Leadership: innovate or stagnate
Recently I was asked how I was doing as a “creator.” I’ve been asked similar questions before, but this time it startled me because it was tethered to Genesis 1:26 and what it means to be made in the image of God. As spiritual beings, our creativity comes from being fashioned in the image of God and one implication of the imago Dei is an expectation to be intentionally engaged in creating. That means taking the raw materials from the world around us as well as the ideas in our head and creating stuff. It also means taking the broken and unformed things of our fallen world and animating them for the glory of God.
Creation, however, is not a one-time thing. Things created by humans often have to be improved or re-created as new needs, challenges and opportunities emerge. And that’s where innovation is needed. The term innovation comes from the Latin word innovare that means “to renew or change.” Innovation is about creating or substantially improving objects, ideas or processes.
Peter Drucker, renowned expert on leadership, observed that innovation grows out of changes in markets, technologies and demographics among other contexts. As changes occur, leaders have both the opportunity and the responsibility to innovate in order to serve well the cause they are guiding.
From this perspective, you can see how Christian leaders such as the apostle Paul, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, William Tyndale, Charles Spurgeon, C.S. Lewis and more were not only faithful in their leadership, but also innovative as they faced changes in culture, markets, technologies and demographics in their day.
So, how are you doing as a creator and as an innovator? How are you responding to the changes confronting your leadership calling?
In whatever capacity God calls you to lead (however large or small), you will have a responsibility to innovate. Leaders who fail to innovate don’t just miss opportunities to move forward, they are vulnerable to losing ground, to growing stagnant and ineffective.
In light of this stewardship responsibility you bear, the next question is critical. How can you become an effective innovator as you strive to be a fully engaged, kingdom-focused leader? In the churches and Christian institutions where I’ve served, I’ve observed seven commitments common to innovative leaders that I would commend to you:
1. Carve out intentional time to exploit your creativity. Haste is the silent killer of creativity. Being a strategic and innovative leader requires solitude coupled with a serious work ethic. You need to find a place to be intensely creative while the noise of life is muted. I recommend carving out a minimum of one hour each day, one day each month and one weekend each year. Get out of your normal setting and off to a place that gets your creative juices flowing. A familiar routine of dedicated creative time, passionate devotion, and a clear mind are all prerequisites for innovative leaders. Remember that if you don’t control your schedule, someone else will.
2. Be half-crazy 100 percent of the time. Most leaders have to make a conscious choice either to blaze the trail or resign themselves to simply chasing the innovations of others. The personal reward for being creative far outweighs constant adoption and editing of other people’s ideas. Leaders by nature are not followers – they lead. The best innovators are incessantly thinking about being game changers in their genre. They ask a thousand crazy questions and find answers that surprise people.
3. Think big thoughts. Small thoughts are rarely found in the mind of an innovative leader. As a discipline you should think big. “Ideas, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood,” says John Maynard Keynes. “Indeed, the world is ruled by little else.”
4. Disrupt benevolently. With the resignation of Steve Jobs from Apple came an onslaught of reminders about his brilliant ability to disrupt markets. “Jobs gave people products they didn’t know they wanted,” wrote Nick Schulz of the American Enterprise Institute, “and then made those products indispensable to their lives.” Nobody embodied disruptive technology better than the imitable Steve Jobs, but Christian leaders are called to be even more disruptive than Jobs. We follow Jesus – a man who disrupted history, traditions, institutions and human nature in a benevolent way as he came from heaven to redeem the world. Consider where your leadership might require “benevolent disruption” – intentional upsetting of the status quo in order to proclaim faithfully the good news of Christ’s disruptive kingdom inaguration in our world.
5. Consider the Scriptures. As a Christian leader, your creativity and ability to innovate has to be Scripture-soaked. The word of God provides the necessary guardrails to avoid a brilliant idea that is outside of orthodoxy or just plain foolish. I’m confident the Tower of Babel seemed like a brilliant idea at the time! You can’t let big ideas drive you beyond Scripture. Don’t fall in love with your ideas; fall in love with Christ.
6. Surround yourself with capable leadership. Innovative leaders need brutally honest people in their lives who are not afraid to challenge their ideas for the sake of validity and not because of competition. Since we all have blind spots and often miss the whole for the parts, it is crucial to have a team of candid and competent, transformational architects shaping your leadership.
7. Possess unrelenting tenacity. Innovation has to be matched with tenacity to overcome small and unwilling thinking. “We’ve never done that before.” “We tried that in the past.” “What will people think?” “It can’t be done,” and the list goes on and on. Pushing beyond the nay-sayers is often a daunting challenge. Innovative leaders make things happen and push through the first “no.” If you’re going to overcome your critics, you have to undergird your innovation with unrelenting tenacity.
Raising an innovator
Early innovators make for the strongest leaders. If you’re a parent, you can create a culture of innovation in your home prior to your children’s ever getting to the marketplace or ministry. Take the raw material around you and foster creative disciplines.
Here are three ways you can start early:
Allow your children to be adventurous and take risks. Over-protective parents stifle children’s creativity without realizing it. Small wins build confidence. (I’ve found The Dangerous Book for Boys to be a good primer for cultivating adventure and risk taking with my boys.)
Encourage ceaseless curiosity. Teach them to figure out stuff. Give them a challenge that is beyond their age and beyond what’s printed on a box.
Appreciate the tenacity of a “wild child,” knowing that this is the necessary material to be a future game-changer. An unrelenting child is not a nuisance; he or she, if trained, will be a future leader. Take the raw material and point them toward productivity and creativity.
Dan Dumas is senior vice president for institutional administration at Southern Seminary. He is a church planter and pastor-teacher at Crossing Church in Louisville, Ky. You can connect with him on Twitter at @DanDumas, on Facebook or at DanDumas.com. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of Southern Seminary Magazine.
- Southern Seminary Departement of Leadership and Discipleship
- The Conviction to Lead by R. Albert Mohler Jr.
- Leaders Don’t Panic – DanDumas.com