Leadership Matters: The Key to Leading an Innovative Organization

woman at desk holding out a glowing lightbulb with a network of data points forming the image of a brain on top of it
Innovation Resources Inc.

4 minutes

Fostering creativity from the top down—and lots of practice—results in innovative and effective problem-solving.

There are two things that leaders must do if they want to lead an innovative, resilient and future-focused organization: Be a creative leader and be creative.

1. Be a Creative Leader

In the early 1990s, Swedish researcher Dr. Goran Ekvall studied the effects of leadership style on the climate for creativity in organizations.

Ekvall studied organizations that were, by industry standards, innovative. These companies produced new products and services, were profitable and were known as great places to work. He also looked at stagnant organizations. Those were the companies that were experiencing declining market share along with declining morale.

He found that of all of the factors (e.g., workload, schedules, marketing activities, meetings, reward systems) that contribute to a company’s internal makeup, the leader’s behavior alone amounts to 67% of the influence in determining if the organization will be creative.

In other words, if you are the leader and the people in your organization are:

  • invested in their work
  • contributing ideas
  • successfully moving projects forward

… then as far as establishing a climate for creativity in your company, there is at least a 67% chance that you are doing things right.

However, if the people in your organization are:

  • not involved in the life of the organization
  • disinterested or unmotivated in their jobs
  • likely to think the organization is a wretched place to work

... there is a 67% chance that it is your fault.

Your role is that powerful in fostering a climate for innovation in your organization. As a leader, if you believe creativity is important, then you have to be creative. Show your people that it is OK to struggle with crazy ideas and to make mistakes, that it’s OK to fail. Your people will watch your lead, and they will follow it.
Bottom line: Leaders must first develop and demonstrate their own creative abilities before leading their organizations to create breakthroughs.

2. Learn How to Be Creative

What would happen if your house was on fire, and the fire department that arrived to save it had to figure out who was going to do what and how they were going to do it? Would you like to be their test case?

Fire departments train to put out fires. Sports teams train to perform at their peak. Surgeons train to perform complex operations. These professionals train so that they can be deliberate and not haphazard in their performance.

If you want an innovative organization, you need to train your people to be effective problem solvers. Yes, you can learn to be creative. So, where do you start?

In my work, we are able to help people become deliberately creative by applying a process called “creative problem-solving.” CPS is a simple, repeatable way to take on new challenges and develop innovative solutions that create productive change.

The creative problem-solving process has four steps:

  1. Clarify the problem. Make sure the problem your solving is the real problem.
  2. Generate ideas. Not just two or three or 12 or 15, but dozens of ideas.
  3. Develop solutions. Strengthen and refine the best of your ideas.
  4. Plan for action. Identify the specific actions and sequence to get your idea implemented.

How to Foster Creativity Successfully

Leaders go first. To benefit from being deliberately creative, train the leadership team first. It is crucial that the top members of the organization are thoroughly trained in creativity methods so they can teach their subordinates and coach the application of creativity skills.

Stick with it. When you introduce something as unique as deliberate creativity, some members in your organization will hold back and not get involved. After a year or two (or less), your leadership team might look at the program and say, “Well, we’re only getting minimal outcomes. Let’s change to another program.” That decision trains your workforce not to participate in company initiatives. It tells obstinate employees that if they don’t participate, new efforts go away because the initiatives have failed. Training your people to be creative on demand is a long-term investment that will serve your organization long into the future.

Keep it simple. Don’t force people through some lock-step method or overwhelm them with creativity tools just because you think they are shiny or fun. Your people want to solve problems more effectively—they don’t want to become creative
process junkies. You don’t need to know every part of a bicycle to ride one well.

Practice. Practice. Practice. The more you use creativity tools, the quicker you will be able to turn on your creativity at will and turn your organization into an innovation powerhouse.

Roger Firestien, Ph.D., has taught more people to lead the creative process than anyone else in the world. He is president of Innovation Resources Inc. and senior faculty and associate professor at the Center for Applied Imagination at SUNY Buffalo State.

Firestien is the author of six books and is the executive producer of the nine-part Innovation Series distributed through the e-learning platform OpenSesame. His latest book is Create in a Flash: A leader’s recipe for breakthrough innovation. Find more information at

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