Leadership in Innovation: trust and engagement of stakeholders and followers

Robin Low • 10 March 2019

Many organizations and countries want to get do more "innovation". Innovation has become the "in" thing now, and millions of dollars are spent hiring consultants, and going to courses on leadership.

You have events where leaders talk to other leaders about leadership. There is an issue here, and one thing that we do not hear about is the follower's voice.

From my experience engaging communities and working on solutions, I find that many donors and groups who just want to help but don't want to donate are just following status quo, and the most pressing problems are untouched.

When leaders just talk to other leaders, it often create an echo chamber which boosts egos. In the digital age, many of our cultures and values have shifted. Knowledge does not just lie in the few leaders who hold all the information.

Today, with the digital communications becoming one of the key ways to communicate with consumers, companies are now forced to engage and listen. Marketing is no longer one way, and feedback channels are more easy to access. A company that engages and listens to their customers can have better insights on the market. If you have a new solution and want the consumers to change their behaviors, you have to go out and ask them, "Hey, how can I get you to do this? How can I benefit you, so that you choose me?"

In the case of the open source movements, there is a lot of ground breaking innovation as people work together and engage one another in meaningful discussions.

In the Leadership Industry today, it is not enough that leaders talk down to their followers and have a top down hierarchy. It is more apparent that Leaders need to gain permission to lead, having qualifications and connections can get you that position, but it is hard to get the followers on the ground to be engaged and contribute meaningfully towards innovation.

Like in the occupy movement, the follower rise up against the big business. With a more educated population, we do have a higher capacity to create and innovate, however, followers will not just follow because you are the boss. Culture has shifted today and many of them will expect to have a say in where they are led.

Leadership and Followers in Asia

In Asia, there may be less innovation, and this is because in Asian culture, followers still give respect to leaders, and will not be truthful in their responses. And sadly, to attract more followers, in many situations, the way to do it is pay increase, and with a higher salary, there is a higher resistance to say the truth if it might offend the leaders, and this results in even less innovation.

Innovation Leadership and Followers Engagement

I've been invited to many leadership forums, talks and other similar events, many of these events want their leaders to be innovative, but none of them is talking about engaging followers in conversations. One question needs to be asked by leaders today, "What will drive followers to follow your mission?"

I can think of several industries where this lack of engagement is very obvious. Among many large international NGOs, the focus seems to be on donors and donor relations, rather than on employees and volunteer to engage in a meaningful way to work on innovative solutions to impact communities.

Another very important industry is in education. Academia seems to be another top down industry, and we do see a lot of apathy from teachers. Many teachers are very passionate to teach, but the increasing administrative loads are pushing them away. No matter how much the leaders think they can innovate their industry, it won't happen without the buy in from the front line -- the teachers. If the teachers do not feel that they are heard, if the teachers do not think that leaders are listening, and they do not have a seat at the table, this talk about innovation simply turns into apathy.

Trust and Stakeholders Engagement

I have worked in numerous innovation projects, many in the education industry. The words "design thinking", "open collaboration", "human centered design" and a lot more new terms get thrown around. There are some good ideas generated and initially, stakeholders do feel excited and after several workshops, they love being part of the solution, but ultimately, they need their leaders to lead.

Besides coming up with ideas, they want to be part of the decision making process; they want to give their views and engage with the people they respect; and they want to hear their leaders acknowledge the solution and work with them on implementation and asking questions to find out from the ground how some of their additional ideas from his birds eye view of the organization will affect the final solution.

Without real engagement, many of these collaborative ideas generation workshops will eventually yield nothing as one thing is missing -- trust. Stakeholders will not feel that they are trusted and their ideas are taken into consideration, acknowledge for it and this builds more apathy.

When people can grow and feel that they are heard and part of the solution, they will trust the leaders and follow them.

Incorporating Outsider Leadership by Listening and Engaging to Build Trust

In some cases, leaders may come from a different industry. In general, followers expect their leaders and respect leaders who are experts in their subjects. People want to grow under the expertise of their leaders. In some rare cases, when leaders from another industry can bring in a new perspective and gain the trust of the teachers, new ideas and solutions can be found. If an expert in a particular subject listens and learns to lead by listening to what the followers want.

The important part about innovation is that people need to be in a frame of mind to want to innovate. Leaders play a big role to make it happen. It is easy to hire external consultants to talk about innovation, but without knowledge on the corporate culture and when it is met with apathy, innovation will never happen.

Leaders need to build a culture of engagement and trust in order to successfully generate sustained innovation processes with significant impact.

An earlier version of this article was originally posted as "Leadership and Innovation" on Robin's doing.gd personal blog.

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