I’ll agree that this is a simplified look at leadership, and indeed we’re making some assumptions about position and hierarchy. In the process of trying to boil it down, we have necessarily ignored the need and importance of leading up, laterally, across boundaries, and sharing leadership. the previous commenter and my reply speak directly to the need for those things.

      This short blog is focused not on the work-around strategies, but on what are the leadership skills that should correspond to organizational responsibility. Perhaps a better way to frame this is, “what are your responsibilities based on an organizational hierarchy.”

      Your point is well taken. Thank you for adding to the conversation.

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *