Everyone loves to talk innovation. The trouble is sometimes there is too much talk, and not enough action. Potential projects wither on the vine and companies remain in stasis. The problem lies not in ideation – there are plenty of great ideas out there. It is management of those ideas, specifically turning those ideas into practical processes, products and services that companies and customers need. And if innovation is to transform the way we do business then it must be instilled in the management culture, and in turn, taught in leadership development programs.

For the past decade or so, strategist Gary Hamel, thought leader and author of The Future of Management, has been rethinking the way we manage. In an article that is included in Global Leadership Forecast 2011 , produced by Development Dimensions International, Hamel posits three keys to management innovation.

  • Tackle a big problem. Management is rightly focused on the discipline of getting things done, but if an organization is to innovate, it must look behind the here and now. It must look over the horizon. Big problems like introducing a whole new product line, or transforming the company from product to service or vice versa, focuses people’s attention on big things. That can be exhilarating.
  • Search for radical management principles. Just as people adapt, so too must organizations. Decentralized decision-making must replace the stodginess of vertical thinking and doing. Waiting for orders from up high does result in missed opportunities.
  • Challenge conventional management beliefs. Managers look down at the details; leaders look to the stars. In reality organizations need managers who can lead and leaders who can manage.

These are sound concepts but they will not take hold if they are not practiced, and to my way of thinking, practice begins with leadership, specifically leadership development. In my new book, Lead With Purpose, Giving Your Organization a Reason to Believe in Itself (Amacom), I offer five precepts of a successful leadership development program. These are:

  • Capacity: What do I know about myself? Too often we stream people into leadership programs without giving them an opportunity to consider where they are headed. Leadership is a choice that managers must make. Knowing what an individual can do is based in part on what he or she has done, but it also must include a look forward, too.
  • Competency: What does it take to be a leader in my organization? There are certainly centralized precepts in leadership, but every organization is different. The bedrock values of honesty, integrity and character remain similar but it is important to define what it means to lead within your organization? How must leaders act? How must they set the example? How must they hold themselves accountable?
  • Challenges: What is holding us back from achieving our goals? This leverages Hamel’s point of thinking big. If we want to grow our capabilities what is holding us back? Too often we are tempted to say resources when in reality it is our people. We may not be thinking and acting as forward thinkers and doers, but rather holding ourselves to yesterday’s prescriptions. Until we bust through this construct, inertia will rule.
  • Solutions: How can we solve problems facing the organization? Marshall Goldsmith wrote about things that hold good people back in his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There? The same applies to organizations. Solutions to today’s problems require new and different mindsets because the problems are different. This is where applied creativity – or what we call innovation – enters. Let us think and do anew.
  • Opportunities: What results can we achieve by demonstrating leadership? In short, what will it take to enable our organization to succeed? And what will success look and feel like? Working back from there we can focus on what we want to become and how we will be able to serve our customers more effectively.

Getting things in gear

These precepts by themselves are not innovative; they are time-tested, but the good news is that when practiced they open the door to enable creativity to flourish. Why? Because successful leadership programs challenge participants to think critically. They are given the opportunity to evaluate new things and in doing so they gain new perspective.

Furthermore, participants in cutting-edge leadership development programs must learn to do differently. For example, middle managers gain insights into how to think strategically in ways that will enable their functions to complement strategic imperatives. Senior managers, in turn, learn that they must focus their activities on what is over the horizon rather than what is in the here and now. Everyone learns that leadership is not a solo act, but rather a team sport. That is, leaders do little by themselves but a great deal by working with others.

All of these points are valid, but unless management embraces them personally, leadership development ceases to be relevant. It becomes just another training program.

Leadership development will only be relevant if it includes three key components:

  • Participation by senior management. When senior leaders enter the classroom, it sends a powerful message that leadership in our organization matters. Senior executives also need to be involved in the selection process, helping to decide which employees attend. Furthermore, many times such leaders stick around as mentors or coaches making themselves available to high potential candidates.
  • Action learning. Classrooms are good for getting the basics but real learning, and by extension, leading occurs on the job. Leadership development becomes the accelerant to personal growth and organizational development. Some companies assign projects to their leadership classes; others challenge the participants to find ways to make a difference in their current jobs.
  • Centralized funding. The budget for leadership development must come from a central source. This point was made by George Reed, a professor of leadership at the University of San Diego and retired Army colonel who taught at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. When executives must dock their own budgets to train their people, guess what? Training becomes expendable, especially when it involves something perceived as a “soft skill” like leadership.

Leadership development is not a nice-to-have; it is a must-have, in particular for organizations that want to grow their capabilities. And, as noted earlier, that involves the commitment to enabling employees to think and do for themselves within the context of the organization’s vision, mission and values.

As much as senior management must embrace the development process, so too, must participants. From what I have observed, most enjoy being asked to participate and actively engage in the experience. But make no assumptions.  All good trainers evaluate, but here’s a suggestion that takes the process one step further. Ask participants to evaluate what they learned with one simple question:

How will you make others around you better?

Answers to that query will challenge participants to focus their learning not strictly on themselves, but on those they are responsible for leading.