The innovative spirit of a leader

A leader is a trail blazer. He invents and creates. Others follow and repeat. A leader has to innovate when existing path does not exist.

A leader dares to be different and dares to be the first. When being so, he may look strange to others. As Steve Jobs puts it, they are “the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes.” It takes significant courage to be such a person, particularly in a large organization where you could easily lose your job for being too much of a troublemaker.

The fact that organizations force confirmation on individuals implies the innovative spirit is repressed and sorely lacking in such a place. The abundant resources in a big organization do not guarantee innovative products. It at most produces mediocre products. Thus we see continuous appearance of new startups in Silicon Valley even when Google and Facebook are still growing.

The good news is that there is infinite way to innovate. You never have to worry about running out of ways to improve existing systems. The bad news is that you have to find your unique way in this crowd of innovators.

If you work in a large organization, you can still find ways to beat the bureaucracy of the system. You can move fast and in doing so shake up the system in small or big ways. You may encounter a lot of resistance and it may take tremendous energy to get even small things done. This begs the question: Why do people stay at such large system when their innovative ability is at its peak?

Large organization offers a large playground. It offers supporting environment for long-term R&D. For data scientists, these are ideal places to conduct both research and development of large-scale data products. While in a small organization (unless it is a startup built on innovative data mining ideas), you never get the time to build sound and solid products.

Many large Internet companies still preserve the spirit of innovation: Consider Apple and Google. While Apple’s innovation is driven top down by its deceased founder Steven Jobs, Google’s innovation is bottom up. Google gives a lot of room for engineers and researchers to come up with new ideas and get funding and resources to work on those ideas. This is due to fact that they hire top tier computer science engineers and researchers. These people by nature are highly motivated, self-driven and independent. Thus they bring leadership to the organization. – Thus Steve Jobs’ advice to Larry Page on “focus” is misguided. While Apple emphasizes “focus” due to its top-down structure, Google’s innovative spirit is best realized in its free exploring culture, where excellent products like Gmail, Google News and Google Maps were created by a small group of enginners. When Larry Page gave up his own model and imposed Jobs’ top-down approach, his pet project Google+ failed miserably.  (Check this article: Why Google Plus is a failure March 13, 2012)

Outside Apple and Google, in any other company there is still a lot of room to innovate. You can innovate in the space of engineering methods, or you can innovate in marketing approaches and so on.

The real leadership lesson from Steve Jobs is innovation. Without innovation, a company will be stagnant and eventually die. Without innovation, a person cannot truly be a leader. Let us embrace our own innovative spirit and step up to be a leader.

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