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Inspiration, Innovation & Influence: Leader as Catalyst

We have an exciting future at Infosys.  The next chapter in our company's strategy, Infosys 3.0, provides unprecedented opportunities to pioneer solutions for our clients that forge the deepest business relationships possible.  But how do the most successful leaders systematically nurture the highest levels of innovative value creation?  Is creativity and innovation too intangible to lead?

Fortunately, science sheds practical light on the catalytic role senior leaders must play.  While the senior-most leaders are not typically the innovators themselves, they play an important role in sparking game changing offerings. 

Three of my favorite experts, Teresa Amabile of Harvard, John Antonakis of Lausanne, and David Day of Western Australia give practical and original evidence-based guidance.  After decades of study Amabile clarifies a key distinction between creativity and innovation.  Creativity is the generation of novel and useful solutions that productively advance a goal.  These solutions aren't algorithmic - they're original and impactful in spite of significant ambiguity about what routes to take to the end-state (Amabile, 2011).  Innovation, on the other hand, involves implementing this creativity to commercial success.  Creativity and Innovation successes have different antecedents, but both require a senior leader to have expertise in scanning the environment, asking perspective-changing quesitons,supporting followers and creating a safe environment around inevitable failures (Antonakis, & House, 2002; Amabile, 1998).

Amabile's expansive research shows that senior leaders need to select people who are intrinsically passionate about their work, are highly proficient in their chosen domain, and have personalities and cognitive styles that drive them to take risks and independently consider problems from fresh points of view (Amabile, 2011).  And the work environment a leader nurtures is also key.  Leaders need to avoid behaviors that will kill creativity such as social norms of harsh criticism of new ideas, extreme risk aversion, politics, and excessive time pressure (Amabile, 1998).  Further, senior leaders must impose commercial filters and other controls at key points of the innovation process, but remove barriers and support freedom in the early phases of ingenuity (Amabile, 2011).  In short, leaders can spark clever fames, and fan them to a bonfire of Steve Job's "insanely great" solutions, or inadvertently extinguish them if not careful.

To successfully stimulate and support followers, Antonakis & House (2002) note that leaders must have significant expertise.  They must have a good understanding of the competitive landscape, and points of differenation that make some creative solutions better than others, when sorting out the bizzare from the useful creative solutions.  They must also understand and enable operational methods for executing creative solutions in the value chain, and support their followers throughout the creativity and innovation processes (Antonakis & House, 2002).  Leaders will only develop this expertise, however, by diligently and repeatedly setting goals, practicing, reflecting and compensating such that they build robust mental models throughout their entire careers (Day, Harrison & Halpin, 2009).  And part of the leader's role is to help the team make sense of complex situations and have the humility and courage to follow the subordinates with the best ideas (Day, Gronn & Salas, 2004).

For Infosys leaders, this means helping our teams holistically understand the client's current state, so that our teams can craft consulting and intellectual property-driven solutions make client aspirations a reality.  Are you nurturing yourself and your ecosystem for creativity and innovation?


Amabile, T.M. (1998, September-October). How to kill creativity. Harvard Business Review, 76-87.

Amabile,T.M. & Kramer, S. (2011). The Progress Principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement and creativity at work.  Harvard Business Review Press. 

Antonakis, J. & House, R.J. (2002).  An Analysis of the Full-Range Leadership Theoy: The way forward.  In B.J. Avolio & F.J Yamarino (Eds.).  Transformational and Charasmatic Leadership: The Road Ahead (pp3-34).  Amsterdam: JAI Press.

Day, D. V., Harrison, M. M., & Halpin, S. M. (2009). An integrative approach to leader development: Connecting adult development, identity, and expertise. New York: Routledge.

Day, D.V., Gronn, P., & Salas, E. (2004).  Leadership Capacity in Teams.  The Leadership Quarterly, 15, 857-880.



Thanks Matt for breaking some myths rolling up in my mind for years , around intangible shades of creativity and innovation -and articulating out the science of the otherwise "in-house " "art "-form of Leadership!. It also answered my constant puzzle over why some extremely exceptional 'creative " teams dont necessarily lead to high performing Innovation incubation centers !
With this article context setting and reasearch insights in background, Now I am beginning to appreciate the organization design intricacies of innovation centers of excellence ! I can even visualize the resourcing part of it with early spark generation and wild card entries left best to the novel 'art" bend creativity minds , with a landscape of scientifically "planned innovation team ahead who are experts in channelizing and energizing and boosting the flames to forms and shapes that best fits Organizational Intent and Strategic outfit . And the leadership Watch across- that provides the crucial two 'I's mentioned in article title-Inspiration and Influence- catalyzing the beauty of novel ideas to the Elegance of Operational Excellence and Value realization .

Thanks, Suraj. for your kind words. Infosys Tier leaders may always consult with their ILI coach for additional support for developing this sort of expertise.

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